Lady Thief
Author:Rizzo Rosko

Chapter Three





William peered out of the arrow loop in his tallest tower. A caravan resembling a stream of ants approached his castle on a brown ribbon of road.

One of those ants was his new bride. From his position she would not see him watching as she came closer. He didn’t want her knowing, yet, of his eagerness to have her.

At last. The thought brought a vicious smile to his lips and made his hand clench into a fist. Now that she had come she would know the humiliation he suffered at her hands.

His footman knocked and entered the bare, drafty room. This tower room was only useful when enemies approached and he needed to survey every available space around his castle and lands. But the last attack had been when he was barely able to ride his first horse, and now he used it to think quietly, and watch for his wife.

Adam, a young man with hair and eyes matching the mud on the road outside was one of the few still loyally willing to jump and run at William’s commands. “Milord, they are arriving.”

William kept his eyes on the road, his hand scratching his neck where the scratch from the blade recently healed. “Aye, I see them.”

“Shall I prepare the servants to greet her?”

William half turned his head to tell him not to, but thought better of it. Her father would be escorting her, and he would not want to give reason to insult the man, even though he had raised an impudent daughter.

“Yes, do that. I will be down shortly, and Adam?”

Adam turned when he called.

William’s eyes were sharp. “Be sure that my son is not among the greeters.”

Adam cast him a curious glance before he scurried back down the spiral stone stairway to do as he was bid.

William turned back to the scenery of grey skies, wet landscape and fresh winds, a sharp change from the cheerful weather outside the withering church on his wedding day.

His palms were flat on the damp stone window as he leaned forward to watch the ants turn into small men, horses, and pack mules.

For a split second in that church he felt a swell of respect for the woman. The moment he discovered she had erred, did not even know his true identity before marrying him, it disappeared like the sun in those miserable grey clouds outside.

She throttled his head with the club of stupidity.

He should have known better, really. Perhaps boredom could be blamed for his own faulty judgment that day.

William’s fingers twitched. He wanted to go down there and teach his new wife a few lessons about her brash personality, something he craved since their wedding a fortnight ago.

That thought in mind, William descended the stairs to greet his bride.

***

‘Twas finally happening. Now was the time to reap what she had sewn and face her victim. Face her punishment.

Her husband.

The entire ride Marianne twitched, itched, and waited for the journey to end so she could put herself at ease.

Her father was no comfort to her apprehension as he remained silent the whole way. Hardly sparing her a glance but to tell her with his eyes what a disappointment he thought of her.

Marianne clutched her father’s hand as he helped her descend from her mare, and when her feet were safely on the squishing ground, she did not let him go.

Regardless of her bundled nerves, her eyes were not on him, they were on the line of servants at the front doors waiting to greet her.

Maids with their hands clasped together in front of their worn gowns and men with their hands behind their backs, all with their heads respectively bent, and none with the air of delight at her arrival.

They were just recently brought from whatever task they had been doing. She could tell because some of the boys had dirt smudges on their faces and bits of straw poking out of their clothes.

Occasionally they snuck their heads up, enough so they might inspect their new mistress.

Marianne could not see him anywhere. Though which him would displease her more, Blaise or William Gray—her husband—Marianne was not sure.

She lifted her head to stare at the tall, gray stone towers, matching the sky so well that for a moment she thought they stretched into each other and became one. Would her new husband lock her into one of those stone towers? She shivered.

Her home had never been a truly merry place since the death of her final living brother, but ‘twas familiar and held memories dear to her. This place, this castle that towered above her like a prison, was hardly calling for Marianne to enter its doors with a smile.

She turned her eyes back to the servants and saw them moving apart to give Lord Gray space to descend the steps.

He was the same man she had met and married in that church, she knew, but his eyes were different, holding the triumphant air of a man who had just been given what he wanted most, but dark with anticipation for when he could play with it, or break it.

Marianne quickly lowered her face before he could lock eyes with her, and her cheeks heated. Her shame too great to challenge him just now.

Her eyes pointing down, Marianne saw there was something amiss about his step, a happy spring that had not been in his eyes.

The heat in Marianne’s face left her and she was instantly alert. Something was not right. Happiness did not exist in him at this moment.

He had something planned.

Her husband called out, but not to her. “Sir Guy Holton,”

Her father opened his arms to him. “Lord William Gray.”

Marianne watched with her mouth dropped as the two men bowed to each other quite formally before embracing like brothers, and much back slapping ensued.

Marianne tried to mask her disgust with her father’s behavior. ‘Twas difficult, however, so instead she pretended that if she refused look at them, they would not see her. Her attempt was unsuccessful.

Her father put an arm about her shoulders and forcefully pushed her forth, even as she resisted by digging her heals into the rocks. “But of course you already know my lovely daughter.”

The warm, confident grin with which Lord Gray greeted her unsettled her deeply. She had to avert her eyes and giving him a proper curtsy, one much more deep and polite than the rude thing she’d performed back at the church. Back when she thought he was Blaise.

The humiliation was nearly unbearable.

Then it occurred to her. After weeks of brooding over her foolish choices and the day when she would come here she had not once thought of Blaise, and the color drained from her cheeks.

Blaise would be here. She would have to greet him and behave as a lady towards the one responsible for her current state.

She wanted to blame him for everything, all her misfortunes since she first heard his name and even the ones before then, even though the fault was entirely hers.

Because of her, she was married to a lord and put everyone she involved in her plot in danger. She did not even know what Blaise looked like so she could not make a point of ignoring him. What if Lord Gray had regular guests to his castle? She could not snub everyone in proper dress just because there would be a possibility that it was Blaise.

Turning her head ever so slightly, she caught sight of Archer, struggling to help the other servants remove the luggage and other things she was to keep at Graystone. She wondered if his wife had time to put any salve on his back, and her face softened apologetically. He was too occupied with his task of lifting heavy trunks to pay her any mind.

The look did not go unnoticed by Gray, whose eyes shot towards Archer and noticed him for the first time. Another dark eagerness flashed in their blue depths.

Marianne froze, her heart picking up speed as she waited for him to speak, but Gray did not draw attention to Archer.

Marianne stood tall but struggled to breathe as she wondered whether or not he would keep his promise.

Her father spoke. “My lord?”

Just as quickly, William’s attention was focused solely on her. They had both forgotten his question.

“How could I ever forget such a vision?” His arm flew out, captured her hand before she could pull away, and drew it to his lips.

Marianne’s face became hot at the lie that fell so easily from the lips that gingerly kissed her hand. He spoke softly and his manner was gentle, but his eyes bore hard into hers. She saw the angry soul hidden within. It consumed her like a hissing fire she could not escape, suffocating and destroying her hope.

Finally Marianne jerked her hand away and stepped back, only to realize the servants were still watching.

Lord Gray acted as if naught was amiss and continued to smile at her, though despite the glow it emitted she could never believe it to be genuine with his inflamed eyes.

He rested his palm on the small of her back and drew her forward, she did not put her heels into the ground this time, and Marianne realized that she still had to go through the horrors of being introduced to the servants.

She nodded and smiled to them and they bobbed and bowed in return. Their smiles were as nervous as hers, and just as false as her husband’s. Marianne knew why. A new mistress could change the way the entire household was run. They thought she could make their lives miserable, but Marianne knew she would never be able to utter a word to them.

William would never allow it after what she had done.

William hesitated, one side of his lip upturned. He was enjoying her torment. After a long moment he clapped his hands and called for attention. “Return to your work, we have much to do before tomorrow night! More guests will be arriving any minute now!”

“Yes, yes! The party!” Sir Holton said with much enthusiasm. “We must celebrate the wedding of the earl and his new countess!”

Despite the commanding tone in William’s voice and Holton’s excitement, Marianne took curious note of how the servants hesitated, looked at each other, and slowly made their way back to their respective chores.

Marianne opened her mouth to question the behavior, but thought better of it. Her precarious situation stilled her tongue.

Her father grinned gleefully with the circumstances now, but before he had been livid with her, roam-around-the-room, screaming-furious. At least the only good to come from forcing marriage onto the wrong man was that she had married someone above her station who had already inherited his title. That alone had been enough to prevent Holton from throwing her from his manor.

It was a double-edged sword, however. On the one hand she brought a title to her name, but on the other she might possibly have brought the wrath of an earl on her house.

Guy Holton had been convinced William Gray would demand blood for her foolishness. Only time would tell what kind of price he expected to be paid for her actions.

William separated himself from her and addressed her father loudly enough so that she might hear as well, though the air of brotherly acquaintance was gone from his voice. “Sir Holton, before I have you settled into your room, would it be possible to speak a word with you and your daughter, alone?”

A bead of sweat rolled down Marianne’s forehead, and the accompanying swallow felt as painful as a fist-sized rock traveling down the inside of her neck.

Her father seemed to be swallowing rocks of similar size as he adjusted his cuffs and grinned with beads of his own sweat accumulating on his face.

“Of course, milord.”

It seemed they would be discovering the price of her stupidity sooner rather than later.

***

Marianne and Sir Holton were made to stand while William sat behind his writing table. The room was made warm, nearly welcoming with rushes under their feet and a fireplace with a roaring fire on their right.

The castle may have looked chilly from the outside but on the inside the decorative tapestries that hung over the stone walls, in the solar especially, made it seem more like a home than a fortress. Marianne had never seen anything like it, and she fought the lump in her throat with the thought that she would have to get used to it quickly. This was her home now.

Archer stood off in the corner with his hands clasped in front of him and his head bent while her father spoke on his behalf.

“Fiendish and absolutely corrupt he is, and I am sincerely apologetic that he is from my own home and humiliated that I had not noticed the horrendous nature of his character, though I give you my word, my honorable word, that he has been severely punished.”

Archer shifted uncomfortably, and Holton continued with his hands clasped together and his face pleading for any understanding that William’s predicament was no fault of his. “I have taken into account that you may wish to have him punished further, which was why I was so merciful when I handled his discipline, personally I might add, I would not have trusted such a thing with anyone else. As he is now your property you may wish to handle him as you see fit.”

Marianne tensed when the offer was put on the table and spun her head to Archer, who lifted his head and let his mouth fall open.

“Father, you cannot sell him!”

“Be silent you stupid girl,” Holton raised the back of his hand to her.

“There will be none of that,” William interjected, raising his own hand for peace and lowering it when it was attained, a gentle smile lifting his lips. “Remember that tonight I have been reunited with my bride. I am pleased and expect all others to be as well.”

His eyes met hers and Marianne was so caught by the sincerity of his words that for a moment she believed he was telling the truth.

Then his eyes grew cold and they turned back to her father. “Now, about our arrangement,”

“My lord, I brought what I could,” Sir Holton waved his hand towards the sacs of coins, gold frames wrapped in cloth, rings and every exotic spice that was available to him, which sat in a useless heap on the floor.

The Holton manor had been stripped nearly bare of all things fine to pay for Marianne’s dowry. The green gown she wore was the last of her finery, with only her plainest of clothing packed into her luggage, and this was only because her father did not want them to present himself as a pauper to William.

Still, they both knew it would hardly be enough.

Holton pointed his hand in Archer’s direction, but did not look at him, though he sneered dramatically when he spoke of him. “I would offer you this servant, not sell, as compensation for the trouble you have had to endure at his wretched, deceiving hands. His father made the finest arrows so he has some skill in that trade, but his specialty lies with the horses. He can sleep with them as well if you like. Or you may dispose of him.”

Marianne shrieked. “Father!”

He did not flinch at the high pitch produced so closely to his ear, nor did he look at her. Marianne was left with the helpless notion that no matter how much she yelled or begged, Archer’s fate was entirely out of her hands.

William turned to Archer, and Marianne’s heart fell into her stomach while he considered it.

She silently prayed, though for what she was unaware. Should Lord Gray turn Archer away he would have no home to go to as he was obviously no longer welcome to work at Holton House.

And if he stayed here, what then? How would he be treated? Lord Gray had sworn on his honor in a church that he would pretend those men had never existed should he see them again, but it was quite difficult to pretend in this situation, if he ever had any intention of keeping his word, that is.

Lord Gray tapped his chin thoughtfully. “Despite my suspicious nature, which you will find forgivable as you wish to give me a servant who has participated in my abduction, and whom you have called a treacherous villain, I shall accept him. He sounds as if he can be of use. I will not ‘dispose’ of him, however.”

Marianne shrieked inside her head for joy and anguish, and Archer continued to open and close his mouth, as if the words he wanted had been sucked from his body. Eventually he resigned himself to the rueful fact that he could not speak against his betters and lowered his head.

Holton grew two inches taller. “Understandable, milord, very understandable. You are very generous in your kindness. Now, just between the two of us, my lord,” Marianne’s father freely walked around the table and approached Gray with the air of an old friend, and without permission as well.

Marianne was not sure of their manner towards each other, especially when Lord Gray was so friendly earlier. Whatever friendliness was there had evidently been a show put on for the servants, because now he seemed appalled that Marianne’s father could do such a thing as kneel down and put his fatherly arm around William’s noble shoulder.

Holton hardly seemed to notice. “I know that Archer somehow tricked my daughter into this scheme, villain that he is. He confessed as much. There must have been more people involved, but no one in my household will speak of such things despite my best efforts.”

Marianne wondered if her father’s best efforts were still stinging poor Archer’s raw back.

“Tell me, my lord, how many men accosted you in the church? Tell me what they looked like and I swear on my honor I shall help you track down every last one of those cowardly worms. Should they be a part of my household they shall be tossed out and left to starve.” He paused, as though remembering that the decision would not be his. “Or, you may dispense of them yourself.”

William looked at Marianne with a raised brow when her father finished with his speech.

She held her breath and returned his steady gaze, her fists shaking at her sides as she addressed her father. “I told you there was no one else.”

Red faced, her father ran back around the table to screech in her ear. “Nonsense! Who performed the marriage then?”

William stood and commanded all of the authority into his voice as he glared down ice at Holton. Lord Gray was a head taller than his shorter, thicker guest, and easily intimidated him with these alone. “Sir Holton, you are correct that someone had to be present to perform the ceremony. Since that man would obviously have to be a man of the cloth, I will withhold his name and assure you that there were no others. You can rest easy knowing that your house has not been corrupted by anymore felons.

Her father’s face returned to a normal color and Marianne’s face grew hot as she fought not to faint. She could hardly believe her ears.

He was going to keep his promise! If she was not so put out with him for being the wrong man she would have thrown her arms about his neck.

Sir Holton muttered to himself grudgingly, knowing very well that it was beyond him to argue. “Very good, my lord, but are you quite sure you would not wish to share the identity of the priest?”

William glared and Holton flushed, stumbling to the other side of the table. “Very well, you are a good man to protect him, even if he is a man of the cloth.”

“Indeed.” William then turned to Archer who still had his head down, staring at the floor as though he still couldn’t quite believe what had occurred. “You. I am sure the others will tell you which way to the stables, go there and ask for Robert. He will give you work and show you a place where you may sleep.”

Archer opened his mouth, and then looked at Sir Holton, who did not look back at him. “Aye, milord,” and he bowed and ducked out of the room.

Marianne’s heart went out to him. She guiltily lifted her eyes to look at Lord Gray, wishing he would bestow some pity on her and let her leave with Archer so that she would not have to endure anymore of this torture.

He did no such thing, and his eyes remained cold on her.

A knock on the door sounded and a servant walked in without waiting for an invitation.

His audacity startled Marianne when the man stopped cold in his tracks at the sight of both Marianne and her father.

Sir Holton snapped at him. “The nerve of you! Coming in here and interrupting us?”

“Milord, I am deeply sorry, I—-” the servant cleared his throat and spoke as if he had not heard her father. “Your guests are arriving outside, milord.”

Marianne felt sick. Guests meant that she would have to stay in William’s company longer. Much longer if this were to be the proper celebration of a true earl.

She did not know if she could face the guests and play the blushing bride to satisfy the crowd.

William turned his back on Sir Holton and Marianne to look out the windows, and by his expression Marianne knew that he could see the guests coming up the same road she had traveled earlier.

“I see. Adam, have their rooms prepared and bring them some warm wine. The days are becoming chilled.”

The servant bowed and scurried out the door.

William walked around his writing table and Marianne once again found his eyes on her as he approached. He stood close, she could feel the heat from his body as he raised his hand to caress her cheek. An uncertain chill ran down her spine that had naught to do with the weather.

His eyes remained cold. “I should like to introduce my guests to my beautiful wife.”

***

Marianne’s face burned from her cheeks all the way to the back of her head from all the false smiling. Greeting and curtsying to Lady Anne, Lord Gray’s kin, a woman with the same color hair and eyes as her cousin and nearly the same height, had been the most horrible experience of her life, because now Marianne felt like a liar to William’s kin.

Though Anne’s face was plain the mischievous smile she donned when a morsel of gossip presented itself hinted at a fun disposition.

Marianne would have certainly enjoyed Anne’s company had her situation not been so wretched.

Anne’s husband, the Earl of Seacliffe, had darker hair and stood barely taller than his wife, though their similar smiles of acceptance towards Marianne made her feel only more guilty, and that was before the hugging and greeting of several other well-bred ladies, their husbands, and other distant relatives and friends of William’s.

All she heard was praise in her ear.

“How lucky you are to have snatched him.”

“Such a beauty ye are, ‘tis no wonder he fell for ye.”

“What a lovely gown ye wear. I imagine Lord Gray must spoil ye quite a bit already.”

Marianne’s eye twitched under her crumbling patience, but she endured it and no one seemed to believe her sputtering language was anything other than a weak, womanly shyness brought on by so many people.

She looked through the crowds, wishing the fog of laughing and dancing people would all decide that the room was too hot for their tastes and scatter, hopefully home to their own beds. But they stayed and remained oblivious of the helplessness of their hostess.

Marianne saw William studying her from a group of men with an entertained smirk on his face.

She fought to keep from scowling at him in front of so many noble people. Instead, she brightened her smile, poured every happy memory into her head and let him have it.

The shocked expression on his face made it worth the effort, but her cheeks and skull felt as though they were on fire.

Her face relaxed when she felt a prickle behind her neck. She turned and Sir Ferdinand appeared through the haze of people. Fear jolted inside of her and consumed her body like wildfire. Her eyes met his through the haze of dancing people as he stood off the wall and openly stared. His crooked nose scrunched and drooping eyes sent her hideous messages of his displeasure.

Marianne shivered, then froze, forgetting the conversation Lady Anne was trying to have with her when Ferdinand approached and formally bowed.

She stood straight and stiff and allowed him to clasp her hand with his gnarled fingers and bestow it with a kiss. Even through the fabric of her gloves, she felt his wet lips and suppressed another shiver of disgust.

“Congratulations to you, my lady.” His voice was deceptively sincere. Marianne tried to pull her hand back, calmly so Lady Anne and none of the watching guests would see, but he held firm, his other hand caressing the glove he had just kissed.

Though she was slightly taller, perspiration formed on her forehead with her sudden stress and quickening of her heart.

This man frightened her beyond anything she ever experienced, and sent chills under her skin.

Like the first time when she had been introduced to him, the faint scent of urine wafted from his clothes and circled her, tightening around her body through her clothes, trapping her to him.

He was bald on the top of his head, but on either side of his skull grey hair stuck out in all different directions. Unlike his hair, his eyes were focused solely on her.

“‘Tis a shame I missed my opportunity to have you. I should have acted more swiftly.”

Anne pretended to sneeze so that she might clasp her nose against the smell. The small action gave Marianne enough courage to smile, because in this castle, Ferdinand could not frighten her with his perverse innuendos.

“‘Tis fortunate for both of us that I am swifter.” She said, and Ferdinand’s grasp on her hand tightened with a strength that should have been impossible for his age.

***

Her hair was as red as he remembered and she smelled of the fresh air he had eagerly inhaled in the damp church. With her face so flushed from the humiliation she no doubt felt, pleasant color invaded her cheeks, leaving a beautiful maiden for his pleasure. More beautiful than he remembered.

When well-wishers approached, her face lost its blushing color and twisted in an awkward smile.

Her face soon dropped, as though stunned and fearful of whom she was seeing, but a group of giggling women blocked the view of whoever was the cause of her stress, and William tilted his head, willing them to move on.

They did, and William gasped quietly when he saw that the source of her discomfort was the man he most despised. His fists clenched and body trembled.

He should have warned his men at the gate not to allow Ferdinand entrance, but it had been years since he thought of the man’s wretched existence. Yet it seemed Ferdinand had not forgotten him at all.

William politely separated himself from his group and inched closer to listen to Marianne’s conversation, and he cocked his head when he heard Ferdinand’s statement of opportunity, and he wondered at the meaning behind it.

He watched Marianne shift, and the subtle pull of her arm as she tried to back away from the man was very telling indeed. He felt a sympathetic tugging in his chest that he had not experienced in some years. It made him angry to see her beautiful hand in the cruel grip of that hideous man.

Perhaps Ferdinand was somehow the reason Marianne felt compelled to kidnap a husband. Her continued efforts to pull away from him and disappear into the crowds suggested as much, and such an action seemed almost understandable if that man was her original intended.

His reputation was known to make even the most experienced of women shudder.

But no matter, her reasons made no difference. He still planned on enjoying her torture for a few more minutes before he rescued her.

Ferdinand would never dare attempt anything other than whisper a few lecherous comments in her ear while around so many people. William relaxed with the knowledge that she was perfectly safe.

Unfortunately, Ferdinand saw him before he could make his gallant entry. His milky eyes lit up with pleasure before he slowly approached him at a pace understandable for his age, though William knew he could move faster, and without the need to put his hand on his lower back while still clinging to Marianne’s hand and forcing her with him with the other.

“I must say that I am quite insulted that I was never invited to the wedding. It must have been a small event to sneak by so many people.” Ferdinand smirked.

Anne’s husband John, chose that moment to make himself known. “Aye, quite,” His arms were crossed, his eyes under scruffy eyebrows changed from their sparkling bright color to dark, though he did fail to conceal a quirk of the lips.

William looked behind him and noted that several other guests were having similar troubles at keeping their expressions under control, though they put more force into their disapproval than John did.

William had thought of the insult his family and friends would suffer from not receiving an invitation to his wedding while spending all the time alone in his solar. It had not occurred to him while the actual wedding was taking place, but there was naught he could do about that except hope they were pleased with the feast and music he prepared to forget it.

Marianne yanked her hand from Ferdinand’s. William, recognizing her heated glare, stepped in. He was not sure of her ability to calm a pack of wolves but did not want to risk that she said something unpleasant.

With a tenderness that surprised him, he slid his arm around her and pulled her possessively close. She did not fight him.

“‘Twas a hasty decision, aye, and one that my bride and I have both regretted since our first kiss as man and wife.” He brought her hand to his lips to emphasize his point, pleased with her flushed cheeks.

That color had naught to do with any feelings she might hold for him, but her humiliation worked in his favor regardless. “However, since Marianne was unable to wait on a set date and for invitations to be sent and answered, she talked me into having our wedding in a small chapel sooner than expected. I hope you all accept my apology and be merry with food and drink on this wonderful occasion.”

Nearly everyone’s face softened. Anne embraced William. “I forgive you, cousin. I am glad you found another wife and will bear ye no grudge.” She embraced Marianne with the same vigor. “You and I shall be the best of friends. We shall have to be if we’re to survive being wed to these men.”

William had trouble containing his laughter, as did the rest of the men in the room it appeared, including John, who enjoyed his wife’s humor only when it was crude.

William was warmed from the inside out. When Anne said she bore him no grudge with such a smile on her face William knew she told the truth.

He looked at Marianne, who gently put her arms around the smaller woman and stared at him, baffled and face alight with pleasure, before turning her attention back to her new cousin.

He laughed harder at the expression on her face, only to become somber again when he saw that Ferdinand had slipped away without notice.

***

Marianne could hardly believe her ears. Between Lady Anne’s insinuations and Lord Gray’s explanation she would not have been shocked if someone told her that her face matched her hair.

The nerve of him! To put the blame entirely on her for their hasty wedding and embarrass her in front of all her new relatives. She wanted to claw at him.

Still, she was aware that he could have said less than respectable things about her. The fact that he was even speaking on her behalf made her angry all over again, but she was a married woman, and he her husband, which meant there was naught she could do but let him. For now.

If Lady Anne could have so much freedom then Marianne would soon have the same.

William clapped his hands and stole everyone’s attention. “Now, to the feast! Be merry because tonight we all celebrate!”

Marianne barely managed to endure the celebration without bursting into tears. Her nerves were so tight that her hands shook with the strain as a new fear laced through her.

What should she do if an argument broke out? If someone complained about their seating arrangements? She had not planned this event, nor had she ever since her father never found a need to have guests.

The fear would not leave her once it came, and she could only be grateful that sir Ferdinand was no longer within sight. The dancing, laughing, and music did naught to raise her spirits either, and being forced to dance with every male member of the party had been just as horrifying as each one asked questions she had trouble answering.

What did she really know about Lord Gray? What could she say to explain a hasty wedding that would not turn her into a deceiver? That her marriage was based on a real contract and not one of her vengeful whims.

Marianne had yet to be introduced to Blaise. She hardly knew what she would do when she finally came face to face with him. She prayed that event would not be for some time now. In fact, she should have met him already. But there had been no mention of him at all.

She openly sighed when William finally took her hand and stole her away from everyone. She forgot all about Blaise when his hands clasped her shoulders, kneading the tension in her muscles to a calm warmth with his knuckles.

With little force, he used this method and turned her about and led her out of the main hall and into the darkness of the castle.

Though she was far too relaxed and exhausted from her journey to care that the night was still young, she could not help but ask. “Will we not wish the guests a good night?”

His fingers rubbed her lower neck, his thumbs pressing into her shoulder blades through her gown in a way that had her fully alert again. “Nay, I think not. I want no interruptions tonight.”

His mouth closed in on her ear. Marianne quivered with his words that filled her with promise, his hands sending a tingle through her gown that was not entirely unpleasant. “No delay, and no one shall bother to look for us as they are so occupied with their dancing and ale.”

His words were reassuring, but when the heavy oak door to his, nay, their chamber shut and locked behind her, she found herself terrified to immobility.

She stood in her husband’s chamber, her chamber now as well, one of the few places the lord and lady of the castle could find some privacy, and she was frightened.

She did not wish for privacy. She knew where it would lead.

The fire had been prepared for them and the chamber was warm and inviting. He had planned this. He had planned to lure her away from the guests unnoticed so he might have her without any drunken men or snooping women trying to interrupt.

She supposed she had to be grateful that he offered her at least that.

Thick, sweet smelling rushes welcomed her feet. The bed was large enough for the two of them and then some. It was naught like her small room back at Holton manor.

‘Twas another reminder that she was the mistress of this castle now.

Naught was the same, nor would anything ever be. This castle even felt different to her. Everything she touched was foreign to her fingers, and it made them itch with longing for her own bed.But this was her bed now, and she was expected to share it.

The tension melted from her shoulders when William caressed and massaged them, again using his touch to force her guard down. Damn her weak flesh she could not help the useless moan of satisfaction with the way he eased the stress from her shoulders.

His lips touched her ear. “Thank you,”

Her eyes snapped open but she did not turn to look at him.

“For what?”

“For not making it public knowledge that you forced me to wed you.”

“You could easily have ruined my reputation today, as well,”

He sighed, and Marianne could not tell if he thought the idea to be a pleasurable one or not. “‘Tis true, but to do so would have brought me down to ruin with you.”

She flinched again. So his actions had naught to do with preserving her feelings. So be it. She was in his chamber now, and she knew what was expected of her. Though she was not sure if she could easily give him what he wanted.

She had feared it from the start of this whole mistake, knowing that she would be required to give her body to her husband. Her nervousness intensified into something far more frightening than she had imagined when the ladies downstairs gathered around her to give their praise and, in the cases of the soon-to-be-wed, awkwardly ask questions on what to expect themselves.

They thought she had been deflowered already and knew the ways of the bed. And why wouldn’t they? She’d been married for two weeks. What bride went so long without knowing the touch of her husband?

But she did not know it; the mere thought of it brought a fresh wave of heated embarrassment to her cheeks. When the younger girls asked her questions she could not answer, she could do naught but blush and refrain from answering, claiming it to be too unladylike a topic.

By the end they had all assumed her to be a prudish shrew.

Marianne groaned.

William kissed her neck. She had not realized he had come so close and she shrieked and leapt away from him, bounding across the bed and landing on the other side, using it as a barrier between them.

His eyes were wide with shock. “What is this?”

“We can end it,” Marianne said. “we do not have to do this. You can have your freedom from me. Send me home and keep the chest with the money, for all I care.”