In the next fortnight Marian made several trips about which Guy was careful to avoid inquiring; two such absences kept her away overnight, with the servants told she was visiting a convent. On one of those occasions, a wagon taking a tax collection to King John, who was building up his troops in response to rumors of brewing rebellion in Brittany, just happened to be robbed in a brazen manner recalling Hood’s exploits, and Guy’s unpleasant suspicions about the Nightwatchman’s new lease on life grew stronger.
Then, one morning at the castle, he had a visit that left him deep in thought. The man who was ushered in with claims of important news was the steward to Lady de Caux, a powerful noblewoman in sole charge of her castle near Laxton Village since her husband’s death; this steward had cause to believe that the lady was conspiring against King John with Sir Geoffrey de Vere and others, and for a reward he was willing to find out more. He made mention, too, of a cloaked and masked woman who had been to see Lady de Caux a few evenings ago.
Now would be a good time to put an end to all this, squash this plot, rise further in King John’s favor with a nice batch of executions, and make Marian realize what dangerous games she was playing. But she already knew that, of course, and he knew equally well that Marian was capable of anything – even marching onto the scaffold before all of Nottingham and demanding to be put to death with her accomplices. After a while, Guy was jolted out of his brooding by the voice of the captain of the guard telling him that the new recruits had arrived for training. Suddenly, the castle felt almost as unbearably oppressive as it had been under Vaisey. Guy remembered that the peasants at Locksley were just starting their annual work of preparing firewood for the winter, for the village and the manor alike; it was customary for the lord of the manor to make an appearance and survey the work, and it was a chance to get out of these walls. He told the captain to stay in charge for the rest of the day, and headed to Locksley.
After a quick tour of the fields, he rode into the village. The peasants bowed as he passed by, and as always he felt their sullen, almost openly hostile stares following him. Some of them looked as if they were ready to spit on the ground the moment his back was to them, and he had no doubt that a few probably did just that. There had never been any love lost between him and the villagers of Locksley, and now that their beloved Robin Hood was dead – and rumors that Guy himself had helped start pointed to him as the culprit – their dislike was even more palpable. At the thought of Hood, his already sour mood thickened into a cold lump of misery in his chest.
Then he saw her, coming out of one of the cottages. She was smiling, talking to an old woman who hobbled by her side. He brought his horse to an abrupt halt. God’s precious heart, she was lovely, the cool breeze stirring her hair, her gown and her waist-length fur-trimmed cape a pale blue like the sky. She saw him and stopped, only to be distracted by two unkempt children squealing, “Lady Marian!”; she squatted down to hug them.
Guy dismounted and strode toward her. She stood up straight; the children eyed him suspiciously and backed away.
“My lady,” he said.
As their eyes met, he saw the flicker of a smile, though he couldn’t tell if she was glad or anxious. After a moment she inclined her head slightly. “My lord. Are you back from Nottingham, so early?”
“A dull day at the castle,” he said. “I hope yours has been more pleasant.”
Marian nodded and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “I was visiting Tom and Jenny.” She nodded toward the cottage where the old woman had retreated. “Jenny has just had a baby.” Looking straight at him now, she continued, “I was about to walk back to the manor – it’s almost dinnertime.”
There was an odd intensity in her gaze, almost as if she was willing him to keep his eyes riveted to hers. As determined as he was to remain self-possessed, it was unsettling him; he wondered if she was up to something, and what it could possibly be.
“Would you ride back with me?” he asked.
“Yes,” Marian said, almost too quickly. She turned toward the doorway and waved. The old woman shuffled out on the porch again, accompanied by a worried-looking young man with a child of four or five clinging to his leg. They both bowed and the young man said, “God bless you, milady” and then muttered reluctantly, glancing toward Guy, “Good day, m’lord.”
There was a brief uneasy pause; Marian’s eyes were on him again. Looking at no one in particular, Guy said brusquely, “Your wife and child, are they well?”
The man and the old woman looked at him as if a third eye had just opened in the middle of his forehead. Finally the peasant stammered, “Y-yes, m’lord.”
“Take good care of Jenny,” Marian said. “I will send a servant with more food.” Then, turning to Guy, she added, “Shall we go, my lord?”
They walked back to his horse, Guy holding Marian’s arm; he helped her mount in front of him, and they rode off at a slow trot under the silent stares of the villagers. It occurred to Guy that this was probably the first time they had seen him in actual conversation with his wife.
“Do you know what your peasant friends say about us?” he asked.
“They think I traded with the devil to have you bewitched and make you marry me.”
Marian sighed. “I thought there might be this sort of talk. Helen has said little things on occasion…” Before Guy could wonder what other gossip the accursed chambermaid had been repeating, Marian leaned back into him, with a casual intimacy that was new and wonderful and alarming. It did not help that, tilting his head down, he could see her bare neck and the curve of her breast under the cape – that her sunlit hair was warm on his cheek and smelled of roses and cloves. He fought back the desire to kiss her neck and shifted his eyes to the road. The damnable thing was that right now, he could not tell where he stood with Marian. Things had changed between them, he knew that much; but what the new rules were, he had no idea. Taking his left hand off the bridle, he tentatively drew an arm around Marian’s waist. After a moment she sighed and he felt her hand on his arm.
“I had an interesting visit at the castle this morning,” he said, before he could think any further.
Marian was quiet for a moment. “I thought it had been a dull day.”
“Not entirely.” He lowered his voice, as though they were not alone on the road. “Walter of Laxton was to see me – the steward to Lady de Caux.” He felt Marian tense at the name. “He thinks his mistress is involved in treason – and for the right price, he’ll betray her.” Marian’s grip on his arm tightened, and Guy continued, “He is to come again Monday next, and bring some letters he means to steal. If those letters should fall into my hands, and if they say what he thinks they say – it is a hanging matter.”
There was a long silence between them, filled with the rustle of the wind in the roadside shrubs and the clacking of the horse’s slow trot as they got closer to Locksley Manor. Then Marian said, in a near-whisper, “I see. That is – interesting.”
“I thought you’d find it so,” he said.
They said nothing else until they were in the yard of the manor. As Guy helped Marian dismount and the stable boy came up to take the horse, Marian said calmly, “I think I shall go for a ride after dinner. The weather is beautiful.”
Guy took her hand, lacing his gloved fingers through her bare ones. “I should very much like to join you, my lady.” He got a perverse pleasure from her startled look before adding, “But I have some matters to attend to.”
Marian gave him a small smile. “Then I shall go alone.”
He lifted her hand to his mouth and pressed a kiss to her palm, his eyes never leaving hers. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught the stable lad looking back at them in surprise.
“Enjoy your riding,” he said.
That evening Guy was in his chamber downstairs going over the inventory of recent purchases for the estate, his mind wandering as it was wont to do lately when attending to business, when he heard Marian return. There was the soft rustle of her riding cloak and some words spoken to the servant who met her in the hall, then her footfall as she neared the door of his room. He did not turn as she entered.
She came closer. Finally, he turned around; and then, without any warning, this maddening woman cupped his face in her hands and leaned down, and his entire world was dissolving into the soft burn of her kiss.
Guy groaned and gripped her arms as if she might disappear if he let go. She came up for air but only to dip for another kiss, her tongue sliding over his bottom lip and inside his mouth, and any questions he had about her motives melted away completely. Marian stood up, leaving him out of breath and out of anything resembling coherent thought.
Then she said, “Take me to bed.”
He stared at her, his heart pumping so wildly that a small pain jabbed at his chest with every beat. “You want – ”
“Take me to bed, Guy.”
He rose and stood facing her for a moment, his breath ragged. Then he seized her shoulders and drew her up to capture her mouth, sucking feverishly on her lips. She made soft little sounds that vibrated in his throat, exciting him even more.
“Come on,” he said tightly, taking her hand. As they walked up the stairs, Guy had to pace his strides to keep from all but dragging Marian behind him. Please, God, he prayed silently, though he doubted that God was listening, don’t let her change her mind. In his bedroom – where, thankfully, the fireplace was already lit – he pulled her toward him again, kicking the door shut, and trailed hungry kisses over her face and neck; to his happy amazement, she responded in kind. Pulling out her hairpins, he sank his fingers into her hair as it fell loose.
“Marian,” he whispered against her soft skin, and heard her breathe out his name.
Backing toward the bed with Marian still in his arms, Guy moved to unlace her gown. He tugged hard, huffing his impatience, ripping the laces when they took too long to untie – but Marian did not seem to mind, for she was kissing him still and her own hands darted to the clasps of his jacket. Another tug and the dress was off, and Marian drew in a sharp breath and froze for a moment. She was lovely, so lovely in the wavering amber light, breasts swelling against the thin white fabric of her chemise, dark fire-tinted hair spilling over the creamy skin of her shoulders.
“Undress me,” he rasped, his mouth at her ear; already she had resumed unfastening his jacket, and he closed his eyes and let himself enjoy her touch. She slid the jacket off his shoulders, pushed up the shirt; he helped her peel it off, and then her hands were on his chest, sliding over the bare skin, brushing and lightly tweaking his nipples. Gasping, Guy muttered his encouragement; however often he had imagined this in many various ways, nothing had quite prepared him for how it would be – this agony of tenderness and lust, this helpless pleasure from her simplest caress, this urgent need to have her now pitched against the desire to draw it out for as long as he could bear it. His hand clenched on her wrist and he pulled her toward him, their mouths colliding again, his fingers tangled in her hair, hers sliding down his stomach and to his belt. Then, as he drew back from this kiss, Guy became dimly aware of being troubled by something – something that wasn’t just anxiety over their first conjugal union. He paused to catch his breath and studied Marian’s flushed face, and suddenly the nagging worry took a clear and nasty shape: did her boldness come from experience in these matters? Had she – ?
“What’s wrong?” Marian murmured. “Am I – ”
Guy shook his head and swallowed. “Nothing. Nothing at all.” At least these unpleasant thoughts cooled him off somewhat, making it easier to stay in control.
He took her hands and moved them lower, to the front of his breeches. Marian jerked away in alarm; he chuckled and began to undo the lacings, wincing a little. He noticed that she was watching him raptly, her mouth half-open, her fingers twisting a strand of hair. Sitting down on the edge of the bed, he finally rid himself of the breeches and boots, keeping on the thin woolen braies which concealed very little, and to which Marian’s gaze was now quite blatantly riveted.
“Marian,” he said quietly; she jerked her head up with a small gasp. “Come to me.”
When he put his hands on her arms, he felt her shiver and her eyes darted away.
Marian took a deep breath. “I know it will hurt – ”
He shut his eyes and hugged her to him, the thoughts he had pushed aside before washed away in a warm rush of relief; even if she’d said it in part to allay such suspicions, it didn’t matter. He held her, stroking her back, placing small gentle kisses on the soft spot above her collarbone. “I will try to make it easier,” he said. “Just – ” Trust me, he wanted to say, but did she?
She nodded, and Guy moved his hands to her legs, about to take off her chemise; but before he could do that, Marian pushed him backward and they both tumbled on the bed. He felt her hand on his thigh, sliding up – and then she clasped him through the fabric of the braies and he bucked toward her with a strangled cry of shock and pleasure. Sweet saints in heaven, she was stroking him, exploring him, sending jolts of heat through his belly and down his legs; her quick excited breaths added to the thrill of her touch, and for a few moments he could make no articulate sound. Finally he rallied enough to grasp her arm and utter a broken plea to stop.
At his whispered urging Marian lay down, and Guy slowly pushed up her chemise until she was completely exposed in her pale beauty; her eyes were half-closed and her breathing had turned shallow and a bit shaky, whether from arousal or anxiety or both. He brought his lips to hers, cupping his hand over her breast, making her whimper.
“I’ll make this good for you , Marian. I promise.”
He circled her nipple with his thumb and relished the deeper sound he drew from her this time, the way her body arched toward him. She raised a hand to touch his cheek. “Kiss me there.”
His breath snagged; this – Marian naked and eager in his bed, asking him to do things to her – was perhaps too much excitement right now. He closed his eyes for a moment, willing himself to take things slowly.
“Where, Marian?” he murmured huskily, teasing, against her mouth.
Her lips curved in a small smile. “Where your hand is.”
Guy moved his other hand, buried in her hair, and quirked his eyebrows at her; then brushed his thumb over her nipple. “This hand?”
She choked out an impatient laugh. “Guy!”
He dove down and pressed his lips to the soft underside of her breast, then kissed his way up to the darker flesh of the nipple, tasted it, lapped at it with the tip of his tongue. The sounds she made … Christ’s blood, self-control was not going to be easy. Pausing for breath, he shifted his mouth to Marian’s other breast and slid his palm down her stomach. Too late, he remembered where he had cut the Nightwatchman; his fingertips brushed the thin jagged line of scar tissue and darted away as if burnt, and Marian flinched and froze. That scar was a reminder of too many things that were far better left alone, at least for now.
“Shh, Marian – ” Guy kissed the hollow between her breasts, then moved up until his eyes were level with hers. He saw a flicker of hesitation and cursed inwardly; how foolish to think that they could ever surmount their past, or their present.
He felt Marian’s palm flatten against his shoulder and push, and for a bitter moment he thought she was pushing him away – only to have her push him down on his back and lean over him, her hair spilling down on his chest. There was a warm glint in her eye as she dipped to kiss him, her hand moving over his chest and down to his belly; then, surfacing from the kiss, she peered into his face as if trying to read something in it.
“What?” he said thickly, trying to take his mind off the downward slide of her hand.
“You have beautiful eyes,” she said, and the tenderness in her voice nearly overwhelmed him.
“God’s heart, Marian. Kiss me again. Please.”
She did, and this kiss was long and slow and almost enough to believe the past did not matter at all. After that, her hand resumed its journey until she had reached the belt of his braies and lingered there, and her eyes shifted, questioning, back to his face.
“Go on,” he said hoarsely. She sat up and fumbled with the belt and paused, drawing in a long breath. Then, with an abrupt tug, she slid the garment off over his hips, and Guy clenched his fists, bracing himself. Her husky “Ohh” was followed by the caress of her hand, by the graze of her slender fingers, this time without even the thin barrier of fabric, and damnation, he did not want it to stop but letting her go on would not be wise at all. At last he managed a breathless, “Marian – ah – it’s too much – ” and clasped her wrist. “Come up here.”
Marian scooted up and glided into his arms, settled there. She was as affected by this as he was, he could tell; the shine in her eyes, her labored breath, the color of her cheeks – the way she shuddered when he ran his hand over her hip –
“I need you to be ready,” he said. She nodded and swallowed, with a small twitch of her mouth.
He eased her on her back again. She still tensed when his hand moved up between her thighs; yet she was very wet there, as ready as a woman could be, and when he began to stroke her she was almost at once moaning and trembling, her neck arched and exposed to his mouth. After a few moments he drew his hand away and moved to climb on top of her, but her gasp and her urgent, breathy whisper made him pause.
“Please – please don’t stop … that.” She flicked her tongue over her lips, tossed her head, almost whimpering, wonderfully lost in what he was doing to her. “Please,” she said again as he moved his hand back, and Guy resumed the caress, enraptured by the sight of her face, by the knowledge that it was Marian shivering and making frantic sounds under his touch, Marian finally writhing with pleasure, her hand in his hair, until the final convulsions were upon her and he caught her cry in his kiss. As her tremors died down, Guy pulled away to look at her again, her eyes closed in surrender, her features transformed; incredible.
“Saints, Marian – I’ve got to have you now – ”
“Yes,” she said, “yes,” and when he had her beneath him and in his arms she was lifting her hips to meet him and he could feel her, hot and slick and open, his Marian, his wife; guiding himself inside, he pushed up against the obstacle he’d expected and knew that this time her gasp was one of pain, and yet at that precise moment he no longer felt gentle. Marian’s fingers clenched hard on his shoulders, her body growing rigid.
“Hold on,” he said raggedly, “don’t fight me, Marian, for God’s sake don’t fight me – ”
Gritting his teeth, Guy drove forward with a single thrust; he heard Marian’s sharp hiss, felt her squirm as if trying to get away, trapped in his embrace – another push and he was buried inside her. He dropped his head on her shoulder, panting, his forehead drenched in sweat.
“I’ve hurt you,” he murmured, puffs of his breath ruffling her hair.
She let out a slow, tense breath. “I’m all right.” After a moment she stirred and shifted a little, hooked her leg over his; she tightened around him and he groaned, melting into the heat and softness that she was inside. There was only so much of this that one could stand, and he began to move, mindful not to cause her further pain. Marian winced a little, squeezing her lips together with a tiny moan of what still sounded like discomfort. After a moment her eyes fluttered open, their gray almost brown in the dim candlelight, and met his own; and Guy leaned forward to cover her face with hard grateful kisses that left glistening traces on her skin.
His need drove him on and he thrust faster, ripples of fever coursing through his body, running stronger and hotter with every moment; he still tried to hold back for fear of hurting Marian, but she now seemed to be bucking to meet him and her breaths had turned to low sighs.
“Does this please you, Marian?” he ground out, very near the edge of self-possession. She threw her head back and he crushed his lips against her neck. “Do I please you?”
Marian’s breath hitched and her hands moved up, her fingers lacing through his hair, and he heard her soft “Yes.”
“Marian – ” Guy shifted upward to see her face, the fever surging higher. “I want to give you everything” – his voice cracked and he could say nothing more, except for her name and some broken endearments.
He clung to her afterwards, stroking her hair, and Marian’s lips were warm on his face and Guy had the vague thought that this was what it felt like to be happy.
Later they slept, waking briefly to reach for each other again in sweet half-awareness, then drifting back into slumber.
(Continued in Part 4)