Turn against the Sheriff!"
Guy doesn't mean to look back, but Marian's command is loud enough to wake the dead, let alone alarm Vasey. He turns to warn her with a finger to his lips, only to find himself caught by the raw desperation in her eyes. Five seconds ago he was ready to walk out the door and let his back be an answer to her misguided scheme. But now . . . now he feels himself falling into that old familiar trap. He hates it. He loves it.
"This is your chance, Guy. Your last chance to be a good man," Marian insists, beginning to pace. "Well? What is your choice?"
Guy doesn't answer, just watches her stride back and forth in front of him. As always, her beauty is stunning, even more so now that she is fired up by her passion for saving king and country. Awash in the orange glow of the late afternoon sun, her skin is warm and rich and kissable. He can't keep his eyes from straying to her chest, from watching its seductive heave as she drags her chains behind her like unwilling pets. His resolve to remain silent breaks.
"And if I do this thing," he says, struggling to keep his tone mildly curious. "If I kill the Sheriff. You swear you will be my wife?" He hates the way he sounds—a beggar asking for water. God knows, he should be asking that she will vouch for him to the King, promise that all his plotting days are over. And yet…here he is again. Pleading for her hand before all else.
Marian stops and reaches out for his arm, but he captures her fingers before they reach their target. Her touch is dangerous. There have been moments when he would have given up everything just to keep her hand on his shoulder. She knows this; he realizes that now.
"I swear," she murmurs, gaze flicking downward to rest on their entwined fingers.
"Look at me when you say it," he barks, and her head snaps up. One look in her flashing eyes tells him that he has awoken her willful streak, the one that always rears its head when he gives her anything that could be considered a demand. He softens his voice. "You know why I ask, Marian. You have a habit of changing your mind at the last minute. You have a habit of tricks."
This time she meets his gaze boldly, directly. "If you save England, I will be yours."
His heart fills in one exhilarating rush. Still, he has learned to temper his joy when Marian is involved. Her eyes are weapons far sharper than the most pointed arrow. He would be lying if he said that he doesn't resent their power over him, just a little bit.
"If the sheriff succeeds, I will have untold power," he tries, letting his gaze linger blatantly on her lips. "Who's to say that I could not just take you by force?"
"Because that has worked so well in the past!" she scoffs, tearing her hand away. "Honestly, do you ever learn? You should know by now that I will kill myself before submitting to a man who had destroyed all that I have fought for . . . all that others have died for!"
He as much believes that she could stick a knife in her chest as he once believed she could give herself to God. "Marian, you can't be serious."
Her chin tilts up in defiance. "I am, and I will. After all, what would I have to live for? My father is dead. England is dead…" She shakes her head, cutting herself off as she steps forward. "But if you do this thing, Guy, you will have me as your bride. Willingly. You will have me as your wife. Willingly." She licks her lips and then reaches out to touch his face. Her palm is hot against his jaw. "And you will have me in your bed. Willingly."
A searing bolt of lust rips his body ragged. How many nights has he lain awake imagining just this? A willing Marian, a soft Marian. A Marian who loves him. Sometimes his fantasies don't even involve anything carnal. Sometimes it's only him and her and the rhythmic rise and fall of her chest in the moonlight; it's her hair flowing across his pillow or the smell of waking up beside her; it's the idea of a quiet night spent in front of a flickering fire in a house that is all his on land that is all his.
"Please, Guy," she whispers, beginning to caress his jaw with her thumb. Her lips move closer, so close he need only tip his head forward to take them. He knows that this is a calculated move on her part—one more parry in a heady, complicated game. But now he is brave enough to risk challenging her to a game of his own.
He dips in for a kiss. In the past, this is where she turns her chin and leaves him with the cold exile of her cheek; or worse, where she slides her eyes to the side as if searching for a future far beyond his shoulders. But not this time. This time she meets him halfway, kissing him back with more fervor than he ever dreamed possible. Startled, he almost ends the embrace himself. Sensing his retreat, she presses her body forward until the weight of her breasts brush against his chest.
Tilting his head, he deepens the kiss, tentatively teasing her bottom lip with his tongue. No resistance. He pushes it further, and is shocked when hers meets his halfway. His hands slide to her waist, then lower, pulling her hips forward. A part of him wants her to pull back, wants her to lose even as he is wishing that the game will never end. But she doesn't surrender, only wraps her arms tighter around his neck as she runs her fingers through the curls at the base of his neck.
He's not naïve enough to think that she is blind to the fact that this is a test. But if this was a challenge to see if she is willing to return his affections, she has answered it. And won.
He pulls away first, breathing jaggedly as he searches her face for a clue to her reaction. Her cheeks are flushed, but her gaze is steady.
"I . . . see what is good in you, Guy," she says, answering his unspoken question. "I care for you. I know you can show me that I'm not wrong to have faith in you." She leans forward to whisper in his ear. "Show me."
Guy feels the last bit of his resistance disappear like a single drop of rainwater on dusty ground. This is madness. Despite her confident promises, he knows that changing course now will not be nearly as simple as she believes. Removing one cog in a mechanism doesn't stop it entirely—there are more who want to kill the King than just Vasey. The Black Knights will not simply disappear because they do not have a leader. A new one will rise.
It just won't be him.
He leans down and kisses her cheek. Then, taking his curved blade from its place near his heart, he presses it into her hands. "If I fail, use this against the Sheriff," he says before heading for the stairs that will take him up to the man he is about to betray, the man he has served for ten years. He turns back for one final look at his future. "And Marian?" he adds. "Wait here."
Marian hates waiting. To her it has always seemed like the last resort of stupid women too frightened to act on their own. Even as a child, the legendary damsels who sat waiting for shiny-haired saviors to push them out of the way of a dragon disgusted her. Never, she vowed, would a man determine her fate. When Robin rode off to war to find fame and glory, she ordered herself to put their love behind her; when the peasants were starving and the King was doing nothing to stop it, she became the Night Watchman; and when everyone else had failed to stop the Sheriff, she picked up a broadsword and aimed it right toward his slimy heart.
Even now, part of her longs to try again—to run upstairs, wrap her chains around his stubby neck and squeeze until his lifeless body slumps off the chair. But that is not possible; the shackles biting her wrists are a constant reminder of her uselessness. She is forced to wait.
Marian closes her eyes to better hear any noise from the upstairs room. Every once and awhile a snippet trickles down—the low hum of talk or the clank of metal—but then a wind rushes through the open windows and swallows it whole. If only she could be certain that Guy will follow through. Vasey has a sickening, poisonous hold over him that knows no comprehensible bounds. She half expects him to come back downstairs with Vasey and offer to stab her himself.
She often wonders what Guy would have been like if the Sheriff had never come into his life. Kinder, she supposes. Calmer. These thoughts only complicate Robin's mission, but try as she might, she can't stop them from creeping up on her in unexpected moments. Still, she has seen too much of his political side too early in their relationship—thoroughly unforgiving and fueled by a raw, grasping desire for power and wealth—to ever be in danger of losing her heart. If only he knew how unattractive it made him.
And yet she has never loathed him as she should. Not at all. Instead she is intrigued by him. She hates how a current of awareness hits her every time he enters the room. He watches her constantly, but what he doesn't realize is that she watches him, too, hoping to catch him in one of the rare unguarded moments where his smirking mask slips to reveal someone else entirely, someone who loves her with a boyish, love-struck intensity that threatens to overwhelm her at times. Try as she might to resist, a part of her is flattered. The same part, she imagines, that knows whenever Guy is near. The same part that once idly wondered what he would look like wearing something other than black.
A thud from the floor above startles Marian from her thoughts, and she jumps as it is followed by the raspy scrape of a chair and a muffled curse. Suddenly, the possibility of Vasey killing Guy hits her with the force of a cold bucket of water. If that happens, Marin has no doubt that the Sheriff will storm down from above and gut her with venomous glee.
There is a noise on the stair. Marian holds her breath as she stares at the blank rectangle of the door, waiting for the moment of truth. A black, leather-clad arm appears, and Guy stumbles into sight. Her heart soars.
"Is it done?" she asks him eagerly, dropping her weapon and running forward until her chains snap her back. "Is the sheriff dead?"
Guy doesn't answer, just slumps against the earthen frame, head bowed and eyes closed. His sword slips from his hands and clatters to the floor. Marian's eyes are drawn to the tip, which is stained a dark, dark red. "Guy?" she tries again tentatively.
"He is dead," he says sharply, and Marian feels uneasy. He looks stripped, shattered, broken—not like the victor of a battle at all.
"Are you positive?"
"Yes," he snaps. "What? Should I have brought you his head, milady?"
Marian is taken aback at the vehemence of this last word. "No, of course not," she murmurs, unsure of how to proceed. "The key," she says finally, holding up her imprisoned wrists. "Do you have it?"
Guy reaches to his belt and grabs the key ring, still with an air of distraction. As he unlocks her, Marian sees him wince.
"What has happened?" she asks, and then searches his body for an answer when he is still silent. There is a gash in the leather at his waist. "You are wounded."
"He had his sword ready. I was able to overpower him, but not before he scraped me along the side. 'Tis not deep; just stings."
Marian doesn't know whether to feel concern for his safety or relief that he has given her something to do. Grabbing him around the waist, she ushers him to the stack of abandoned sacks and forces him to sit. "Take off your shirt," she orders, and then sets to tearing long strips of white cloth from the bottom of her blouse.
He fumbles with the clasps on his gloves and then those on his outer shirt. When he finally pulls them off, revealing the grey undershirt that clings to his muscles, he hisses. A dark red spot blooms at his waist. Marian waits for him to remove this layer as well, but he remains oddly vacant. She takes matters into her own hands, tugging it up and over his head, taking care to gently peel it away from the wound.
Now that it has been revealed in its full glory, she hisses in her own breath. He's right—it's not deep. But it is long, winding its way from the front of his waist and curving around his side. Grabbing the small cup of water left over from last night's meal, she wets a makeshift bandage and then daubs at his wound, clearing away the blood, both fresh and dry.
Guy's skin flexes beneath her touch, and she hears his breathing become quicker, shallower. His left hand, which he has been using to brace himself as he leans back, tightens into a fist, sucking in the surrounding fabric like a waning tide.
"Kiss me." His voice is low and gruff, but she detects a hint of the soft vulnerability that sometimes appears whenever they are alone. A hand reaches up to cup her cheek, then twines behind her neck and pulls her forward. She feels the rough scrape of stubble as he places a hot kiss in the dip between her neck and clavicle.
She pushes his arm away. "Now is not the time. You're hurt," she insists.
He doesn't listen. "Prove to me that it was worth it," he murmurs, trying again.
She wriggles away from his grasp and turns to find his icy blue eyes staring daggers at her. His black hair swoops rakishly over one eye, his mouth thin and menacing. For one disorienting moment, Marian feels as though she's stumbled into the path of a starving, injured animal.
"Still, you reject me," he says, his voice half anger, half disbelief.
"I'm not rejecting you. You just surprised me, that's all."
"I've killed the one man who understood me—accepted me—and it is still not enough to win your love. Nothing I do is enough."
"That seemed to be more about my body than my love!" she snaps, and then swiftly tries to ease the conversation back to the positive. "Guy, you've saved the King! Does that mean nothing to you?"
"That was never my cause. That was your cause. That was Hood's cause."
Marian is caught without a response. She watches his eyes narrow as he studies her face for a reaction. When she doesn't reply, he stands up and stalks toward her. She expects him to try to force a kiss or a confession; after all, this is an old game of theirs, and one at which she is well practiced.
But he surprises her. He stops short, shaking his head like he no longer knows what he is doing, and then gives a harsh laugh. "I am a fool," he says, suddenly defeated. "And you are a liar."
"Pray tell me what I have done to deceive you!" she counters. "I do not pretend to have been entirely truthful with you in the past. But I have explained my reasons to you for that."
Guy's expression is highly skeptical. "So you would maintain that there are no longer any secrets between us?"
His proximity has become claustrophobic. Marian escapes, moving to play with the bandages. "I do," she says as she absently loops one over her forearm. "I would not feel comfortable becoming your wife otherwise."
"Of course. Tell me, would you have been so eager to martyr yourself to me if Hood were still alive?"
"I have no idea what you mean."
"Allan all but admitted it to me."
"Your feelings for our resident outlaw."
Marian feels a flash of rage. The little thief! And after she all but saved him from Robin's knife. "Allan knows nothing of my feelings," she says tightly. "He is rash and ridiculous. He thinks farting metaphors are the height of conversation."
Guy doesn't answer, just takes the limp bandage from her hand and begins to dress his own wound with sharp and angry movements. When he is finished, he just stands there, looking at her like a piece of fruit turning rotten right before his eyes.
"I wish you would not glare at me so," she says to fill the silence.
"You've never cared how I glared at you before," he mocks. "Perhaps you feel guilty."
"Once you inform me of what I am being accused, Sir Guy, then we may talk about guilt."
"You love Robin Hood!" he yells, the words exploding out of him with the force of black powder. Now that it's out, he seems as stunned as she.
The usual glib lies crouch on the tip of Marian's tongue, ready to rush to her defense. But at the last moment, they fail her. His desperate desire to hear the truth, painful as it is, disarms her.
"At one time I loved him very deeply," she says softly.
Guy is taken aback. "At one time?" he echoes.
"Yes. But I have promised myself to you."
"Because he is dead."
"No, because you have proven yourself to be a man I could care for." She wants to put an end to this talk of Robin, which only draws attention to the aching well of loneliness that swells up in her stomach every time she thinks of him dying thousands of miles away from her.
Guy studies his hands with feigned disinterest. "So you claim that you would choose to be with me, even if Hood were alive?"
Marian considers herself practiced in the games of manipulation and courtship, but right now she doesn't know which one they are playing. Still, whatever the reason for Guy's obstinacy, she'll be damned before she lets him win.
"Yes, I would."
Guy smiles, mean and feral. "Good. Because he is."
Marian's entire body freezes, everything except her heart, which gives two sharp thumps. "Lies like that are cruel," she says stiffly.
"This is no lie. The Sheriff received word yesterday that Robin Hood and his band of outlaws had been spotted in the Holy Land."
The strength to stand escapes her, and Marian feels her knees begin to buckle. When the world has stopped spinning, she finds that he has crossed to stand beside her, that his arm is holding her up and she can feel the warmth of his bicep pulsing against her arm. But his voice, when he speaks, is cold.
"You betray yourself."
"Am I not allowed to grieve the passing of an old love?" she asks when her composure returns. Inside her mind is racing frantically, wondering how she can get word to Robin. See Robin.
Guy must see something on her face, for he gives a short laugh. "Marian, end this farce. You will not marry me. You have used me as a tool to advance your own ideals, and my heart has dumbly let you do it." His mouth quirks in a self-deprecating smile as his gaze slides to her chest. "My heart and other things. They kept me from seeing the truth."
"And what is the truth?"
"The truth is that you are cold—all plots and ideas and stratagems. You may be passion and spirit on the outside, but inside . . . inside you are just as conniving as the Sheriff."
"That is unfair," she says shortly. His words have pricked something loose and wild that threatens to bubble over and consume her.
"Is it?" He pulls her closer. "Tell me, there were numerous occasions for you to escape the castle, and yet you kept coming back. Why, Marian?"
"I was of more use there!"
"No. I think not." She feels him smooth back her hair, feels his warm breath on her ear as he leans in to whisper. "You like tormenting me. You like the lies. You like seeing my desire for you, knowing that you will never give in. You tease yourself with the possibility of giving in, tease me." He moves in closer. "That night you came to see me at Locksley…I thought you were just using me, playing the innocent to buy your freedom. But now I think 'When has Marian ever played the innocent?' She plays the temptress, the charmer, the affronted lady, the dutiful daughter…but never the innocent."
"What is the point of this?
"The point is that perhaps you are not as in control as you think. Perhaps you are just as addicted to this game as I am to—"
Marian can take no more; she covers his mouth with her hand to stop him from speaking. The softness of his lips brushes against her palm. "You do not know me at all, Sir Guy."
His strong hand clamps around her arm, freeing his mouth. "Do I not? I know that you will not marry me," he says, and then raises his eyebrows at her glare. "Oh, you may swear prettily that you will now—and you may even mean it. But we will not make it to the altar," he predicts bitterly. "We will not even make it to the King. Now that you have your way, you will run off to find your shining lord and not even look back at the person you chose to trample."
The accusation hangs between them for what feels like an eternity. Marian is silent as the steady weight of his words presses down upon her chest, smashing all of her ideas of love and duty to pieces. He may not be right about her intentions, but his words resonate in her bones, bringing to light that which she has always tried to keep hidden under the heaviest rock. She has taken his heart, torn it in two, shook it, stomped on it, and then thrust the remnants away from her. She has treated him as her own personal fiefdom, to conquer, control, and then leave barren when she is done with it. She has convinced herself that because he does not share her same ideals, his feelings are worthless, inconsequential. And yet he has been more loyal to her, to the ridiculous idea of them, than she has ever been to anything in her life.
When she finally finds her voice, it comes out as barely a whisper. "How can you love such a woman?"
The question catches him off guard. His words, when they come, sound more like those of a defeated man than an ardent lover. "I don't know. But I love her more than reason or sense. I love her courage, I love her strength. Even when it is pitted against me." He shakes his head. "Marian, there is nothing you can do that will make me stop loving you. Believe me, I have tried."
Used to her silence and his unrequited feelings, Guy brings his hands up to rub at his eyes, exhausted. When he lowers them, one brushes her palm. Her fingers tingle. Her shoulder, next to his bare one, tingles. Her body, next to his sympathetic one, tingles.
Guy is lost in the dark corridors of his own thoughts. Because of this, he barely notices when she gives into her impulse, wrapping one hand around his and sliding the other over the broad arc of his shoulders. But he does notice when she turns his head toward hers, leans forward, and places her lips against his in a heartfelt kiss that breaks down every barrier she has ever put between them.
His shock soon gives way to confusion, suspicion, and finally, wonderment. He pulls back. "Marian, what are you doing?"
This is madness, she thinks, but there's no changing course now. "Proving myself to you," she whispers and then kisses him again.