The leaves had all but departed their branches, the sky seemed forever strewn with clouds, and Bess found herself longing for the man who had set her heart alight, and since, been absent. For a fortnight, exactly. She had gone about her work in a melancholy manner, her thoughts rarely straying from him. And his promise that they would meet again. She had hoped he'd meant soon, but since their last encounter, she'd only heard of him through the tales of the people he'd stolen from. There seemed to have been quite a few more than his usual. One night, five patrons had claimed to have been robbed that very afternoon.
She feared for him, her affections covering any usual offense she would take at his criminal activities. She knew the redcoats were getting impatient with his antics, they had a few in there, three nights ago. They drank more than their fair share, and payed only for half. Her father couldn't do much, of course. They were kings men, above the law, because they enforced it. Bess heard them talking about her highwayman, talking of hanging him when they finally tracked him down. She felt her stomach drop at their words. She was struck with the heart stopping image of his lifeless body swaying from a rope, twisted around his perfect neck, which was bent at an unnatural angle.
She shook the disgusting image from her troubled mind. No, she would not break, and abandon him completely. She was of no use to him broken. So Bess kept up appearances, and kept up her work. Her father seemed to sense something, however, he'd often ask,
"Bessie, love, are you happy?" She'd smile with false confusion in her eyes, and say in reply,
"Yes, father, I am, quite happy." He'd remain concerned, however, and began to wonder if perhaps her little girl was no longer a child. Perhaps she had thoughts of marriage, and was unable to fulfill her desires, because her old papa held her back. She didn't show signs of leaving, however. She seemed to live for the care she gave him, and the old inn. Just like her mother before her, who had passed away giving birth to Bess. His heart ached when he realised loyal Bess would likely stay here at his side until his death, and by doing so, grow too old to marry, and be alone in the inn until her own end.
One night was very busy, and Bess practically ran from table to table, delivering ale and a warm meal to the wind chilled customers. Unusually, no one had reported any robberies that day, nor stretching back to the beginning of the week, three days prior. Bess was disturbed by the news, it could mean a multitude of things. He could have been caught, or had died of cold in a ditch somewhere. And, worst of all, some part of her whispered that perhaps he'd left the town, and by doing so, abandoned her and their love.
The thought was so slight, however, that it was crushed completely when she ran through the explosive kiss they had shared. And the tender way his eyes seemed to connect with hers, until there was no one in the world but the two of them. No, he had sworn they'd meet again, and that they would. Because as Bess lay a basket of warm bread-rolls on one of the tables, the Inn door clattered open, and a cool wind blasted through it, around the figure in the doorway.
A few candles were blown out, and someone yelped at the sudden noise. The man in the doorway was wrapped in a thick, yet tattered brown cloak. His hood was drawn up in such a way, his eyes and the bridge of his nose were covered with shadow. Stubble gave his chin and cheeks a scruffy, unkempt appearance, and he walked with a slight limp. He closed the door behind him, and suddenly seemed less otherworldly, most people went back to their food and drink, and Tom relit the candles as Bess went to show the stranger to a table.
He, however, pointed to one in a shadowy, cobwebby corner. She, forever the hostess, ignored his silence and kept up a friendly chatter as she weaved through the tables and sat him down. He grunted in reply, and when he sat, she offered to take his cloak. He shook his head, yet, pulled back his hood. It was all Bess could do to keep from gasping.
It was her beloved highwayman. His blue eyes danced when he looked at her, watching her reaction, yet some of the merriment in them had dulled and his cheeks were hallow. Dirt was smudged on his forehead, and his hair was messy and even had a twig or two tangled in it. He looked amazing.
"William!" She muttered, and he smiled a weary smile.
"I was afraid you wouldn't recognize me."
"How could I not? But, William, you shouldn't be here! You'll be seen!"
"Bess, only you could have picked me out from any of your usual travel worn customers. No one will know. Besides, I needed somewhere to stay. And I haven't eaten in a few days, it was too risky to buy anything from town."
Bess felt her heart ache a little as she saw the tired pain in his eyes. She sighed, and then fixed her cheeriest smile on her pretty face.
"Well, sir, I'll get you a big mug of ale and some of our fantastic lamb stew." He grinned back briefly in appreciation, and watched her dance round tables and people to the kitchen. Across the room, behind the bar, Tim glared at him. He'd seen Bess linger, speaking to the man for a little too long. Jealousy at her sweet smile to the stranger burned through him. Why not he? Why was he not good enough? What did this disheveled stranger have to offer that he did not?
Bess was quick to return with his food. A practical bucked of steaming stew that smelt as if it were made in the kitchen of heaven itself to him, who was ravenous. A mug of frothy beer, and a basket of hot bread with it. He fell on it as if half starved, and she watched him eat for a while. She wondered if she'd feel more revolted at the food dripping down his chin if she didn't love him. He said nothing to her, and she again left, and brought with her water this time. It wasn't long until her was scraping the last drops of strew from her bowl with his last mouthful of bread. He finished the smokey bear, coughed, then started on the water. Taking gulps, though he knew he shouldn't. He was just so parched.
"Is that better, William?" She asked, when he finally sat back in his chair, finished.
"So much so, my darling. Thank you." He said, then yawned, and rubbed one eye. She wondered how such an man could look such a child.
"Would you like boarding, for the night?" She asked, and he nodded, and stood. She called to her father that she was showing a customer to his room, and told one of the maids, Mary, to see to the last patrons of the evening who had begun singing, very red in the face. She finally grabbed a lit candle, and motioned for William to follow.
William followed her up the narrow, steep stairs, and she lead him to the narrow corridor where the small, clean rooms were. She blushed a little, when she realised that out of the three available rooms, she chose the one next door to her own. Her own door was marked with a plaque that read "private" in old white paint. She saw him smile at the door,
"Yours?" He asked, a little bit of a tease in his voice. She smiled at him, too embarrassed at his noticing to say anything, and unlocked the room. The candle light threw strange shadows over the walls, and she set to work lighting the other candles gathered around the room, then the small torches on the walls. Soon the room was bright and cozy. Bess didn't know how to start talking to him, so she went through the motions as if he were any other customer. She poked the embers of the dying fire back into life, and checked that the pitcher of water on the vanity was full.
She had begun turning down the bed sheets when he grabbed her hand, and turned her to face him.
"Bess, I missed you." He said, drinking in the details of her sweet face.
"I missed you too." She said, any previous awkwardness forgotten when she found the tenderness in his eyes. It was all that needed saying, and they were soon locked in a passionate embrace, their kisses were feverish and desperate, and she delighted in feeling of his body against hers again. He was skinnier than their time before, but the warmth radiated off him still. He found himself drawing more life from the feel of her than he had from that rich dinner.
It was she that pulled back, and said,
"William, you're tired, and ill. There will be time for this another night." He sighed, and agreed, stepping away from her, he began to undress.
She opened her mouth to protest, but was suddenly entranced into silence when he pulled his undershirt up over his head. He had his back to her, and she wondered if it were entirely normal to be so enraptured with something so unprovocative. Yet she couldn't help but imagine running her hands over the smooth flesh. The shape of his shoulders was unfamiliar, strong in a way she hadn't seen before. She felt ashamed of the lust, so ashamed, she almost whispered a begging prayer of forgiveness. But then, she found herself distracted from any sort of religious thoughts when he turned to face her.
She'd never seen a man undressed before, and wasn't sure what she'd been expecting. Since his recent time gone without eating, his ribs were visible, yet it seemed only to pull his skin tighter over his toned stomach. Bess felt her breath catch as her gaze found the waistband of his trousers, which hung low below his hips. She couldn't help but wish he'd remove those too, feeling a warmth begin to spread from her lower abdomen to the very tips of her fingers. She glanced back up to his face, and blushed crimson when she realised she'd been caught looking.
"I'm sorry." She muttered, dropping her gaze to the ground and blinking rapidly, trying to forget what she'd seen.
He stepped closer, however, making it difficult to shake the image.
"You haven't seen before, have you?" He asked, quietly. She shook her head, too mortified to look at him. "Would you like to? See everything, I mean." This shocked her so much she looked back up at him, wide eyed.
"You mean..." She gestured awkwardly at his crotch, and he laughed.
"Yes, if you like. I feel you're the curious sort."
"Well, I'm not sure if it'd be proper..." Again, he chuckled at her, and cupped her chin in his hand, turning her face up to him, and pressing his lips to hers. It fed the fire that burned across her skin, and when his lips trailed from hers, down her slim neck, she let out a moan that she barely recognized as her own. William pulled back at this sound, and she almost wanted to voice her disappointment.
"Not proper?" He purred, his voice thick with lust, and she couldn't help but smile.
"Yes, then. Yes I'd like to see."
He pecked her on the lips swiftly, then stepped back, and she looked away as he undressed himself. It seemed something too vulnerable to watch, almost indecent in it's sudden and unarmed exposure.
"Bess." He called her attention back, and she glanced up, turned scarlet, and looked away again. It took her a moment to pull herself together, and look back up at him.
"Oh." She couldn't help but whisper, fascinated all of a sudden. A flush rose in her cheeks and soon she had to look away again, telling him she'd seen enough, and thanking him for it. He laughed a little at her embarrassment, but noted that their goodnight kiss held an element of desire that the others had only hinted at. He got into bed as she watched from the doorway,
"I'm next door... If you need me." She said, smiling, and closing the door behind her.