Chapter One - Snow fight
The wind was cold in her face, but the girl – well, young woman really – relished the exhilaration of her horse's canter. Her father would say to be more careful, but then he said that about a lot of things. Not that it wasn't dangerous to ride a horse through the snow at that speed, but the snow was only shallow, and besides, she was a far better horsewoman than her father, or anyone else for that matter, gave her credit for.
Marian loved the freedom of horse-riding. It gave her the opportunity to escape from the stifling world of Nottingham and into the seclusion of the forest. Out here, there was no-one to see if she didn't follow the strict rules and restrictions that dictated her every move as the Sheriff's only daughter. There were no judgemental gazes of the castle ladies and more importantly, there were no discomforting appraising glances from the lords when they thought her father was not looking.
She spied a figure in the woods, a little way off the path and felt an irrational surge of annoyance. This was supposed to be her own private time, away from everyone else. The figure's back was turned to her, but as she rode closer Marian could see who it was. She knew that profile well. Robin of Locksley. But what was he doing out here?
She had to admit, Robin always had a knack of showing up just when she least expected it. It had been the same when he had returned just last month from his two-year stay at Huntingdon. She had almost forgotten the boy from the next village; her one-time childhood playmate whom she used to tag along after. She had not been the Sheriff's daughter then, merely the small child of a modest lord. In fact, to her father's despair, she had been a rather wild tomboy and had begged to be included in Robin's games and pranks. It didn't matter that she was a girl. That had been a mistake, as far as Marian was concerned back then. Robin, despite getting into more mischief than any of the other nobles' children combined, had respected that, and just treated her with the same rough and tumble manner as he had with his manservant and best friend, Much.
They had grown apart once her father had become the Sheriff and she had moved to Nottingham. Not by choice, or any disagreement; they were simply had less and less time for their childhood adventures. Marian's time had been taken up by the embroidery and etiquette lessons her father had insisted she take. At first, Marian would've happily skipped off to join Robin in Locksley to continue their adventures, but her father had bribed her with a distinguished tutor for her book-learning and, almost unheard of for a girl, proper fighting lessons as well. The lure of the chance to show Robin up one day, whether through fighting or studies, was too strong. Robin's time too was being taken up as his father insisted he learn more about running an estate. He had still visited her every now and then, just dropping in whenever he felt like it, to her father's frustration. Usually, he brought Much in tow, and they would spend a day in town together just for old-times sake. Or sometimes, Marian remembered smirking, he would come begging for help with a particularly difficult arithmetic problem. But, as time went on, she saw less and less of him, until he left Nottingham altogether to gain experience running the larger estate of Huntingdon.
Then he had shown up in her life again, no longer a gangly youth but a young man of eighteen. She found she didn't know how to treat him now. Gone was the comfortable friendship and camaraderie they had when they were younger, and she missed it. She could hardly run around after him anymore – it wouldn't be proper. But there were times – many times, actually – she caught herself wishing she could. It seemed unfair to her; Robin was his usual mischievous self, but she, despite being four years younger, had to behave like a lady.
Her musings were interrupted as something cold and wet slammed into her stomach. Ooof! It should not have been enough to knock her off her horse, but it caught her off-guard, and she tumbled to the ground. Furious with herself for her inattention and making a fool of herself in front of Robin, she stood up quickly and brushed the snow off her cloak with slightly more force than strictly necessary.
Robin came running over. "Sorry, sorry! I thought you were Much!"
She glared at him furiously. "Oh, an easy mistake to make, I'm sure!" Then she shook her head in disbelief. "Hang on, you're having a snowball fight with Much? How old are you? Twelve?"
Robin faked a hurt look. "It's not a snowball fight; it's battle strategy training!"
She snorted derisively, but with masterful self-control refrained from further comment. He tilted his head, considering her. Then he asked, "Can you help me out-flank Much?"
Marian was taken aback. He wanted to include her in his games again? The very thing she had been wishing for…
"Please?" Robin begged. "You'd make an –" his eyes dropped ever so briefly to her chest "– excellent distraction," he finished smoothly.
Perhaps not quite the thing she had been wishing for, then … How rude! So he thought she was only useful as a distraction, did he? With an impressive display of acting, she controlled her indignation and gave Robin her cutest smile. "Well, if you insist…"
The minute his back was turned, she quickly scooped up some snow at her feet. Aiming carefully, she threw the snowball as hard as she could.
Thud! The missile hit him square in the back of the neck.
"What was that for?" he yelled indignantly. "We're on the same side!" He wiped frantically to remove the snow from his neck before it could melt and trickle down his shirt.
"Oh, you don't understand the principle of revenge?" she smirked.
He regarded her standing in the out in the open, not six feet away from him, with no protection from any of his retaliations. "Apparently you don't!"
He dropped to the ground to make his own snowball. Marian suddenly realised her danger and scrambled backwards.
Too late. Robin smirked as Marian staggered backwards as the snowball hit her stomach, losing her footing. That would teach girls to play at strategy! However, his grin faded as she did not get up.
He rushed to her side – surely, he hadn't hit her that hard – and leant over to see if she was alright. Her hands reached up to grasp his heavy winter tunic, and Robin found himself unexpectedly airborne for a few moments before landing flat on his back with the wind knocked out of him.
Where on earth did she learn – The thought was not completed as he opened his eyes to find Marian leaning over him, about to mash a fistful of snow into his hair. Reflexively, he caught her wrist. She grabbed another handful of snow with the other hand, but Robin was too quick for her again. Marian struggled wildly in his grasp but could not break free. Their eyes met, and Robin grinned mischievously as he thrust both hands straight out to either side. Marian collapsed on top of him, sprawled across his body with her face planted in the snow next to his face.
While he had predicted she would lose her balance, Robin had not been prepared for the warmth of her body contrasting with the cold snow beneath him. He had not been prepared for the scent of her hair that trailed across his face. Not for the pulse-quickening sensation of her breasts pressed against his chest. Not for the shiver her breath on his neck sent through him. For several heartbeats – or perhaps it was several lifetimes – he lay frozen, simply listening to her breathing, but hardly daring to take a breath himself.
Jerkily, she pulled away from him, propping herself up on one arm. She didn't think her legs would have been able to support her had she tried to stand. Her eyes were wide and her mouth had fallen partly open, but she made no sound other than the ragged breaths she took. Robin levered himself onto his elbow facing her. They still lay so close together, almost touching.
He hesitantly reached out a hand to brush the snowflakes from her cheek. It turned into a soft caress, and still Marian did not flinch away. Slowly, ever so slowly, he leaned towards her. Her eyes were drawn towards his mouth, and she swayed slightly forwards to meet it.
He kissed her gently and only for a moment, but by god, it was the sweetest moment of her life. She closed her eyes and bit her lip softly, wanting to savour it forever. When she opened them again, the first thing she saw was Robin's sky blue eyes. His face hovered just inches from hers, anxiously awaiting her reaction. A hesitant smile tugged at her lips. She stretched out to close the small gap between them and joined her lips to his once more. This time, the kiss was more passionate. Marian barely felt Robin's hand come to rest on her hip, then wrap itself more firmly around her waist. She was too caught up in the sensation of his mouth on hers.
Crack! Robin and Marian pulled apart and whipped their heads around towards the noise. Much stood frozen with his foot on a dead branch, a snowball held nervelessly in one hand. "I … er … the branch … it cracked … sneaking up … Robin … snowball fight … right, going now!"
The expression on Robin's face could not have said go away more clearly than a full voiced yell. The moment was spoiled, however, and Marian quickly picked herself up from the snow. Robin followed more slowly, reluctantly.
"I must be going."
"Marian…" he said entreatingly. He tilted his head to one side and had such a woeful expression on his face that she almost relented and stayed. Almost.
"Goodbye, Robin," she said firmly, more to herself than him.
She walked back over to her waiting horse and mounted up. A quick look back over her shoulder saw Much cautiously step out into the open. Their voices carried to her as she rode away.
"You have the most god-awful timing, Much. You know that, don't you?"