Lady Thief
Author:Rizzo Rosko

Chapter Two





“I beg your pardon?” He dropped her hand as though it burned him, his head jerked back and the astonished look on his face was laughable, but Marianne refused to laugh. Marriage was a serious matter.

“You shall ask for my hand.”

Gray attempted to rise to his feet, but Archer pushed him back to his knees, and this time Marianne could not help the small grin on her lips. It had been so long since she had reason to grin and now she could not stop herself.

Her blood hummed in her veins to the tune of her beating heart, proof that she was indeed alive.

Her father would certainly disown her, but she hardly cared. ‘Twas either this or he would force her to marry Sir Ferdinand, a man with one foot already in the grave. Three and sixty, ha! What her father had been thinking when he arranged that as a back up match when Gray, rather cruelly, refused her, she hadn’t known.

Sir Ferdinand had the face of a sagging dog with the manners to match, and an eager glint to his eyes she couldn’t quite place whenever she was in the same room as he.

Of course, Gray’s six and thirty was not so much younger. When she’d asked of him, her father merely said that Gray was a younger man. Perhaps he’d meant younger in comparison to himself or Sir Ferdinand—her next intended. In fact, Gray still looked relatively young with only a few grey hairs above his ears to give the sandy head some distinguished color. Tiny bird’s feet under pale blue, untrusting eyes hinted that he had not smiled in some time.

He was not unappealing, rather handsome actually. His shoulders were still broad, his chin strong, and she could see, even as he kneeled before her, that if he stood he would not be so tall that she would have to crane her neck to look up at him.

Perhaps she had judged him on his age too severely. Aye, he was not too old to marry, she decided.

She herself had not much room for complaint when it came to age. She was three and twenty. Well beyond her youth, and according to Gray’s letter, too old for marriage. The cocky swine.

She would prove him wrong now. She had to prove him wrong because if she did not marry him, she would be sent to that horrible old man as a wife. The thought of sharing a bed with him made her shiver.

“My lady,” Gray’s voice, like wonderfully warm silk sliding over naked flesh, gave her another shiver as she was brought back to the situation at hand. Yet his eyes were flashing. He bared his teeth to her like a wild animal, fists clenching at his sides. Marianne’s beating heart faltered. “Had it not occurred to you that should you become my wife I might seek compensation for such treatment?”

She raised her chin again, refusing to think of what the implication of his words meant. She was perfectly capable of dealing with his wrath when this was over with, and she could—would do so without complaint. She would make amends for his treatment here only after they were properly wed. “You will be rewarded with a suitable dowry, as well as a woman of age to bear you children and handle the affairs of your home. Something I should think would suit you well.”

Gray’s eyes turned away from her, his brows drawing together.

Marianne leaned in. “My lord—”

His voice was strong and commanding. “I am thinking.”

Marianne held her breath in disbelief with those words. He was considering it! Could she really be so fortunate as to walk out of this church a bride sooner than expected?

Even her men were looking at each other with large eyes before their faces melted into grins. No one expected him to consider their offer within the hour of Marianne’s proposal.

When he faced her again, Marianne was taken in by the shade of his blue eyes. Blue like the sky, and the darkness in the middle a flying bird that was not free to roam where it pleased, trapped in one confined space and miserable with captivity.

Unsure of what to make of it, Marianne put it out of her head. She was certain she could get used to him quite easily so long as he left her alone when not requiring his husbandly duties. Perhaps he would not stay angered over this affair for long and they could build a friendship.

Marianne knew it was wishful thinking, but if a marriage based on friendship was the highest she could aspire for then she would snatch it. Most marriages in her class were based on less.

***

William considered her offer with serious scrutiny. With her he could have a wife again, the chance for children and plenty of entertaining nights if she were this feisty all the time.

He stared at her. Not a beauty worthy of poetry, but she was a far cry from hideous.

Her age was better suited for his son, who was eighteen, but he assumed his title would make up for his longer years.

Was she a widow? Could that be why she currently held no husband? Or perhaps her dowry was smaller than she would like him to believe. Either way, he would play her little game for now. He relished the image of having her in his castle and his bed to ease his boredom.

He only wished he could place her in his memory, but if he had ever met her, she had not made an impression then as she was doing now.

“What should happen if I were to refuse to have you for my wife? Surely you have thought of that.”

The hand on his shoulder squeezed, enough to make him flinch. William caught a flash of light beyond the corner of his eye. Before he could recover, the blade of a dagger pressed against his neck.

She came to take all or naught then.

Finally, the man in the worn brown cloak coughed, and both their attentions turned to him. He struggled to hold a large book in his hands.

William made his decision, one he suspected he would live to regret. “Very well, but on one condition,”

“What would that be?” She asked.

He hardened his eyes against her. “I hope for your sake that you have not offered these men any gold that would be received from a marriage between us, because when you are my wife, you shall only hold power that I give to you.”

She clenched her fists and bared her teeth to him as he had done to her.

William could see it on her face how she dearly wished to tell him what she thought of his plan. But when she looked above him to the men who held him, he also saw when she changed her mind.

Curiosity piqued, William wished he knew what these men hid that had their own lady working in their favor.

She raised her chin, commanding the authority back unto her. “I have a condition as well.”

He cocked his head with barely concealed mockery. “Do you? Well, my lady, you have certainly not asked for much as of yet. Pray, what condition do you have?”

She ignored his sarcasm. “When we are wed, you are to forget that these men were ever here. None are to be harmed for what has taken place today.” She raised her arm and pointed her hand to where they were scattered about the church so that there would be no mistaking her.

He shrugged, but before he could respond he felt the blade at his throat shake.

The man behind him was frightened. No doubt the other men were equally in fear of their lives. As they should be.

The only way to prevent the cold metal of that blade from taking a fatal bite out of him was to remain calm and in control. He needed to believe that he did not mind the situation he was in if it were to ring true in his voice.

“I can hardly put a man of God to death for performing the sacred union between a man and a woman, but what of the others? They admitted to being here of their free will. For God’s sake, if you lift your chin any higher you will be staring at Him in the heavens.”

The men behind him laughed.

William smirked. Better to have them at ease and laughing than contemplating their own deaths, and therefore, murdering him to avoid that fate.

Marianne glared at all of them and lowered her nose, though that did not hide the flush that flooded her skin and flowed up her neck.

Her next words silenced the laughter. “They are family men,”

William sputtered. “Family men?”

He turned to look at them. They were no longer laughing or grinning as they had been before when they brought him here, but staring at him with concern for themselves. Concern for their lives.

He no longer saw them as foolish thieves, but as desperate tricksters who stunk thickly of something other than pigs and dirt. They reeked of fear.

William became very aware that the blade held at his throat stung his flesh as it shook.

He was being cut. The man behind him was in such a fear for himself that William was having his throat slowly cut.

William dared not move. Dared not to speak or even acknowledge the drop of blood that trickled down his neck. So much as startling the man could be the end of him.

“Archer,” Marianne said, her eyes traveling down to the blade. The sting of metal disappeared from his throat.

William would not allow himself to show his relief.

He stared into her eyes and she chewed her bottom lip. Even on his knees he made her uneasy. William enjoyed that he had some control over the situation.

He cleared his throat. His decision was made. “Very well, in this worn house of God I swear on my honor to forget the faces of each of these men, and should I not forget them, I will pretend to have no knowledge of them.” He held his hand out to her, waiting for her to take the risk this time. “Does that promise suit you?”

***

Marianne waited for a few seconds just to not seem so eager, and when she finally took his hand there was a collective sigh in the church. Gray smirked and rolled his eyes, as though he had seen them behaving quite differently at one time.

Friar Mitchell shifted his aging feet. “Are ye prepared?”

Marianne gasped when Gray rose to his feet without waiting for Archer’s permission or for him to remove the blade that was so close to his skin. Was the man insane or simply without fear?

Marianne looked up at him and forgot about fear entirely. She had been right. He was not so wretchedly tall that she had to put her head entirely back in order to see his face. He stood pleasantly above her, the top of her head only reaching his nose, another small thing that worked in his favor.

“I am ready. How convenient for you to plan my abduction on a Sunday morning after mass so we will have no need to make our confession.”

Marianne’s face heated again, but she refused to tell him that she hadn’t considered such a thing until he mentioned it just now. She had chosen today because he carried the fewest servants with him on his Sunday morning ride, making the abduction that much easier.

Perhaps she should have put more planning into this.

He took both of her hands into his and looked at Friar Mitchell. “Will she not need a wedding ring?”

“A wedding band can be acquired at a later time should you wish to obtain it, my lord.” The friar’s demeanor and voice held every respect entitled to a lord.

Marianne held her breath when her soon-to-be-husband turned his eyes back to her with one brow raised in thought.

“Nay, I do not think she shall need one.”

Her breath came out in a gasp at the insult but she refused to allow herself to be hurt.

She came here expecting insults and temper, she would not spare any hurt feelings just because her expectations had been met. Though to exact a bit of revenge she dug her nails into his skin and relished his wince. “Rings tend to make my fingers itch anyway, my lord,” she said, her nose in the air again.

A frown touched his brow. “I see, and, before we wed, will you not tell your husband—to—be why you have chosen him?”

Marianne tensed and dug her fingernails deeper into his hand. His eye twitched but he did naught else.

“You know precisely why it has come to this, my lord.

She watched the irritation flicker across his face and was pleased. The twitch of confusion that came with it prompted her to dig her nails deeper into him.

He knew exactly why they were in this position.

With steel-like control, he closed his free hand over hers and pried her claws from his flesh.

The service began.

Marianne lost all thoughts of anger and felt overwhelmed with giddy excitement and happiness.

She did it! She avoided her marriage to Sir Ferdinand and was about to become Lady Gray, the future Countess of Graystone.

Her father would finally see that he was wrong to try and force her into a marriage with a man she did not choose herself. A man who caused prickles of unease to present themselves along her flesh whenever he smiled at her in that crooked, promising way.

She was so excited about the intelligence of planning the abduction, the courage required to carry it out and actually succeeding that she barely noted a slight err in Friar Mitchell’s service.

“Wait.” She said, as it was now her turn to speak her affirmative of the marriage. All eyes turned to her as she halted the proceedings.

Gray threw his head back and closed his eyes. “Now what?”

She ignored him. “Friar, did you say, Lord William Gray?”

“I did.”

Everything inside of her froze. “Not … Blaise Gray?”

Her original intended and the man who sent her such insulting letters. If this meant what she thought it meant then it could only be that the man standing next to her was—

“You think I am my son?”

Her hands flew to her mouth. Lord Gray. Lord William Gray, was now staring at her with something akin to a predator’s gleam in his eyes.

“Oh, good Lord.” She turned and attempted to flee but Lord Gray’s hands shot out, snatching her arms and pulling her back with a painful grip that made her cringe.

The look on his face was hardly pleased.

“Forgive me, my lord. I knew not who you truly were.”

There was no forgiveness in his eyes. “So your plan was to force this onto Blaise, was it not? My son?” He gave her a little shake. “I remember now. He was to marry, but he did not approve of the match.”

“My lord,” her men would not dare attempt to help her, not now when they too knew that he was the true earl and not merely the future one. Everyone in the church was at his mercy. “Please.”

“No.” The word was sharp and cruel on his tongue. “You wanted revenge, and regardless of Blaise, I am still ultimately responsible as I agreed to let him call off your marriage to him. So let us be wed instead if that is your wish.” He yanked her back to his side.

“Continue with the ceremony.” He barked.

Marianne sent a pleading look to Friar Mitchell. His returning look was apologetic. “Will ye take the honorable Lord William Gray of Graystone as yer husband?”

She could not answer. She could not.

“My lady,” the tone was a warning as his grip on her arm increased, his blunt fingertips pressing and digging into her through her sleeve.

Marianne winced. The press of his fingers diminished, but barely.

“I will not leave here empty handed after ye have humiliated me thus. Say yes.”

She thought of the men behind her and the situation she put them in. They had handled a lord so disrespectfully on her orders, and no doubt they would suffer all the worse for it if she did not speak. Marianne forced the word out of her. It would come no other way. “Yes.”

Everything else became a blur of blessings, and her hand being pressed down to sign a document that binded them in every possible way. She could hardly move. Hardly think.

It would have continued on if not for the strong hand that tangled itself in her hair, pulling her forward until her lips clashed against the mouth of her new husband.

Marianne’s fists pounded his shoulders and her feet scrambled for escape, but his arm around her body and tangled in her hair prevented any movement.

She sucked air into her lungs until they felt ready to explode. Her eyes wide open as she stared into his blue orbs while he caressed her tongue with his own. Her eyes grew wider when the hand that held her waist in place slid down and clenched her bottom.

Helplessly, her cheeks heated, and she suddenly knew what he desired from her. The same thing Ferdinand had wanted. What she no longer wished to give.

When he released her Marianne could not stand in the spinning room, and she blindly reached her hands out to the priest to keep from falling to her knees. He caught her and dutifully allowed her to lean against him to catch her escaping breath.

“Congratulations, my lord.” Friar Mitchell said carefully. “May you be blessed with many more children and long life.”

Children. Marianne would be expected to give him children. She would be sick. Everything felt hot.

She ran from the altar, passed Archer and her men and burst through the doors of the church. The sharp chill in the air only made her situation more real, more crisp, and she knew she had to escape it.

She could vaguely hear Archer calling after her but she refused to stop. She ran for the horses, mounted, and kicked off.

Miserable tears stung her eyes but were dried by the whipping wind, and her race to safety was filled with self belittlement.

How could she be so stupid? Archer and his men kidnapped the wrong man. She’d married the wrong man!