Awareness was returning to him. He stretched his limbs, a sense of deep satisfaction flowing through his body and soul. Never had he slept so soundly nor felt so completely content. A slight smile came to his lips and he turned his head where it rested on the pillow, his eyes anticipating the sight of the soft and womanly source of his happiness.
He found he was quite alone.
He sat up, becoming more alert, looking around with a growing sense of concern. Where had she gone? Surely she had not run away, as before. No, she would not have done that – not after this. Pulling on his breeches, tying the laces as he moved along in his bare feet, he looked in the front room for her. He did not find her there. For a moment, he resisted the urge to call out for her, his pride telling him not to play the part of a desperate fool. But the house was small, and if she was not in the front room or the bedrooms, then she was not here. What if Edwin had come while they had been asleep and snatched her away?
“Cassia?” he called. “Where are you?”
The answer came instantly, as if she had been expecting it. It was faint and soft, coming from the rear of the house.
“I am here.”
He let out the breath he had briefly held, feeling a sense of relief. And stupidity.
Irrational fool, he cursed himself. Stepping out the rear door, he found her sitting on the stoop. She was in her linen shift, resting with her arms around her knees.
“I found myself alone,” he said. “An unpleasant prospect.” The corner of his mouth crinkled up. “Do you find my company displeasing?”
It was his intention to tease her, for he felt so very light of heart at that moment. He could not recall ever feeling so. She looked so beautiful to him, sitting there in a thin garment that did little to hide her features. His senses tingled and warmed, his heart and mind convinced that a more elegant and tempting creature had never been made before. To his question, she shook her head.
“I find your company most pleasant.”
There was something troubling in her reply. His spirits dampened slightly as he sat down beside her. Reaching out, he placed his hand on her shoulder, caressing her skin.
“Why are you here, then? Alone? And wearing such a brooding look?”
Her eyes were lowered. The dark of night was all around them, but the faint light of the moon allowed him to see just enough of her face.
“It is nothing.”
Reaching for her hands, he brought them to his lips, kissing the softness of her skin. “Will you not confide in me?”
“I do not wish to burden you.”
Stubborn witch, he thought. He saw that he would have to coax the answer out of her, and not with force. Taking her into his arms, he held to her firmly and welcomed her embrace in return, delighting in the feeling of her head against his heart. The essence of her was overwhelming.
“Tell me your thoughts, my beloved. I wish to know them.”
Beloved. The pet name came from he knew not where – some secret place within him. And her response to it pleased him. It was a silent reaction, but one he could somehow feel in her. After a long moment, she replied to his request.
“I am thinking that I love you.”
It moved him so to hear her say that. It thrilled him beyond words. And yet, that response struck him as strange, considering the seeming gloom with which she was shrouded in. He made a sound of amusement, pressing his lips to her hair.
“Such a notion makes you pensive? I am intrigued.”
The sound of a deep sigh – a sad sound – tempered his delight.
“Such love is precarious, Guy. We will suffer because of it.”
Suffering, he thought. Sadness. Pain. All were feelings that had marked nearly his entire life. He was weary of them. And in the same turn, fearful of their regeneration. His joy faded, and he held her closer, worried that she might slip away somehow.
“We will suffer because we are fated to be together? Because we find happiness with one another?”
Again she sighed. “God will punish us for this. For the sins we have done, and the sins we will soon commit.”
“It is not a sin to love.”
“God does not see it so.”
He shook his head in denial, knowing she spoke the truth – of which he wanted no part.
“No. He seeks to destroy and punish us. As though we have not suffered enough. Are we not permitted to know the smallest measure of joy?”
“It will be a fleeting joy, Guy.”
Taking her in his arms, setting her back so he could see her eyes, he touched her face. With his thumb, he wiped a tear from her cheek.
“No, no. It must not be that. It will not be that.”
Fearful of hearing more, he pressed his mouth to hers in a searing kiss. She responded instantly, and the only sound he heard was a sound of pleasure – a soft little moan. Sweeping her up into his arms, he carried her inside. The servant’s chamber had been much too small the last time. He took her to the master chamber, putting her down on the large bed and taking his place beside her. All the while he never let her leave his arms, and he leaned over her, looking down into her eyes. Fresh tears were shining there, and the sight of them tore at his heart.
“I love you,” he said softly, “And you love me. You do love me, do you not? Tell me you do. I need to hear it.”
“I love you, Guy of Gisborne. With all of my heart.”
Hearing her say it, as earnestly and passionately as before, stirred something primal in his soul. He kissed her again, this time with a fierce passion. Between breathless exchanges, he uttered desperate words of longing.
“You will stay with me?”
Her words, soft with love and desire, made his heart beat wildly in his breast.
“Yes, I will stay with you.”
She clung to him, holding him tight against herself, her hands stroking his skin, and the sensation was more than he could bear. He separated from her long enough to remove the garments they wore, and a moment later they were pressed together, their bodies burning hot. They paused only for a moment when she reached up to touch his face.
“However brief our joy may be, I would not trade what I have found with you for a lifetime with someone else.”
His response was bold, spoken with fierceness as he tasted her kiss.
“It will not be brief. I swear it. Nothing and no one will come between us. Not ever again.”
He opened his mouth against hers, her words of love exciting him beyond reason. The soft feeling of her hands on his back…her delicious little tongue twining with his. It made him mad with longing. He reached down to touch her, and found her damp and ready for him. Moving between her legs he thrust hard into her, unwilling to wait any longer, ravenous for the feeling of her heat pulsing around him. He felt her heels at the base of his spine, spurring him on. He surged in with the force of his need, mad with love for this woman who threatened to drive him beyond endurance. She was a fever in his blood that could not be cooled…and he gladly succumbed to the incurable condition.
With each downward lunge of his hips she lifted hers, meeting him every time with equal force, whimpering his name in his ear and pleading for more. Her nails were biting into his shoulders, little points of pleasure pain that drove him wild. He lowered his head and plundered her mouth again, his hands clenching in the softness of her hair. As she peaked violently she cried out against his mouth. Moments later he thrust into her a final time, holding fiercely against her as spasms gripped him.
A well of emotions threatened to overtake him as he held her, feeling the mad throbbing of both their hearts. Much as he fought to deny it, there was a flicker of fear whispering to him in warning, reminding him that nothing would be secure until they were on their way to France. Dear God, how he wished they were there already. He was not a man given to practicing religion, though he did believe in a higher power. And he had not forgotten his anger at what seemed like a deliberate curse from the heavens. But he gave a small, sincere prayer to the Almighty, pleading for this one blessing…
Dear Father in heaven, grant me this one true happiness. I beg you, do not let her be taken from me.
As before, he struggled to remain awake. It seemed that so much precious time was lost in sleep, and he hated the thought of losing even a moment. But he could feel the weight of fatigue pressing on him. Most of his thoughts were slipping away, but one remained…a concern that suddenly came to him, and he spoke in a drowsy voice.
“Am I too fierce in my love?”
He could not be certain, but he thought he heard her laugh. Her voice was sleepy as well, but she managed a reply that set him at ease.
“The madness of my passion matches yours. We are shameless souls, the both of us.”
If she was content in the depravity of love, so then was he.
Sometime later, he looked down at her as she lay against him. Her head was on his shoulder, her arms around him. Snuggled close against him, soft and warm, she was peacefully settled. And he pressed her slightly closer.
The realization dawned on him that in a few hours, they would be greeting the morning together. This time, there would be no need to part…no concern for time or fear of discovery. The notion of such freedom, such peace of mind, was something he had never known before. It was incredible, this feeling of absolute peace she brought to his soul. He shifted his weight, turning to his side. She moved in her sleep, adjusting her position with him, pressing her cheek against his neck. There was not the slightest space between them, and he did not wish there to be. He wanted only to remain there in the moment, basking in her warmth.
But outside, rain had started to fall. A low rumble indicated a coming storm. With the shutters open as they were, some of the torrent would soon find its way inside. He gave a reluctant sigh. Gently removing himself from her arms, he rose from the bed to secure the window opening. While he was up he checked the other windows of the house as well, and saw to other little necessities. After washing up he went back to the room, and as he came in he saw her stirring. She sat up in bed, her tousled hair falling in fabulous display around her body. She clutched the bed sheet to herself, and he found something incredibly alluring about such a gesture of modesty…coming from a woman of such incredible passion. Just the sight of her, lush and tempting as she waited for him…it stirred his senses to a fever pitch. He started towards the bed, and was baffled by the sight of her getting up to leave it. He reached for her hand, whispering close to her ear.
“Where are you going?”
She whispered back. “I shall not be gone long.” She gave him a peck on the lips before slipping away.
He smiled, crawling back into bed to wait for her, thinking of how perfect a mate he had found in her. He sighed, smiling at the thought of having her for his wife…of her being a mother to his children.
The thought of siring heirs had always been on his mind. The subject had been drilled into him since childhood. It was the duty of a man to seek a wife, to have many children, and continue the family lineage. He had always thought of it as just that. A duty. An obligation he knew he must one day keep. But until now, he had never imagined it as a joy he would long to have. To think of Cassia as a mother, giving all of her love to his child…to their child…it filled his heart with an almost painful kind of joy. It was quite possible that at this very moment, she was carrying his babe. He found himself filled with wonder at the possibility.
This feeling of bliss he now felt…of being with someone he was meant to be with, someone who complimented him in every way. It seemed too good to be true. He felt so complete when she was near…and so very empty when they were apart. Even now, just having her a room or two away, he felt a slight pain of separation. A feeling of relief, of joy and anticipation, came over him as he saw her shadow in the doorway.
Out of nowhere, a flash of lightning lit up the room, and a crack of thunder rattled the entire house.
Cassia gave a shriek, rushing forward to the bed. As she threw herself into his arms, hiding her eyes against his shoulder, he couldn’t help but smile. It was the first time he had seen her truly frightened. Holding her securely in his arms, he ran his hands gently along her back, trying to soothe her.
“The storm frightens you, does it?”
She nodded her head against him.
“Always have I feared storms. Thunder and lightning, especially. I used to run and hide from them when I was a child.”
Gently stroking her hair, he smiled at her admission. “I find it difficult to believe you are afraid of anything.”
She sighed, her cheek brushing softly against his chest. “There is much that I fear.”
The tone of her voice made him sense that she was troubled. An anxious feeling slowly came upon him, though he remained silent, listening to her.
“My mother believed that storms were an admonition from God…a forewarning of dreadful things to come.”
He could hear no more of it. These doubts, these thoughts of misfortune. He wanted none of them. Rolling her to her back, he cupped her face in his hands. He shook his head.
“Speak not of fear and calamity.”
He pressed their lips together in a long kiss. When he drew back, he grazed her cheek with his fingertips, looking into her eyes.
“A few days hence, there is a ship that sails from Portsmouth. We will be on it. We will travel to the coast and depart for the south of France.”
Her eyebrow lifted in curiosity. “And what life will we find there?”
“I am a man of action,” he replied. “A member of the knighthood. I am an educated man. It will not be difficult to find a livelihood. And once we are there, we shall live as man and wife. We will forget Briwere, and Edwin Middleton. We will forget Nottingham, and every wretched memory this place has thrust upon us.”
She was smiling. He did not have to look at her to know it. It was in her voice.
“It is a glorious purpose you put before us.”
He kissed her again, needing her compliance and the assurance of her love. He refused to think about fear and darkness. He’d had enough of it to last several lifetimes. She was all that he wanted to think and feel. Winding his arms about her, he pressed his cheek against her breast.
“You are my purpose. You shall be my wife.”
He felt her fingers in his hair, gently caressing him. His voice grew soft with weariness, and a touch of mischief.
“I have always suspected you were a witch. You have cast a spell on me. One I am hopelessly locked under.”
“And do you wish it to be undone?” she asked, a little laugh in her words. His answer was instant, though it was hushed as sleep took him over.
“No, I do not wish it to be undone. Not ever.”
“Then I shall make it last. Always.”
The storm had passed. The morning sun shined in as the birds twittered just outside the window. Cassia rose slowly, stretching her arms above her head. She smiled a sleepy smile as she thought of the glorious night that had passed. She looked down at Guy, who was sound asleep beside her. It was tempting to remain just as they were, blind to the world around them, so content in their love for one another. It also was tempting to stir him, for she longed to see him smile in that cheeky way of his. But she chose to let him remain as he was, resting peacefully.
She made use of the privy, and after returning, she washed herself with the cool water in the basin. Slipping into her shift, she came back to the bed and found him still asleep…until she sat beside him, and her slight weight was just enough to rouse him. He woke slowly, and seeing her, his eyes lit up. Then, in a fulfillment of her wish, he smiled. She leaned over to kiss him, thinking him utterly adorable with his hair unkempt and his face in need of a shave. He gently held the back of her neck to draw her closer. She whispered softly against his mouth.
“Good morning, my love.”
“Good morning indeed,” he replied, his kisses growing deeper and making her head spin. Despite the way he was stealing her breath, she managed to speak.
“Are you hungry?”
His answer was more of a groan than a reply. His lips were softly kissing her neck and shoulder, his arms twining around her waist to pull her against him. For a moment she considered foregoing everything just to lie with him and indulge in his attentions. But it seemed to her that he was becoming quite spoiled, and if she gave in now, he would be entirely impossible before long. Even though he gave her a petulant look in return, she didn’t give in to him. She pushed him away, gently but firmly.
“I am ravenous, my lord. Being in your company has sapped my energy, and I must break my fast. Come, join me in the kitchen when you have gathered yourself together.”
He gave her a withering look, but she only laughed at his childish expression. She gave him a peck on the cheek. Dodging his attempt to pull her into his arms, she giggled and hurried from the room.
In the servants’ bedroom she found her dress, blushing as she recalled how fast it had been discarded the night before. She found Guy’s shirt and boots, carrying them into the hallway, stopping just at the open door to the bedchamber. Peeking around the corner, she saw that he was standing in just his breeches, occupied with shaving. She felt herself melting at the sight of him. It was strange, though delightfully so, that she found him just as tempting in a half-state of dress as she did when he was entirely bare. A delicious shiver went over her body, but she fought to suppress it. She knew that if she went in the room now, she was in danger of forgetting herself altogether. And tempting a sight as he was, one of them had to have some sense. She cleared her throat, trying to compose herself.
“I shall leave your things here by the door,” she called to him, her voice trembling slightly.
“Will you not bring them to me?”
She rolled her eyes, smiling at his obvious invitation. “I shall see you in the kitchen, my lord.”
They remainder of the previous night’s meal served them well when they sat down to eat. Guy watched her as she worked, enjoying the sight of her in such a blissful mood. The smallest things seemed to please her, like finding an unopened jar of honey in the cupboard. She uncorked it and poured the contents over two thick slabs of bread, bringing it to the table for them to share as they broke their fast. But the chair she intended to sit in seemed too far away. Reaching out for her, he placed her on his knee, and she smiled as she leaned against him. They fed each other, enjoying the intimacy of being so close and having no one around to interfere. As they finished their meal, he turned his full attention to her, watching her with heated admiration as she brought a finger to her lips, tasting the last remains of honey. His arousal was instant and fierce, and he twined his arms around her. Drawing her close, he whispered close to her ear.
“Let us retire for a mid-morning rest.”
She smiled at him, her arms draping about his shoulders. “Rest indeed,” she teased him.
He adored the sound of her laughter – of her pure happiness. He tightened his hold on her. “After last night,” he said, “I am weary.”
Leaning her head back, she laughed. Then she looked him in the eye, grinning. “If you are tired, you have only yourself to blame, you insatiable beast. But I am not a lay-about, nor should you be. You have your duties to the sheriff. Or have you conveniently forgotten?”
He grumbled at the thought of returning to Nottingham and his miserable servitude. All he wanted was to remain where he was, with the only person capable of making his happiness. But when he looked in her eyes, he saw a stubborn gleam in their shining depths.
“If you wish me to be your wife, whether in truth or merely in our own minds, you must know now my intentions.”
He smiled. “And what intentions are those?”
“To love and care for you. And doing that, I intend to see that you are guided on a proper path. You cannot be trusted to guide yourself.”
Her cheekiness was maddeningly delightful. And he smacked her on the backside for it, making her squeal in surprise. But she giggled. He laughed, raising an inquisitive eyebrow at her.
“Is this how you will be as a wife? A tyrant?”
Leaning back in his arms, a thoughtful looked crossed her features.
“I prefer to think of it as being firm, but loving. Strong, but sincere. And you will always know that I have only your best interests at heart.”
There was such love in her entire look and mien. It took his breath away.
“I am well aware of it,” he said. “And I will be forever at your command.”
“Then mayhap when you are in the village, you can fetch me material so I might stitch together a few new garments? If I am to play the part of Lady Gisborne, I must have something more suitable to wear. Peasant dresses will not do.”
He nodded, drawing her close as he pressed sweet kisses along her jaw line. He had never considered the matter of appearances. She would not only have to act as a noblewoman, but to look like one as well…although in his eyes, she was more noble than any of the so called “ladies” he had known in society. He smiled at her, kissing her slender fingers.
“When we are settled, your hands shall never again labor with a sewing needle. Perhaps you shall do needlework for pleasure, as many fine ladies do. But for your clothing you shall have a seamstress at your disposal, to keep you in beautiful garments every day of the year.”
She smiled sweetly. “That may be very well someday. But under the current circumstances, I must put my own hands to use.”
He was not pleased with the idea of her laboring over anything. But if it pleased her, he was willing to consent.
They walked to the front door together, and at the front step, he lingered for a moment, looking at her. Unable to resist, needing just a small bit of her affection to appease him, he reached out and cupped her face in his hands.
“I will not be away for long. I promise.”
He kissed her lips gently and sweetly, his heart swelling at the feeling of her kissing him back with eagerness. It was so difficult, but he broke away from her to go.
“Safe journey,” she called out to him. He turned back to look at her, seeing how she stood on the step, watching him as he mounted his horse. Just before he reached the path into the woods, he turned to look at her again. She was still there, her eyes meeting his. They smiled at one another…and then he turned to go, intent on coming back to her as soon as he possibly could.
When he returned from Nottingham, having been careful to avoid the sheriff at all costs, he carried two parcels under his arm. And on his face, he wore a smile.
As he had ventured into town, he had thought about her request…and chose to amend it. If there had been time, he would have enlisted a seamstress to make new gowns. But alas, a few days was hardly enough time. It would have to be managed another way.
There was a youngster he knew of, a boy who worked in the castle kitchen. He was also a good thief. At first, the boy had been terrified when Guy approached him. But when a small purse of gold was dangled in front of him, he became less apprehensive. Guy’s instructions were simple. Go to the chamber of Lady Strafford…a guest staying on for the Prince’s visit…and steal a few of her finest gowns. Elizabeth Strafford was about Cassia’s height, and very close to the same slender shape. She also had a king’s ransom in gowns, and she would not miss two or three.
One of the gowns stood out from the rest. It was an exquisite garment of turquoise color, and Guy could just imagine how beautiful Cassia would be in it. He could hardly wait to see it on her.
Riding up to the house, he saw her a distance away, in the fields of wildflowers. How perfect she looked at that moment, with a basket of flowers on her arm, holding a tender blossom to her nose. Her long hair flowed freely down her back, occasionally ruffled by the breeze. He called to her and she turned, waving at him. But instead of rushing to him, she turned back to her flowers. He rode up to her, and as he slid from his horse, he teased her.
“I must come to you, rather than you to me. Is that how it is to be between us?”
She smiled at him. “If I acted the lovesick fool, always rushing to your arms, there would be no thrill of anticipation. And anticipation makes love more joyful. Do you not think so?”
Loving her playfulness, he put his arms around her and kissed her, delighting in the sweet little sound of pleasure that she made. She spoke softly in his ear.
“I was beginning to wonder if you had traveled to France without me.”
Smiling down at her, he took her by the hand, leading her into the house. After she had put her basket aside, he held one of the parcels out to her. She smiled, taking it with her to sit in front of the fireplace. When she untied the cords and removed the linen covering, her mouth fell open in surprise.
“Oh Guy, this is hardly the simple material I asked of you. These gowns are too exquisite.” She ran her hands over a dress of pale green silk, ornately patterned with leaves. The other was of dark purple velvet, embroidered with gold thread. She looked up at him, and he could see a protest coming. But he shushed her. And then he held out the other parcel.
She gave him a curious expression, taking it carefully from him. He watched as she untied the binding. And he delighted at her little gasp when she saw what was inside…a gown of turquoise silk, decorated with hundreds of tiny gold beads.
“This will be your wedding gown,” he said. “I hope you find it pleasing enough.”
She rose slowly to her feet, clutching the elegant garment against her breast. He smiled in a smug way, quite happy with himself for having found something to please her. But then he saw the tears in her eyes. Confused by her reaction, he reached out to take her hand, wanting to comfort her.
“What is wrong? Does the color not please you? Why are you not happy?”
Suddenly she fell into his arms, weeping softly into his shoulder. “I am happier than I have ever been in my life.”
He raised a curious eyebrow. Gently taking her by the shoulders, he held her a slight space away, studying her as she dabbed her eyes with her sleeve.
“These are tears of joy, then?”
She nodded, and as he gathered her against him once more, he smiled…but sighed as well. If he were to judge by her expression, he would never have guessed that she was as joyful as she said she was. Lord, he wondered if would ever understand the ways of women. They were such odd, complicated creatures…a riddle he was certain he would never solve.
After supper, Guy was eager to retire to bed. But Cassia stunned him when she turned down his suggestion. Surprised, and rather disappointed, he did not understand when she took him by the hand and led him outside.
“What is this?” he inquired. “Are we to sleep out of doors tonight?”
She said nothing as she sat down in the grass, pulling him down with her. When he sat, she gently pushed him back. And then, she leaned her head against his shoulder, drawing one of his arms around her middle. She gave a soft sigh.
“Sometimes it is pleasant just to lie in the quiet of the night. Do you not think so? Look at the stars, how they shine.”
He looked up at the heavens. But in his mind, the stars paled in comparison to her. And he felt no shame in expressing such a sentiment to her.
“You are lovelier to behold.”
From the way she shifted in his arms, pressing her cheek against his breast, he knew he had pleased her. There was a smile in her words.
“I love you, Guy. Especially when you express such tender feelings. I know it is not always easy for you to speak so.”
Her words were true. In most ways, especially in matters of love, he knew he tended to be impulsive and wild. But he was capable of more. And if it was tenderness she desired...if it was gentleness that pleased her, he would show her that.
Later that night, as they lay together, he purposely took his time with her, letting his lips linger in each place he kissed. His fingertips brushed slow, feather-light touches on her skin, stealing the breath from her body. She wanted to return his caresses, to kiss the warmth of his skin. But he would not allow it. As her hands reached out for him, he gently placed them at her sides, pressing them there as he whispered a demand.
“Woman, be still.”
He felt the rapid beat of her heart. His lips pressed to her belly, and he heard her softly moan at the warm sensation of his breath against her skin. Working his way upward, he still would not allow her hands to seek him. As he opened his mouth against hers, slowly and sweetly tasting her, he joined their fingers and pressed her hands down into the bed linen just above her head. When he broke the kiss for a moment to catch his breath, she looked into his eyes, and he smiled. Her voice was soft, filled with wonder.
“You have never been so…” She found it difficult to define. He offered his own word.
She smiled with love for him, and when he kissed her again, he at last let go her hands. He felt the softness of her hands on his back and shoulders, caressing him with the same gentleness he had bestowed on her. She closed her eyes as the final moments came, and when their trembling ceased, she sighed with blissful contentment. With his head against her shoulder, he made a sound of great satisfaction. And as he had done so many times before, he wrapped his arms around her and held her close. Turning to his side so that his weight was shifted off of her, he looked at her and smiled.
“You see. I am quite capable of civility. Does that please you?”
She gave a soft laugh in reply, pressing her cheek against his breast.
“Your civil behavior is a glorious thing indeed.”
He smiled to himself, holding her closer to his heart