Lady Thief
Author:Rizzo Rosko

Chapter Seven





William hardly knew how he survived the night without losing control and grabbing her, pulling her to him and taking her like his desperation demanded. Though he held himself back for a reason he hardly recalled, today he kept a close eye on the hips of his wife as she walked around the gardens.

He promised her this time and he would make good on his word, no matter how wonderfully difficult the sizzling between his legs made it.

He acknowledged the improvements in the herbs and vegetables but they remained behind his current thoughts, visions of her standing naked before him dominated him.

She had turned red last night while he watched. He kept one hand on his chin as if he studied some piece of art to be purchased. To her credit, she did not flinch from his eyes or shriek at him when he commanded her to turn around so that he might see her backside like she had commanded him.

When he saw her rounded bottom, he knew what it was that she had been so fixated on when she looked at him, though he doubted he was as pleasing to the eye.

She faced him again, her eyes widening comically at his cockstand. He did not try to hide it. Like always, she raised her nose to greet the air at their silent challenge.

Delight burst brightly inside him, like the sun shooting through an open window when she did not leap away when he touched her smooth shoulder. The same shoulder he’d kissed on her first night in his chamber. He kissed her mouth and her shoulder twice since that incident, and decided then that she was no longer at risk of flying off her feet when he touched her.

His fingers slid down to her breast and touched her budding nipple. He had sighed his pleasure with her small gasp. Heat radiated from her body and towards his, feeding a carnal desire that only grew hungrier. His fingers cupped her chin, traveled up the smooth flesh of her cheek and threaded her hair. Her hands braved their way up his chest, her own smaller fingers curiously tangling into the rough hair of his chest.

He was rock hard, had not realized his breathing had become labored until he tried to calm it. His eyes left her fingers and found her grey orbs. Standing so close, he found flecks of blue hidden within, like sky trying to break free from the storm clouds.

He smirked at the fitting description. She too tried had to break free. Indeed, she’d staged his kidnapping to break her father and Ferdinand.

He looked at her face, which glowed with building lust under his touch. No trace foreshadowed the passion he wanted her to feel. Passion for him.

He’d just admitted to not loving her, and he knew where she stood on that subject. If he were to build her lust higher and higher only to take her, she would surely hate him when her wits returned from their holiday between her legs. He did not want that, the very thought brought a sinking feeling into his chest.

William was going to have her. Soon. That had already been decided for the both of them the day he first laid eyes on his infuriated wife. Yet, he was a knight, and he would honor his word. Ah, but when he did have her, she would purr in contentment when the loving was over.

Anger flared from within, directed at himself. Any man could touch her like that and the reaction would be exactly the same. She did not want him, and when he stepped away from her, reached for his clothes and dressed, her face twisted in horror.

As if suddenly aware of her nudity, she covered her breasts with her hands, searched for her robe on the floor and snatched it to cover the rest of her. “What are you doing?”

He could not bring himself to look at her. He had believed that if he so much as glanced in her direction he would abandon his wits and do something they would later regret.

He dressed with little concern for his appearance and thought of a lie. “‘Tis late, and there is still much work to be done. Tomorrow you will show me these improvements you have made and, as promised, we shall spend time together.”

“Oh.”

The small sound startled him, and despite himself he looked at her, though she refused to look back. “Are you displeased?”

She shook her head, clutching her robe around herself with both hands. “Nay, ‘tis just that…”

He waited, but she seemed unable to say anything. He left her so that he might sleep painfully in his solar. As sleepless hours crept by, he reminded himself that if he was patient, their loving would be so much more than a night of lust. She would be his forever, just as she had made him hers on their wedding day.

“My lord?”

William shook his head, clearing his thoughts and returning to the garden. How could she keep her reactions so polite and calm when he could think of naught else but her pliant skin? He envied her.

“Forgive me, you were saying?”

“I asked you of your morning meal.” She huffed, her arms crossed.

The sight brought a twitch to his lips, and he crossed his own arms in mocking fun. “It was served on time and hot. You are a much better chatelaine than I would have thought.”

“You thought I would not be?”

He shook his head. “Again, forgive me, but on the day you vowed to see to the affairs of my household, ‘twas difficult to…” He thought of the proper words to use without harming her feelings, but none would come.

Her arms clenching tighter around her bosom, narrowed eyes told him that she had supplied words of her own. “Take my claim seriously?”

He chuckled. “With your temper ‘tis not easy to take any part of you seriously.”

Her body shook, face set in a deep scowl, like she would burst with rage, and he waited eagerly to see if such a thing were possible. To his surprise, she laughed.

He stood as rigid as a tree, unsure of how to react until she turned her back and walked to the stables.

He followed, irritated that she could turn her back on him and curious all the same. He caught up to her and turned so that he was at a backwards trot ahead of her. “What do you find so amusing?”

Her bright smile nearly turned his foul mood around. Nearly. How had she managed to twist things about like this?

“Do you really think me such a fool that I cannot see when you enjoy my torment?”

He stopped abruptly, then caught up to her again. His eyes narrowed suspiciously. “I enjoy no one’s torment.”

She nodded in agreement. “Nay, only mine. I have seen through you now and know that the only way to deny you your pleasure is to pretend your taunts do not exist.”

His blood ran still before burning hot. “I refuse to allow you to ignore me!”

If his strange backwards movements had not caught the attention of the working servants then his outburst had. So he did the only thing a lord in his position could do to prevent further humiliation: pretended they were not there and continued as he was.

Then she put an end to his embarrassment, stopped and smiled her sweetest smile. William stopped and was alert to her strange behavior. Her lips made that same shape the night of their marriage celebration, and he had not been sure of what to make of it then either.

She came forth and touched his cheek with her finger, just carefully sliding her nail across his flesh.

“Do not fear, dear husband of mine, I shan’t deny you the pleasure of my company or conversation, but you must know that from now on your words will have no affect on me.”

William’s face went cold. He would have no affect on her? He would see about that, and tonight she would know the foolishness of her words.

He grabbed her hand and kissed her palm before she could move away, his gaze meeting hers and pleased with the shock he found there. “I must warn you that I adore challenges.”

The heat in her cheeks was well worth the effort, but she snatched her hand back and walked away.

They moved towards the stables, and Marianne pointed to the servants who scurried to do their chores when she came near. “I’ll wager you saw no behavior like this in them before.”

He shook his head, watching them with apt fascination as women rounded corners with their laundry, the men and boys cleaned and repaired blades, and herded chickens with a dedication that bordered on fear. Having had plenty of opportunities to listen to his wife screeching at the lazier of the servants, William knew what it was that they haunted them.

He had to admit that he did like the improvement.

Marianne spoke before they entered the stable. “When was the last time you were here?”

His eyebrow raised at her.

She corrected herself with a flush on her cheeks. “I meant, before Blaise and I…before you and he…”

He couldn’t help the smirk tugging at his lips. “Perhaps you are correct when you say that my words will not affect you. It seems I do not have to say anything at all for you to be at a loss for words of your own.”

***

Marianne envisioned throwing him into a large pile of horse manure, but due to Archer’s hard work, none could be found.

Her foot itched to stamp the ground, but she held it in check. “Forget about that! Tell me of the last time you were here!”

William shrugged. “Sometime before you arrived, I would say. I still ride Benedict and check to ensure that he is not sleeping in filth.”

She smiled. Perfect, ‘twas perfect. “Wonderful, because when Blaise was here you had no chance to appreciate how clean the stalls have become.”

“And you knew of its condition before hand?”

“Adam told me, now come see.” She grabbed his arm and pulled him in. He would see Archer’s hard work and praise the poor man if it was the last thing he did.

The smell of horses, fresh earth, and hay was stronger inside but not putrid. A natural earthy scent wafted from the clean stalls. It took a moment for Marianne’s eyes to adjust to the lighting, but when they did she could clearly see that Archer was not to be found here today, as well as the approval on William’s expression. His eyes were wide and searching as though he had never seen the inside of his own stables.

Her heart pounded, eager pleasure filling and bubbling within. “You are pleased?”

“Can you see me clutching my nose to hold off the smell? Of course I’m pleased.” He took a step forward and laughed. “I can move without stepping into horse manure!”

Her eager hope for praise for Archer was replaced with a troubling curiosity. Could such a simple thing be the cause for William’s pleasure? It should have been granted to him without the need to ask. ‘Twas the reason he, and every other lord, employed servants. Yet there he was, reveling in the cleanliness of the stables in a manner he had not shown when she pointed out the gardens to him.

Again she wondered why he had neglected his duties, and to ignore them to the point where his own animals were kept in filth until he himself inspected their condition.

He went to a stall farther down the aisle, passing the grooms who went about their own business, and found it empty.

“Where is Benedict?”

“Who? Ah, yes, your horse.”

William waved his hands in the space before him. “Aye. This is his stall and he is not here. Blaise knows I do not wish him to ride my horse without my permission, where is he?”

Marianne honestly did not know where his horse had been placed, and Robert and Archer were nowhere to be found to ask.

“You prize the animal?”

William nodded. “Aye.”

“I imagine Archer is allowing some of the horses to have their neglected exercise.”

He glared at her, and though she regretted his anger she did not mourn her words.

“My dear, while the laziness of my sewing maids and grooms is highly questionable, I have always seen to the care of my beasts.”

Before Marianne could apologize Archer ran inside, panting heavily.

He went to Marianne, but when his eyes found his lord standing farther down the stables he straightened his spine and controlled his breathing, though he could do little more but wipe the dripping moisture from his forehead and nothing about the bright red heating his cheeks.

“My lord, milady, sir Guy Alan Holton is on his way.”

Marianne’s breath stopped in her throat. Her father? Here? To what purpose? She had all but assumed she had been disowned by the man when he left the wedding celebration without so much as bidding her farewell. Now he was unexpectedly on his way. When she remembered to suck air into her tightening lungs her heart thrashed in her chest.

William came into the light. “When is he expected?”

A loud whinny answered his question and Archer and several other grooms ran to pull the doors open wider for the animals.

Three horses, old, thin, and panting for breath trotted into the stables with two mules pulling a rickety cart with few items tied to it.

Despite her humiliation and his previous angry words at their last meeting, she could not help the excitement building in her chest, or the way her hands clasped each other tightly when the horses stopped just in front of her and William.

Holton looked down at her, found her eyes and smiled the warmest smile he had ever given her.

Clovis, one of the men she had hired to help her abduct William, hopped down from his own tired horse and bowed low to them, keeping his face pointed at his feet. He did not straighten his back. “Milord, Milady.”

William’s smug smile told her that he recognized Clovis, and he delayed permission for the man to stand.

Marianne imagined he played out the irony of the switch in their positions now that William was no longer being held at his mercy in a church.

William stood rocking from heal to toe, scratching his chin as though thinking of the most proper greeting to fit the circumstances.

The grin did not leave his lips or eyes. Marianne cleared her throat. He had enough fun torturing the poor man.

William eyed her as though he very nearly forgot her presence. With a slight roll of his eyes, he spoke.

“Stand straighter.”

Clovis’s neck rolled as he swallowed deeply before doing as he bid, and William, having decided he was not finished with the man, smirked again.

“Greetings, my old, buck-toothed friend.”

Clovis paled and averted his eyes. Marianne cast him a sympathetic glance but he would not look at her either.

Marianne stood closer to William and took his wrist without thinking.

“Remember your promise.” She was nearly ashamed of how desperate she sounded to her own ears.

“I have not forgotten it.” He replied without looking at her.

Despite his reassurance she did not feel any better.

Sir Holton, seemingly tired of being ignored, stepped down from his horse. He stretched, popping bones in his back and appeared nowhere near as surly as when she had last seen him. He wore clothing that was badly aged and frayed near his underarms.

She puzzled over why he would wear such faded garments when he loudly insisted on dressing in the finest robes they owned on the day they were to formally present themselves to William.

He dusted himself, though he had no dust on him, and came with his arms outstretched and embraced her tightly, the first time in years.

“‘Tis a blessing to see your lovely face again, my sweet child.”

Marianne froze, not just due to his strange words but also his touch. Uncertainty ran through her veins. She felt William’s eyes on the back of her head, silently demanding answers she was unable to give.

Her father stood silent for less than a moment before he squeezed her. “Do I need to coax my own daughter into holding me back?”

The question was so light hearted and wonderful that she did just that and nearly burst into tears.

“You are not angry with me?”

He stroked her back with tender affection. “No, dearest. I was a fool, and I have missed you.” He held her at arm’s length. “You look so like your mother, I can tell I left you in good hands. I hope to stay so that I might make it up to you.”

William spoke up. “Stay?”

Marianne did not hear him. “Of course you may stay, for however long you may need.”

“For how long?” William demanded.

Sir Holton grinned broadly and held his daughter close. “Do not fret, milord, I will not be intruding on you for long.”

***

William’s eyes slid shut and he suppressed a defeated moan. The man had answered his question without answering it. And he could not voice his suspicions on Holton now with Marianne looking so delighted at the prospect of having her father stay. He would have to wait until later, until he could speak with the man alone and ask him why he chose to pay a visit to his castle uninvited and without warning.

“I won’t be intruding on you for long.” Could be as much as several weeks. William did not know if he could take having that man under his roof for so long.

Having blood relatives stay for such a long period of time was enough of a problem, but Marianne was so happy at the mere thought that he could hold no rage inside of him that she did not ask for his permission to allow the man to stay.

She offered him as much time as he would like for God’s sake!

No matter, ‘twould seem that if he wanted answers he would have to wait, but not for long.

William turned to Archer. “Find Adam and have a room prepared with warm ale. The sun is out but the air is chilled.”

Holton shivered for emphasis. “Aye, ale would chase away this frost in my chest. Thank you, milord.”

At least, the man did not have the audacity to approach him and put his arm around William’s shoulder again. But hearing him declare that he had left his daughter in good hands, when he most certainly did not care if he left her in the forest, grated on William’s nerves.

William donned a friendly grin usually reserved for Bryce, Nicholas, or Hugh. He did not want to raise Marianne’s suspicions and ruin her happiness. He knew the man really did have the intention of visiting his daughter, but his hasty retreat at the marriage celebration, and his quick return riding an old animal in obvious need of maintenance was too odd for him to ignore.

He glanced at Archer and the other man from Holton House as they settled the old horses into spare stables. They watered and fed the poor beasts who were in no condition to drag anything. William’s suspicions grew.

“Perhaps we might have some ale together, and I might introduce you to a few colleagues of mine, provided that Bryce has not cut off someone’s limb, forcing the others to flee with him.”

William took great pride in watching the bit of skin under Holton’s eye twitch. Even though Bryce was capable of doing so, he would never be as barbaric as to remove someone’s rightful limb. Hugh had stamped such barbaric thoughts out of him years ago. But even still having Bryce nearby to frighten away the pests came in handy.

“Of course, milord.”

***

William brought Holton into his solar for the second time since he married the man’s daughter. Only this time, with as much gentle coaxing as he would have given to an indignant cat, William insisted Marianne remain outside while he spoke with her father.

William poured the ale and stiffly handed Holton his goblet.

He made a great show of accepting it and offering his thanks for the warm drink. Complimenting the taste of the ale that was actually quite bitter, and praising William’s generosity for allowing him to stay for the sake of Marianne.

William could take no more and hissed in a whisper. “I do not for one second believe that my wife has done as I asked and waited elsewhere. No doubt she is outside that door this very moment trying to hear what I have to say to you, so kindly keep quiet.”

Holton’s mouth dropped at being addressed so warmly the one moment and then spoken to like an unwanted stranger the next.

“My lord, I—”

“Kindly explain why you are really here, Holton. I do not take well to deceivers and will make a great show of throwing you out on your arse, whether or not your daughter wants you here, should you keep the truth from me.” William lowered his goblet from behind his writing table and stared at him levelly. Holton’s limbs trembled. “And I shall find the truth.”

Holton lifted the drink to his lips. William doubted he tasted the sour liquid as the man eyed the door behind which his daughter hid.

“Forgive me, milord, but I must inquire as to what leads you to believe I have an ulterior motive for being here? Should a man need one to visit his blood?”

William’s eyes narrowed, fist clenching around his goblet. “You try my patience. You leave the wedding celebration with haste, in your finest clothes and with enough men to guard a small fortune, and now you return posing as the adoring father, riding the most neglected animals I have ever seen with hardly any luggage or men to guard whatever possessions you carry, and in clothes that appear ten years old at that. ‘Tis a miracle you were not robbed. What is the real cause for you to risk yourself like this?”

William meant his question seriously. Even he in his apathy had known to keep his animals in proper condition. Seeing Holton riding into his stable on horses that were better used for the dogs was difficult to swallow.

Holton seemed to understand this and hesitated, thumbing his cup. Finally, having no other lie to present him with he nodded and placed his drink on the table that held the pitcher. He held one shaking hand in another as though preparing to plead for his life. “Before I tell you, might I ask that you take pity on me and not throw me away, for the sake of my daughter.”

William’s eyes became slits. “I have seen the way you handle your daughter and your servants. Do not try to use her to gain what you want!”

William realized too late that he’d raised his voice, so he bit his tongue. He turned towards the door and listened carefully for any sound that might be on the other side. There was no startled gasp, no sound of feminine shoes against the floor. Silence.

He hoped that if Marianne was on the other side that she had not heard him lash out. If there were servants standing out there, hoping to hear a bit of gossip, he would handle it later.

“You will either tell me why you burden me with your presence or I will throw you to the wolves.”

Holton paled and shamefully lowered his head. “I am penniless.”

William was certain he had heard incorrectly. He leaned forward so that he might hear better. “I beg your pardon?”

Holton continued as if he had not heard him. “I have nothing. Nearly everything in my home was stripped away to pay for Marianne’s dowry, I had naught left to pay my debts to Sir Ferdinand. I had to give him my land.”

“Debts? You owed Sir Ferdinand money?” William had not forgotten that Marianne had kidnapped him to be away from that creature, and the truth came to him quickly. “You offered Marianne to him to pay off a debt you owe?”

Again, Holton nodded, and he refused to look William in the eye. He was like a child being reprimanded, and whatever small remaining respect William held for him vanished.

“What sort of debt?”

Holton’s fists clenched under the scrutiny. “Gambling,”

“Good God!” William was not sure what horrified him the most. “You threw away your only daughter to satisfy an unpayable gambling debt?”

Holton finally faced him, his face puffed up and eyebrows drawn together. “What would you have done?”

“Certainly not that.” It explained so much and then much more that he had not noticed the first time.

When he said to Marianne that her father had told him everything that day in their chamber, he lied. What he had assumed had not been half as horrendous as this. “The day you brought them here, Marianne and Archer, you weren’t in a rage because you thought that Archer had tricked your daughter. You whipped him because you knew that without Marianne you had naught with which pay your debt.”

Holton clenched both fists tighter than before, they turned white and shook under the pressure. “That does not make it right! He tricked her into doing something unspeakable! Horribly unspeakable to both you and I, and it cost the both of us dearly!”

“Nay, it has only cost you dearly. If you had married off Marianne to that whoreson, your debt would have been paid and she would be gone, like she was supposed to be since she was thirteen. Perhaps having her out of your care would allow you to wed easier since there would be no one to care for the Holton home, correct?”

“‘Tis Ferdinand’s home now.” Holton muttered hatefully. “All he would allow me to keep were the few things I could pack onto that small cart, two of my oldest mules, the horses and Clovis.”

William resisted the urge to run his fingers through his hair or sigh too loudly. Though baffled, he still wished to hold his position of power over the man.

“Dear Lord, you bet everything with those dice, didn’t you? And now that you are a beggar you cannot even search for a wealthy bride.” William remembered Marianne telling him that the men who aided in his abduction were family men. Clovis and Archer were the only ones in their party to come, and they came alone.

He prayed they did not have beautiful wives. Ferdinand loved beautiful women, regardless of their marital status, but would he lay with women who were beneath him?

Holton had the nerve to glare at him, a bitter thing that held little power in the way of intimidation. “Ferdinand could not just leave it at my land, house, and servants. He had to ruin my good name as well. Within the fortnight everyone knew that I had naught to my name, to ignore letters from me and hide their daughters. If Marianne had just cooperated, I would still have everything, and she would be happily married to a rich man destined to die within a few short years. ‘Twas a good match and she would have been better off with it.”

William stood. A chilling horror staggering up his spine with the casual way Holton defended the selling of his daughter to a man known for sexual tortures.

An image of Bertha invaded his mind, and he could not put her away. She was healthy and glowing with life, an impish smile on her face that hid the secrets of the sinful things she did behind closed doors, as she had done the last time he had seen her before she disappeared forever.

She screamed and wailed to no avail before she screamed no more. He did not need to be there, to see it with his own eyes in order for his imagination to create something foul for him to see and hear, to haunt him with the guilt of her death.

And William felt guilt, but he was not so far gone in his ruthless thoughts that he failed to hear the gasp behind the door, nor the sound of footsteps fading as they ran off.

He shook himself. Damn, they raised their voices.

William made for the door.

Holton took two steps after him, his hands outstretched like a helpless child, but he went no farther. “Where are you going?”

William did not look back at him. “After my wife.”

“And what about me? What am I to do?”

William slammed the door with one word behind him. “Rot!”





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