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Published by Platypus Press
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Chapter 1: An Unexpected Gift (READ NOW!)
Chapter 2: Plighted
Chapter 3: Flight
Chapter 4: Into the Forest
Chapter 5: A Refuge
Chapter 6: Incursion
Chapter 7: Outlaws
Chapter 8: First Foray
Chapter 9: Lincoln Green
Chapter 10: The Golden Arrow
Chapter 11: A Lesson in Power
Chapter 12: A Hanging
Chapter 13: Seeing Red
Chapter 14: Reunion
Chapter 15: Many Secrets
Chapter 16: Guy of Gisborne
Chapter 17: A Meet Diversion
Chapter 18: A Costly Bargain
Chapter 19: The Language of Flowers
Chapter 20: A Sorrowful Knight
Chapter 21: A Fateful Decision
Chapter 22: Nottingham Castle
Chapter 23: The Coming of Dawn
Chapter 24: Royal Request
About the Author
AN UNEXPECTED GIFT
ROBIN DASHED through the sweltering fields towards the house, her skirts hiked up to her knees so she could run faster. Behind her someone gave a surprised shout, but she ignored the hail and raced on, her feet churning the sun-baked dirt into dust. Before her stretched a golden path that led through the manor garden and on to the main entrance, but she ignored the carefully carved trail and leapt over the rows of vegetables and herbs instead, crushing several in her haste; she did not slow down until she reached the manor kitchen.
A blast of heat and smoke greeted Robin as she edged her way inside. Within the oppressive yellow haze bustled half-a-dozen servants, too intent on preparing vast platters of meat and pulling loaves of steaming bread from the ovens to notice her arrival—or so Robin thought.
As she slipped into the corridor, however, she glimpsed one of the kitchen girls ducking out after her. Without being told, Robin knew she had gone to inform Darah of her return.
Traitor, Robin thought without rancor, quickening her pace up the newel staircase that led to the upper story. She had barely reached her bedchamber and begun to tear off her sweat-soaked overdress when Darah, the housekeeper, strode into the room.
“Out again all day!” came the immediate berate. “Never mind I have yet to fit your gown, and your sister will have to greet the guests for your party because you are still not ready, and I—oh, what am I supposed to do with you, Robin?” she demanded, catching the girl’s hands in her own and tsking over the bow-brightened calluses.
“Send me to my room without supper?” Robin suggested hopefully.
The woman’s reply was a cuff on the ear. “Don’t be pert.”
To Robin’s annoyance, Darah ordered her to soak her hands in cold water while she arranged her hair. The housekeeper’s touch was brisk and aloof, as it always was, with none of the soft tenderness that was all Robin could recall of her mother.
Lady Locksley by all accounts had been one of those rare people whose spirit was as beautiful as their features were exquisite. Her death in Robin’s fifth year had struck the whole manor hard; in some ways, it had never recovered.
Lord Robert of Locksley certainly had not. The maids might reminisce about what a doting father Sir Robert had been before his wife’s death, but Robin could not remember that man. The father she knew was the one who preferred to ignore his children, immuring himself in the workings of his estate while Darah managed their upbringing. That was why his summons that morning had been so unnerving.
“Try this on,” Darah commanded, interrupting Robin’s thoughts. Without waiting for a response, she pulled a dress over the girl’s head, expertly avoiding her coiffed hair. Robin absently shrugged into the costly folds, her mind already refocused on that morning’s strange meeting.
The dawn sun had barely begun to engolden the sky when Sir Robert’s manservant had appeared at her door, announcing that Lord Locksley wished to see her. Such a summons—the first in her memory—had stunned Robin, and it was with a sense of misgiving that she had gone to see her father.
The door to his solar was open, but Robin still hesitated a moment before stepping inside. Back when her mother was alive, it had been the family bedchamber; after her death, Robin and her sister had been moved to the small solar at the opposite end of the house, and were forbidden to set foot inside their old room again.
The passing of the years had since dimmed Robin’s memory of her childhood chamber until all she could recall of it were wisps and shadows. As she waited for her father to acknowledge her presence, Robin seized the opportunity to look around.
Two tall windows spanned the far end of the room, their panes of translucent horn allowing the sun to fill the room with a honeyed glow. A majestic oak bed stood against the eastern wall, opposing a rectangular fireplace whose smoke was carried away by a chimney carved with reliefs of dancing hunters and leaping stags. There was a small table with the leavings of breakfast still upon it near the fire, and a little stool nearby as well. The only other furniture was a table and bench beside the bed, where her father now sat writing.
As Robin gazed around the room, she strained eagerly for some small remembrance of the warmth or joy she had been told once existed there—but the chamber remained a stranger to her; cold ashes where a blazing fire once burned.
It is a handsome room, if sparse, she decided at last, trying to dismiss her disappointment by pretending it did not matter…much as she had learned to do with her father. She supposed the room reflected its lord well in that way.
After what seemed like an eternity, Lord Locksley pushed away his papers and turned toward his daughter; his blue gaze as he regarded her was inscrutable.
“It is your birthday today. You are what, seventeen?” he inquired of her abruptly.
“Eighteen, my Lord,” she corrected politely.
His gaze sharpened. “So old? And so tall. Almost as tall as I am, I think. That could be a problem. Still, you are strong, which is an asset not many girls can claim.”
Robin nodded, mystified by this line of discourse.
“No doubt you are wondering why I sent for you,” her father continued, returning to his papers. “I have a surprise for you. The details still need to be worked out, but I feel confident that after tonight, everything will fall into place. Consider it my birthday gift to you. Not many girls have your good fortune.”
Robin patiently awaited further explanation, but her father seemed to have forgotten she was there. “Sir?” she ventured at last, when it became clear he did not intend to say anything more.
Scowling up from his work, he dismissed her with a wave of his hand.
Knowing better than to interrupt again, Robin gave him a dissatisfied curtsy and left, feeling more worried and confused than she had been before.
Darah sighed. It took Robin a moment to remember that it was now afternoon, not morning, and another moment to comprehend what had the housekeeper so worried. “Just as I thought: the dress is too short. Well, there is no time to fix it now—you will just have to wear it like that.”
Robin gazed down at the gown in question. The linen was a handsome wine-red—a color that brought out the red highlights in her golden hair and the deep blue of her eyes. Its hem fell just above her ankles, which was what had Darah so dismayed. Aside from this shortcoming, the dress was perfect. The skirts were full, the waist was narrow, and the top exposed her throat in the latest fashion. It was the dress of a lady.
Robin hated it.
She suspected the dress would have bothered her less if not for the expectations that went along with it. Unlike her flamboyant cousin, Will Gamwell, Robin disliked social gatherings. She detested dressing up and she abhorred small talk, but most of all, she hated—hated!—dancing.
As though her thoughts had summoned the older boy, Will Gamwell suddenly poked his head into the room. “Are you ready yet?” her cousin demanded. He stepped inside the doorway, caught sight of her, and whistled. “Gads, Robin, you look like a lady!”
Then he ducked back out again to avoid the pillow Robin threw at him.
* * * * *
The party was everything Robin feared it would be. Minstrels played gaily from the musician’s balcony at the back of the room, their music barely audible over the heavy chatter. Smoke rose from thick tallow candles and the wide hearth fire, casting a dark blue tinge across the whole assembly. Four trestle tables spanned the front half of the Hall, and were laden with delectables that disappeared as fast as the servants could replace them. The second half of the manor Hall was filled with dancers.
Robin hung back in the shadows, hoping to avoid notice. She could not avoid Darah, however, who continually appeared at her side, pushing her into the candlelight and more often than not into a man. To Robin’s dismay, these men then felt it their social obligation to ask her to dance—some of them placing their request with more eloquence than others.
“Ah, Robin, Robin, yer still growing. Soon no bed will hold ye and who will have ye then?” Lord Grenneth cackled merrily, already drunk. He grabbed Robin and pulled her onto the rush-strewn floor. “Dance with me.”
For once in her life, Robin was glad of her height because it meant she could breathe the fresh air over Lord Grenneth’s head, rather than his wine-drenched breath.
Her other dance partners were not much better—they were much shorter than she, and in general paunchy; all were impaired.
“I cannot bear much more of this,” she confided to Will as he stole her away for an estampie. Sir Geoffrey, whom she had been partnering, looked disappointed—he was a full head shorter than Robin and had done nothing but stare at her chest the entire time.
Not that there is much there to look at.
“You are doing very well,” Will reassured her as he led her through the gentle dance. It was the only respite she was to have all evening.
When the song ended, Robin saw an unfamiliar man with squinty eyes catch her gaze; he started towards her.
“Stay with me, please,” she begged her cousin.
Will had seen the man too, and his eyes were full of pity. “I cannot,” he said. He sounded truly regretful. “I promised your sister the next dance.”
“Marian will understand,” Robin said, but she let him go.
“Lady Robin,” a deep voice breathed behind her, and she reluctantly turned around to face the speaker.
He was taller than most men—almost as tall as she was—with a broad build and thick shoulders. His face was strong, with high cheekbones and a cloven chin. He was not young, but neither was he old. She might have found him handsome, if not for his eyes. They were small and black, with a sharp gleam that made the hairs on the back of her neck start to prickle. Robin had to fight down the urge to flee from that lupine stare.
Stop it! she scolded herself for her unreasoned reaction. You do not even know him.
“Lady Robin,” the man repeated, grinning slightly.
“Sir—?” she began, casting around her mind for an identity.
“Phillip. Just Phillip.”
Robin raised a skeptical eyebrow. Her father never invited commoners to his feasts. Nevertheless, she returned his smile politely.
“Shall we?” he asked, extending his hand. His palm as he took hers was clammy.
The music was another estampie. Robin wished it were a ductia or a jig—some such dance that did not require her to stand so near her partner.
She moved to step away; he closed the gap between them.
The crowd jostled behind her. He pulled her closer. His breath was hot and smelled strongly of Brown October. She tried to step away, but his arms trapped her. The wolf-gleam was back in his eyes. “What do you think you are doing?” she hissed, surprising herself with the anger in her voice. Strangely, her ire seemed to please him.
“This,” he smirked, and without further warning, kissed her squarely on the mouth.
Robin’s eyes went wide, but for a moment she was too stunned to react. His lips, loose and wet, suffocated any protest. Gathering her senses, Robin tried to pull away, but the man held her tightly against his body. In desperation, she reached out and snatched at his hair, pulling his head back with a snap.
Phillip let her go, his face contorting with fury. For a moment, she thought he would strike her. Then a change spread over his features and to Robin’s astonishment, the fury in his eyes altered to a sort of cunning humor. She followed his gaze over her shoulder and saw her father watching them from across the room, an amused smile on his face. It was the last straw. Her cheeks crimson with humiliation and rage, Robin fled the room as calmly as she could, holding her head up high so as not to reveal her distress. Though she did not look back, she knew that Phillip was laughing.
* * * * *
Darah did not permit Robin to rage in her room for long. Indeed, Robin had barely slammed the heavy door shut when it burst open again and the matron strode inside.
“Return to the feast at once,” she commanded fiercely. “Your absence insults your guests.”
“Their presence insults me!” Robin shot back.
“What a ridiculous notion. Stop acting like a child and return to the feast, I demand it.”
Indignation and hurt flared within Robin, yet it was clear she would get no sympathy from Darah regarding Phillip’s assault. And indeed, why would she, when her own father so blatantly approved of his actions? In a voice so heated it could have tempered steel, Robin announced: “I do not give one twit what you or anyone else demands, I refuse to set foot amongst that crowd of drunken, debauched lords again!”
Five minutes later, two lackeys deposited a struggling Robin into the servant’s passage just outside the Hall. The instant her feet touched the ground, she grew quiet. The screen separating the passage from the Hall was very thin, and a scene here would just mean further shame. Straightening her gown and ignoring the stares of the kitchen cooks, she stalked resentfully back into the Hall.
A young lord espied her entrance and promptly headed in her direction, his hand outstretched to ask for a dance. Robin glowered at him and he checked himself abruptly, gazing at her in confusion. When she intensified her scowl, he decided not to dance with her after all, and turned away.
For a moment, Robin felt ashamed of herself, but she was too angry to let the feeling last for long. Darah may have made me come back, but I will not dance again, she promised herself, glaring at the assembly from her perch against the wall. I care not how many lords I insult.
She noted bitterly that Phillip was now sitting with her father on the dais, talking to him with great enthusiasm. As she watched, he seized a shank of chicken from a passing servitor’s tray and began to gnaw at it as he spoke, sending bits of flesh flying.
Robin shuddered and looked away.
At least the other guests seem to be tiring, she observed with relief. Soon all of this will be over. But even though several lords had begun to drift into wine-dazed stupors where they sat, not one of them made to leave, nor would they until her father gave the traditional birthday toast.
Robin did not have to wait long, though she endured each delayed minute with rising impatience. Finally, Lord Locksley rose to his feet; grabbing an empty goblet, he banged its base loudly against the oaken table.
It took several tries before enough of the assembly noticed and fell quiet to make projected speech worthwhile. When he had their attention, her father raised his cup in salutation. His words as he spoke were only slightly slurred.
“Good evening, good evening my fine friends. No finer in all of Nottinghamshire!”
A roar of agreement met his statement.
“Thank you for coming to help celebrate the eighteenth birthday of my eldest daughter. She has grown up nicely, has she not? If she were a horse, she would bring me a fine profit—she has as many hands to her height as she has years to her credit!”
Laughter broke out across the room. Robin flushed from her corner. Why now that he had chosen to distinguish her, did he feel the need to embarrass her? It was better to be ignored.
Lord Locksley’s mood turned sober. “However, she is not a horse. She is a young woman who has grown up almost without my noticing—certainly without my help. It is not fitting that a young woman should dwell with her father forever. Indeed, some of you have indicated that I have postponed this day for far too long.
“I cannot claim that the house will be quieter with her gone, for she has rarely seen fit to stay within its walls. But it certainly will be different. Happy birthday, Robin. I give you now the greatest gift a woman can hope to receive.”
He paused for a moment to catch his breath. Robin clenched her hands until they turned white, almost ill with foreboding.
“Lords and ladies, it is my pleasure to announce the engagement of my daughter Robin of Locksley to Phillip Darniel, the Sheriff of Nottingham.”
Robin froze in horror as Darniel rose to stand next to her father, and the room burst into delighted applause.