Lady Thief
Author:Rizzo Rosko

Chapter Eleven





Marianne awoke as though she were being lifted from a soothing bath. A delicious ache touched everywhere on her body. It comforted her with the knowledge of where it came from.

She stretched her legs down and her arms up, savoring the sensation before settling back into her nest of blankets, warm and comfortable despite the lack of a fire.

Yet she could not return to sleep. Her husband’s fingertips tickled up and down her naked arm. Marianne smiled.

As she suggested the night before, she and William stayed where they were to make love again. Only that time their garments had been entirely removed.

She admired his body the night of her bath when he insisted they become better acquainted with each other, but ‘twas completely different the second time. Her eyes took him in again, the sensation of touch accompanying her sight while she removed his under-tunic and hose.

He was no man. He was an angel. His skin had glowed as her fingers travelled along the warm flesh, and Marianne had prayed that he might think her half as beautiful as she did him.

He had satisfied her unasked question with his hurried removal of her clothes, hungry touches and throaty moans of pleasure escaped him as he touched and tasted her. Then her fears were forgotten.

Her skin touching his while he moved sent a stronger buzz though her bones than when they made love the first time. Even her hair came loose from the braid and cascaded plainly down her back as he insisted that everything be undone.

She never would have thought she could spend the better part of an afternoon and night in bed, and now it seemed she would have some difficulty with rising this morning, especially if William insisted on caressing her in that place.

She felt the heat of his face lower to her neck, and she opened her eyes. The press of lips trailed under her jaw and rose to her ear.

Marianne giggled when his kiss reached the sensitive area. She tilted her head to allow him better access, sighing when he moved to place the same treatment below her ear, along her throat and shoulders.

“If we do not present ourselves the servants will wonder where we went.” William said, his eyes meeting hers and lips returning to the sensitive skin below her ear.

She sensed his true meaning. His obvious wish to stay, conflicted with the responsibility that required him to go.

Marianne slid her eyes shut. What did she care for responsibilities? “They can handle themselves for now.”

“Can they?” Despite his words, he did not stop.

She nodded. “Aye, they know that if they do not do their work Hawisa and I shall scream their ears off.”

William laughed. Marianne opened her eyes so that she might see his amusement.

His lips stretched into a smile that touched and lit his eyes. His gaze could teach the stars to sparkle.

She touched his face, inspired by the thought. “I’m glad ‘twas you I forced to wed me.”

She spoke the words without thinking, but once they were out, she realized they were true.

He took her small hand into his larger one and brought it to his lips, pressing a soft kiss to her fingers. “As am I.”

He had said kind things to her before, had comforted her and never pushed her for what she could not give, but those words warmed her like naught he had ever said.

His hand traveled sensuously down her torso and legs, burning through the blanket she did not remember being covered with before falling asleep.

“As much as I prefer being here with you, we are not in our chamber, and if the servants think we are missing they shall call for Blaise, who will riot until we are found.”

Moaning, Marianne grabbed the woolen blanket and pulled it over her head.

“Am I to take that to mean you do not mind?” William asked.

She snorted. Marianne struggled with the thought of leaving her comfortable cocoon, turning her eyes away from William’s naked chest beneath the blanket, and getting up to ensure that the morning’s duties were handled properly.

“God’s teeth.” Marianne threw her covers off and hissed against the sudden cold as she searched for her chemise and gown.

Only when Marianne managed to half dress herself did she sense William watching. He stayed in bed, leaning against one arm and smiling leisurely as he observed her.

The blanket fell over his upper thigh, barely concealing his manhood, yet revealing his firm legs and his lightly haired chest. Seeing him barely clad was somehow more erotic than if he’d been completely naked.

Though she tried to refuse the blush, it came without her permission. She turned her face away and her nose found the air. “Ye are as bad as a curious boy.”

“Ah, but I am not curious. I have already had you. Now I merely wish to admire you.”

The heat ravaged her cheeks. She grabbed his tunic and flung it at him. He caught it and laughed again.

***

William rose to dress with her, contemplating taking her back to bed despite the consequences he’d told her of. But there were things that needed to be done and decisions to be made.

William should have gone with his men on their search for Marianne’s father. But the theft, while insulting, had not posed enough threat for him to leave her side. Not when she would likely do something rash without calm words to sooth her hissing spirit.

And now, Holton’s theft was not the only thing on his mind. Last night he said—to himself at least—that he loved Marianne.

Strange how thinking such things about his wife could stun him. As if he had been hit in the head with a club, or thrown from his horse.

He could allow himself to grow fond of her, to enjoy her like he had last night. So how was it possible for him to love after all the pain the emotion had brought him the last time he experienced it? The foolish way he acted because of it? Ruined a young woman’s life over it?

Even if he could love her, until he was certain that he could defend her from Ferdinand’s threat, if the man did indeed pose a threat, he would keep the emotion that squeezed in his chest under firm control. For both of their sakes.

***

Marianne could not finish tightening the back of her gown on her own. When she finished as much as she could, she looked to William, sensing the mood darkening around him, and puzzled over it.

Only a few moments ago he’d lain with her and laughed with her. Now she did not know what to make of him. His sudden scowl was uninviting and his back visibly taut. She reached out to touch him but he pulled away from her.

Her hand retracted. Though she had not touched him, she felt as though her entire body burned with painful rejection.

He tried to hide his behavior by smiling at her again. ‘Twas too late. She had already seen that something was amiss.

“Perhaps you shall spend more time with me today,” He said, leaning back with the air of a man who had everything his heart desired. Almost everything, at least.

Something he desired had to be missing.

Still, the invitation brought ease back into her nerves. She returned his smile. “I would like that.”

He stood. Marianne’s entire being warmed as he pulled her to him. Her body drank in his heat like a woman who had been without water for days.

He encircled her with his arms, bent to press his mouth to her lips, and the sensation was complete.

She was not aware that he pulled away until he spoke. “I must warn you that my work is far from exciting, unless ye believe sitting and writing for hours on end is excitement. I shall bore ye into leaving.”

Marianne shrugged. “Aye, ‘tis likely, but I would still wish to be with ye.” She would not tell him that she planned to seduce him from his work.

He kissed her again.

Oh, how his mouth made her lips tingle! Marianne arched her back and lifted her head for a better position. Her breath left her. She nearly forgot that they had to leave for their own chamber.

William chuckled as her eager mouth refused to leave his. He put his hands against her shoulders and pushed just enough to part their mouths, though she clutched his tunic, keeping their bodies firmly together.

“Eager imp, perhaps I have been too generous with you in bed.”

Marianne stood straighter, interest and awe in her voice. “If ye have more generosity I would like to know of it.”

His laugh was throaty, a sound that warmed Marianne’s insides, and when he kissed her again he kept the contact of their lips brief. “Aye, there is more to show you, but for now we must go.”

He all but shoved her out the door, and though Marianne was disappointed and eager for their next coupling, she returned to her working self and called out an order to have the room they’d spent the night in cleaned.

***

Marianne splashed her face with the cool water brought to her while Olma aided her with her hair and gown. James waited to be useful outside her chamber door.

William returned to his solar before she was ready, claiming some excuse for needing to calculate the loss from the theft into his records.

Marianne was not certain how keeping ledgers and taxes worked, but his sudden disappearance was much more than the need to tend to his books.

When they returned to their chamber earlier, their true chamber, William seemed to lose control as he tried to undress her. She aided him with quick fingers, until Olma let herself into their chamber unannounced.

In his embarrassment, William fled, grumbling about servants who did not know their place and the lack of privacy afforded to a lord.

Marianne would have throttled Olma for her bad timing had the look on the poor girl’s face not been so laughable.

What was more, James stood behind her, and upon seeing Marianne with her gown nearly halfway down her shoulders he’d flung his hands in front of his eyes and turned away.

Marianne chided Olma, though ‘twas only half hearted. She was too content to remain angry. “From now on be sure to make yourself known before barging in wherever you like.”

Olma bobbed quickly, averting her eyes. “Aye, milady.”

Marianne had attempted to glare at her. She was not very successful. “And there shall be consequences should any other servants hear of the tale.”

Once the warning left her lips, Marianne wondered why she had made the threat. She was the wife of William, and should they be found in a passionate embrace then who could say ‘twas wrong?

“Actually, I take back my last command.”

Olma eyed her as if she had gone mad.

“You may tell whomever you wish of this event,” Marianne grinned like a young girl and raised her arms, no longer wishing to play the part of offended lady simply to keep the servants in line. “I do not care!”

***

Guy Holton had not returned the night before, or arrived the next morn to explain his sudden departure.

Marianne clenched her hands together. She despised the fact that her father was a thief, and according to Blaise, herself by association as well.

Marianne had hoped William’s knights would find him and bring with them the story of his innocence.

Instead, by late evening the next day they brought back naught but news that his tracks led to the former Holton House. Ferdinand denied that Holton ever came to him.

William allowed her to be with him in the great hall when his men returned empty handed.

“Did ye ask to search his stables?” William asked.

The knight before him nodded, an older man whom Marianne had not seen before with thick grey eyebrows and matching hair. Despite his outward strength, he shivered uncontrollably even as he was questioned near the grand fire’s heat.

“Aye, we did tha’, but found no trace of the horses. The old swine would not let us search the home, or even allow us to warm up and rest anywhere.”

William nodded, his expression grave.

Marianne clasped his arm. “What are ye thinking, milord?”

He spared her a glance but not much else. “Whether your father sought shelter with Ferdinand or not, his unwillingness to allow my men into his new home suggests that he has something to hide. Whether ‘tis your father or something else, I do not know.”

Bryce spoke into William’s ear, so quietly that Marianne could not hear what had been said. The warrior lord had returned to continue with his and William’s swordplay earlier that morn, and now appeared to be helping William handle his new dilemma.

William nodded to whatever Bryce said before addressing the men huddling around the fire. “Allow your men to sit here in the great hall to warm yourselves. Bread and ale will be brought to you for your fine work.”

Blaise muttered, his arms folded tightly to his chest. “They did no fine work.”

The old knight bowed, ignoring his younger master. “Thank you, milord.” He was the last to find a seat after the other men shuffled for a good spot by the fire, weary of their travel.

Only a handful of men were present, but the expressions on their faces suggested they had ridden into the night after her father. The exhaustion they suffered from their efforts was no doubt doubled when they did not find him.

When James left her to speak with the older knight, Marianne used the opportunity to follow her husband out of the great hall to have a word with him. Olma trailed along, casting glances back at James as they left.

“Ye need to be stricter with yer training,” She could hear Bryce before she caught up to them. “I’ve never seen men so lazy and unguarded before.”

William sighed. “Ye are correct. I have known it for some time, I have simply never had the heart to have anything done about it. But today ‘tis not entirely laziness, they rode hard in the cold searching for Holton.”

Blaise’s mocking voice in her ear caused her to jump. “Spying does not become you, milady.”

Marianne stiffened before resigning herself to turn and face him. She wished she had not when his sneering face met hers.

She cast a quick glance behind her, hoping that she would not have to face Blaise alone. The stone hallway stood bare, only the torches to provide light and very little warmth to give her comfort.

William must have been so caught up with his conversation with Bryce that he had not heard Blaise or Marianne behind them. Now they were out of sight, and unable to save Marianne.

She took a calming breath, willing herself to feel no blind emotion, no boiling anger, and looked Blaise in the eye.

When Olma made her presence known and stood behind her lady, glee filled her chest. A witness would surely prevent Marianne from losing her temper.

She straightened herself. ‘Twas one thing to be the lady of the castle for the servants, but now she would have to show Blaise that as well. “I am no spy.”

His gaze remained as calm as hers, though as spiteful as ever, as if he was trying to match her civility with a barely disguised distaste.

He rested one arm over the other and scratched his cheek. “An old maid like you may have fooled my father, but I do not believe for one moment that you did not aid your thieving bastard sire.”

Rage hissed wildly within her. Marianne forgot about Olma and holding her temper. “And I do not believe for one moment that you are of William’s blood.”

Marianne felt her face run cold when the words escaped her lips. Blaise stood in front of her, pale and open-mouthed before his cheeks turned redder than what she thought was normal, even for him. The freckles disappeared on his face as it twisted into unrecognizable fury.

When he raised his hand, she stood helpless, waiting for the blow to come. But his palm shook in the air and Marianne breathed deeply, counting the seconds while trying to decide whether he despised her enough to do it.

She exhaled shakily when he forcefully lowered his arm. He stared down at her and again Marianne awaited her punishment. A slap, an insult, anything was better than waiting.

Instead he clenched both fists, held them firmly at his sides, then gave her his back and stalked in the other direction.

She watched him go, his hard footsteps echoing in the empty hall. She only realized when he was gone that Olma was clutching the sleeves of Marianne’s gown like a frightened child.

Marianne looked down at her. She had never seen a face so devoid of color. She put her arm around Olma’s shoulder, putting their differences in station behind her long enough to offer the younger girl some comfort.

“Do not shake so, there is nothing to fear.”

Olma shook her head, then, for the first time, looked Marianne in the eyes without needing to be prompted into doing so. “‘Tis the first time I ‘ave ever heard anyone say such a thing aloud.”

Marianne opened her mouth to tell her that ‘twould also be the last time, but looking up and behind her young servant, she spotted Adam.

He said nothing, merely stood and watched her comfort a woman below her, no question or judgment in his eyes.

When had he arrived? Was his presence the only reason she had not felt Blaise’s anger through the palm of his hand?

She shook her head. No, he was not the reason. Blaise’s furious eyes had remained on her, not glimpsing behind her or in any other direction. The only reason she did not have a bruise on her face was that Blaise was more skilled at controlling himself than she was. If only by a little.

Adam approached both of them, nodding respectfully to Marianne after briefly gazing at Olma, who looked at the floor.

His tone of voice, while soft, contained a no hint of the submissive nature most servants spoke with, that many of the servants in the castle had begun speaking with again once Marianne got through to them. He spoke as her equal. He meant his words. “With all due respect, ‘tis not wise to ask such questions of the young lord, milady. ‘Tis not only Blaise you insult.”

The other people she had insulted with her brash claim came to mind. Truthfully, had she thought of them first, Marianne would not have said what she said. “I meant no harm to William…or Blaise,” the last name reluctantly left her lips.

Still, what had once been mere idle curiosity had turned into something so much larger. It would not be ignored.

She was right, Blaise was not William’s son, and she looked back to where Blaise had retreated and voiced herself. “My assumption is correct, I know it is.”

Adam’s body tensed and Marianne immediately became aware of his position in the castle. “William trusts you more than any other servant here, you must know why he allows Blaise to stay.”

Olma whimpered.

“Blaise is his son, that’s reason enough for most, milady.” He spoke uneasily, no sarcasm in his voice, only panic as he searched for a way to escape.

She tried to make light of the situation, certainly ‘twas only a poor subject because the silence of so many people made it so.

Hands on her hips, she demanded her answers. “Why is this such a secret? I have known since the first time I laid my eyes upon Blaise and Robert together that Robert sired him. Why will no one speak it aloud?”

Marianne looked at Olma for an answer when Adam did not, all traces of equality gone from him with her prying questions. Olma remained useless with her head down.

“Perhaps that is a question for your husband, milady.” Adam seemed to have produced the words without thinking. His brows shot up with the foolishness of his words the second he said them. He lifted his hands and waved them, as though waving her away from the idea. “Nay, milady, do not ask him, he would be displeased.”

“I am displeased.” Marianne thought back to the letter Blaise wrote her, the one denying her the chance to wed him after he had discovered her age, and through some source of information in which she was not aware, of her father’s gambling debts.

A shriveled old hag. He had called her a shriveled old hag who could never possibly give birth to anything but a shriveled old infant.

The spoiled swine. He wrote the letter and sent it off with no regard to her feelings. He was not so young himself, eighteen already and still not wed.

Marianne knew that she should have been wed years earlier, but three and twenty hardly left her old and shriveled.

And now it seemed that he might not even be the prize he valued himself to be. Marianne wanted to know why.

Adam could see the fire building in her eyes. “Please, milady, do not press the matter.”

Marianne watched him struggle with the idea of betraying the trust of his lord, or giving in to the demands of his lady.

Reluctantly, she took pity on him, offering him a smile just to ease his nerves. “Very well, I will not ask anymore questions of you.”

Adam deflated as he sighed. “Thank you, milady.”

“I am sorry to have caused you any worry, your loyalty to William deserves more respect than that.” She shooed him away. “Off you go, finish whatever it was you were doing and have no worry for me.”

He left quickly, and Marianne turned her attention to Olma, who still tried valiantly to not meet her eyes since being by Marianne’s side for so long she recognized when Marianne was playing tricks.

Marianne stood and observed her for a moment, stroking her chin. “I supposed you would not know anything more than gossip.”

Olma did not look at her, but the relieved smile on her face was evident when she shook her head. “Nay milady, and even then, I know not much gossip at all.

Marianne sighed. “I suppose I am to believe you, shy little thing that you are. If I am to receive any answers I will have to ask Robert for them.”

***

William walked leisurely beside Bryce, waiting patiently as the man contemplated William’s current dilemma along with the true nature of his marriage.

William could not contain it any longer, he needed advice and in order to get it he would have to trust that his friend would not betray him and pass around the information that his wife had kidnapped him so that they could wed.

After much chin scratching, thoughtful grunting and nodding, Bryce deemed himself ready to speak. “Fiery spirit, but I never would o’ guessed she would be capable of such a stunt. I’ve heard of such things happening before Henry’s time, but the kidnappings were always performed by the men seeking rich brides. When Nicholas arrives yer going to have to ask him how to deal with her.”

Despite the lack of a true answer, William smirked. “She was brave enough to attempt the kidnapping, but hardly capable of efficiency, the way she blundered it as she did. I can handle her well enough on my own without his advice, when he finally brings his lazy hide out of bed and gets here.”

They continued walking past the courtyard and paying no mind to the men and servants they passed. After some moments of silent contemplation, Bryce asked William delicately, “Do ye suspect she aided her father in the theft?”

William shook his head. “Nay, I cannot believe she is capable of deceit.”

“That is what ye said about Alice.”

William retorted quickly. “Alice’s burdens were brought on by my own foolishness.”

“Aye, but ye saw Bertha long after Alice found her comfort in Robert.”

William grit his teeth at the memory of his wife’s betrayal. “‘Tis true, but I will say it again, ‘twas not entirely her fault. Marianne is not as easily swayed as Alice.”

“Though she does have the temperament to stage a kidnapping, and according to you, nearly ran her horse into the forest after she heard some cruel words from Holton.”

“‘Tis not the same.” William shook his head, refusing to believe Bryce’s logic. He asked the man for his aid, but this was not what he had in mind. “Alice and Marianne are both of the emotional sort, but Marianne handles it better than Alice ever did.”

Bryce chuckled. “Violent little thing, is she?”

William pictured Marianne pounding against his back as he lifted her towards the bed, and listened in his mind to the sounds of her shrieks at the servants, several of whom he walked passed with Bryce. He smiled. Now, on sight of him, they moved quicker with their duties. Not one servant stood idly without a job.

Alice brought a sadder memory. An emotional woman taught never to show sadness, anger, or fear. She bottled her feelings away until they drove her into the bed of another, lesser man.

William cleared his head, bringing his thoughts back to Marianne, who did no such thing with her emotions and brought a happy jump to his chest. “Aye, she is a lively sort, but ‘tis not all that troubles me.”

William told Bryce of his visit to Ferdinand, and the purchase of the servant women, and of the insinuation he received when the man spoke of Marianne. He added his suspicions over the way the older man gazed at his wife when they danced at the marriage celebration.

Bryce appeared thoughtful when the story was complete. “You believe he will have Marianne disappear as he did with Bertha?”

“Aye.”

“It explains why you show a sudden interest in yer skills with a sword after all these years, and why I have had to call my name to have the gate opened even though the men know me by sight.” Bryce grinned. “Having the lady force your hand has not been such a bad thing it seems. All I see here are improvements to your fortress, and I’ve not seen you so pleased or demanding of your men in ages.”

William grinned. He had to agree, he enjoyed the noticeable improvements to his life brought on by Marianne’s presence. And he himself no longer passed his days wasting away. Now there was light in his heart instead of shadows, something he’d not experienced since Alice passed.

“Which only creates an anxious feeling in my gut should my fears of Ferdinand be justified.” William said.

Bryce rubbed his face. “‘Tis a conversation for Hugh, who could tell you the strategies Ferdinand could be planning. There is still nothing to have us believe yer wife is in any danger. Ye worry with hunches.”

“I worry with instinct, and we did not think Bertha was in any danger either.” William retorted.

Bryce raised a finger. “Bertha was a prostitute. Women of the fleshy pleasures go missing all the time.”

“Aye, but she was also a favorite of Ferdinand’s, and he dangled the knowledge of my … indiscretions with Bertha in front of me until the day Alice died. Nicholas assured me himself that Bertha never advertised her clientele when he sent me to her. How else could Ferdinand have come by that information?”

They came to the stone wall surrounding the keep and stopped. William leaned his back against the wall for support. He could not be more certain that Ferdinand wished his wife harm, and he refused to allow her to simply disappear like Bertha had.

Not wishing to argue further, Bryce asked, “Do ye believe Holton’s theft has something to do with Ferdinand?”

“I will need to find out soon.”