Lady Thief
Author:Rizzo Rosko

Chapter Eight

Marianne ran to the stables. Clovis and Archer still tended to the horses and mules with the other grooms. When her eyes fixed on them she stopped and burst into heavy tears. She barely felt their arms around her as they tried to sooth away her sobs. Like they had done in her childhood after the deaths of her brothers.

Regardless of what her father might think, she was not fooled into anything. She conjured up the entire scheme while imagining wicked and vengeful fantasies against Blaise for insulting and damning her into a marriage with an elderly wretch like Ferdinand. Now, not only would Archer pay for it, but Clovis as well. They would never see their families again. Every servant she grew up with would be in the care of that horrible creature.

She clutched them with a knight’s strength and sobbed her apologies. They desperately tried to comfort their lady while the other grooms looked on as the curious behavior.

Both men must have already shed their tears for their lost families, because neither did so with her now. They pat her on the back as she cried her guilty heart out to them.

She pushed herself away from when she could stand no more contact and paced aimlessly.

“‘Twas no’ yer fault, milady.” Said Clovis for the second time. His words did not reach her. A ringing in her skull refused to leave her. She needed to get away, she needed a place to gather her thoughts.

Marianne ran to the stall that already had her riding horse ready, threw open the gate and climbed onto the young mare.

Archer’s face twisted in terror, and he approached with his hands up as if to grab for the reigns. “Milady, where are ye off to?”

She shrugged away from his grasp and went around him. Clovis could only stare as she went at an even trot towards the open doors of the stable.

“I shall return shortly, do not worry for me.” She would return, but she knew she would be out for longer than she implied.

“But milady, wait!” Archer tried to grab for her reigns again so she kicked the mare into speed and fled the stables, moving towards the castle walls and the gate that William usually left open due to a lack of threats.

She would have to speak with him and the servants about that as well when she was in a right of mind.

She rode her mare until the wind dried her cheeks. When she felt she was far enough away from the castle she slowed her poor animal to a walk, allowing the both of them to breathe the autumn air deeply.

She was far from her troubles, everyone she hurt was not within a shouting distance of her, but she did not feel like they were far away at all. Her guilt pressed heavier against her chest.

Marianne could still see the castle from where she rode just outside of the forest, and while she felt only a little better for releasing her anger, it did not completely dissipate, and she knew it would eventually return like a violent siege if she did not speak with her father and take all of her anger out on him where it belonged.

Marianne wiped the building moisture from her eyes, disgusted with herself for even considering his motives might be honorable.

He hadn’t a drop of honorable blood in his body, not for several years now at any rate, and she was an emotional fool for thinking he had returned to his former self.

Father or not, if she saw him right away she would strangle him, and being the lady of the castle, to attack a penniless man would do no harm to her whatsoever.

The thought of her hands wrapped around his neck while he had a comical look of strangulation on his face brought a small joy, but the distant cry of another horse pulled her out of her thoughts.

She turned. The form of the small horse become larger and larger as its hooves thundered towards her from the direction of the castle at unnatural speeds, and before she could make out the form of the rider she instinctively knew William rode the beast.

He charged at such a pace that she craned her neck, searching for any threat, alert and fearful of what she could not see. The only sound came from the wind rustling the tree leaves. Marianne felt no danger.

She turned back to William and did not expect that his face would be so twisted with anger when he came close enough for her to see it.

He ripped the reigns to her horse out of her hands, leaving her to only hold onto the neck of the best. William glanced behind her to the trees, and began riding toward the castle without so much as saying a word to her, his expression set in chilled stone.

The easy pace and thick silence after his crazed ride to get to her pressed on her nerves.

She would take none of it. “Will you not say anything to me?”

He grunted, sparing her feelings enough to face her, trusting the horse he rode to lead the way, though his expression remained the same. “There have been times when I assumed my first impression of you to be false, but now I see that I was correct all along, and apparently I need to protect you from yourself.”

Marianne could not say what he was referring to. It did not sound like he was angered with her for listening outside of his door. But if not that, then what?

“I do not know what you are speaking of.”

The angry lines in his face deepened. “You rode outside of the protection of the castle!”

“Some protection it provides when the gate is left open at all hours of the day and night!”

He turned away from her, watching where he was leading the horses instead of looking at her while he reprimanded her. “Well, it shall no longer be so, and despite it being left open, single thieves and murderers looking for foolish ladies traveling alone would never dare try to enter. They hide in the forest waiting for their prey.”

The fog in Marianne’s mind cleared and she knew of what he spoke, and she looked back toward the forest she had been on the brink of entering in disbelief. The calm scene she had thought of it only moments before instantly changed into something sinister. “Murderers? Where?”

He whipped his head at her, a tiny protruding vein thickened along the side of his neck. “They do not sit where you can see! You have never traveled alone before, and even then you are still fortunate to not have come across any. Never run away like that ever again!”

Marianne pouted and fought the urge to argue that she could usually tell when someone was watching her, which had become quite often since she made Graystone her home. But his words rang true. She should have known better and felt humiliated for her own naivety.

Archer had seen what she had been trying to do and tried to stop her, but she rode around him.

“I was not trying to flee. I planned on returning.”

William’s grip did not go lax on her reigns, it tightened, and Marianne decided to keep quiet the rest of the way to the castle.

William was livid, she could see it in his face and hear it when he spoke to her again. “There are thieves and men willing to do dishonorable things to beautiful women like you. They hide in every forest in the entire world. Even the ones protected by the royal family themselves.”

Marianne turned to look back at the seemingly peaceful forest again, her mind conjuring men and monsters hiding and waiting for her. “Truly?”

He nodded. “Aye. What if someone watched you and you had been unaware and decided to go into the woods to pick flowers or some nonsense? Being murdered quickly and robbed of your fine clothes would be a blessing compared to what else you could have suffered.”

Marianne shivered. William said nothing more to her.

William nodded to the men waiting for him at the gates, shouted an order for them to close them behind him, and led Marianne and their horses back to the stables.

To Marianne’s horror, Blaise stood waiting in front of the barn doors, his arms folded and a familiar smug smile on his face. Archer and Clovis sighed their relief that she had returned in one piece, but she could hardly see past Blaise’s infuriating smirk.

Her jaw clenched but she refused to make a scene again. No doubt he had heard of her little fit and had run to see it like a child waiting to see the punishment of his most hated sibling.

Thankfully, he chose not to say anything in the presence of his father, no doubt having remembered what happened the last time he did so.

William was not blind. He could clearly see Marianne’s spine stiffen, and he searched for the source of her discomfort and found the smirk on Blaise’s face.

He waved him away and allowed Archer to take Marianne’s own mare after she dismounted. “Leave us,”

Marianne noted how Blaise’s back was the one to stiffen at the command, but after a brief hesitation he spun on his heel and did as he was bid.

William brought own his horse to the stall that belonged to Benedict, a beautiful and proud animal that overfilled its skin with muscle. Marianne now knew why both father and son preferred him.

Marianne could not relax the bones in her tight body, and she could only wrap her arms around herself while Archer quietly walked passed her with Clovis after Blaise had gone ahead of them.

The foolish emotion pumping through her was infinitely worse than any punishment he would give, and she wished he would just leave her with that.

She felt William’s eyes on her, but she refused to let him see her tears or her hand brush them away. She moved to the stall that now contained an old mare that Marianne recognized but had no name. The sight of her banished all thoughts of evil men lurking in forests from her mind, and refreshed the guilt that hid inside of her.

She had been so happy to see her father that she had not noticed how aged the animals were that carried his weight and his belongings. This mare was purchased to be worked until completely useless, then fed to the hunting dogs. If what she heard was correct, the only reason the mare still lived was because Ferdinand would not allow her father to keep any of the better horses.

She touched the old mare’s nose, and she came forth under the attention. Large hands, warm and gentle, slid to her shoulders and gripped like a tight cloth from behind her.

“What did you hear?” Marianne detected no hint of a sneer in William’s voice.

She was shocked. He was being patient, even though he had no need to be. She had disobeyed him and put her life in danger. Despite her frail emotions, he owed her about as much kindness as could be fit in her thumbnail.

Even still, she wished to wallow in her self-pity for a little while longer. “Enough.”

His hands slid from her shoulders and down her arms. He pulled her to his chest and held her close with one arm, and she made no move to pull away. Truthfully she wanted to be held, and felt almost loved.

Almost. He’d told her already that he did not love her, but was it too much to ask that he feel something? That when he moved to touch her shoulders, caress her arms and kiss her neck that there be emotion behind the act? Did he feel something now? Was that where the source of his patience came from?

“Are ye not angry with me for listening behind the door?”

“You were happy when Holton claimed to have a desire to visit you.” He reminded her, ignoring her question.

Bitterness swelled inside her. “Aye, and instead he comes only because there is no other place to go.”

William squeezed her. “Calm yourself,”

“I do not wish to calm myself!” She shrieked, spinning to yell at his face, but all that would come out were her broken moans. “He is right, I did this. ‘Twas bad enough when Archer was given to you, never to see his wife and child again, but now Clovis as well, and the others are to work in the home of that pig. My home.”

William raised a brow. “You still believe the Ferdinand Home is your home?”

She looked at him. “Ferdinand Home?”

“He surely would not keep it under the old name, whether he plans to sell it or not.”

Marianne moaned louder, and since Archer was no longer present, she slid her arms under William’s and held him tightly, taking her comfort from him.

She barely noticed how his body tightened under her, no doubt shocked by her initiative, but she needed this. When he put his arms around her she found the stables decidedly less chilly.

They were silent, and Marianne’s tears came with no sobs. “I should have done as my father asked, and none of this would have happened.”

His arms tightened around her. “You would rather take back your actions than face the consequences?”

She pulled away from him. “’Tis not like that! I would just rather those men did not have to be without their families!”

William’s face unexpectedly softened. “Tell me, what are the names of Archer’s and Clovis’s wives?”

A foolish hope sprung in her chest. “Molly is Archer’s wife and Hawisa is Clovis’s.”

“And are they young women? Beautiful?”

The hope was replaced with an angry spark. William saw had to cut her off before she could scream at him like she did with the servants.

He gave her one hard shake. “Get that foolish thought out of your head. I am not one to sniff around the gowns of other women.”

“Most married men would not hold the same opinion as you do.”

His glare was brief before vanishing into a calm mask over his face. He said nothing to her.

Marianne blushed and wished she could control her emotions better. Strange how it never seemed to be as much of a problem until she married William and he made it his mission to point out that particular fault. Of course, he also seemed to like that fault in her.

“Forgive me, ‘tis just—”

He captured her chin and lifted it so that she faced him. “Your nose looks odd when it faces downward like that.” He lifted it higher, smiling when satisfied. “I much prefer it to be here.”

Marianne felt that she would overheat at any moment if he did not stop. She swallowed hard and forced herself to go on, but her wretched emotions put a stutter in her voice.

“My lord … if … if you will kindly explain your interest in the servant women…”

“My interest in them is naught like my interest in you,”

He moved closer and Marianne expected him to kiss her. She felt such fire that she welcomed the thought of it.

He pulled away from her instead. “Forgive me, I know I have promised that we would become more … knowledgeable of each other, but I must be away tonight.”

Marianne felt like she had been thrown into a lake of disappointment and frustration. “Away? Where?”

He took a loose strand of her red hair into his fingers and twirled it around. “I will not be away for long, while I’m gone I expect you not to brawl with Blaise, or leave the castle grounds,” he said sternly. “Or else Adam will tell me and I shall have to put you over my knee.”

Had she feathers they would have bristled. “But you would never—”

“By now you should know perfectly well that I have never truly harmed a servant, but that does not mean I have not put an insolent child in her place.”

She bristled at the insult. “I am not a child.”

He closed his mouth over hers, quickly to keep her from saying anything else. She clutched his shoulders with sharp fingers, hoping for something akin to the kiss he presented her with the night before, and he complied and gave it to her without asking. Or perhaps she did ask when her body pressed closer to his and her mouth opened without her say.

Was this proper kissing? Her entire body filled with tingles and vibrated happily. His hands ventured down the whole of her torso and waist she thought that it must be. Kissing could be no other way if it could make her lose herself.

When his mouth left hers his hands left her waist and found her southern regions, lazily kneading the thick flesh of her bottom through her gown. Somehow that made her body tingle more, and her arm went about his neck.

His breath was hot against her face, and she leaned closer to that too. “You need not fear that I view you as a girl, ‘tis very obvious that you are indeed a woman.”

With one last squeeze of approval he released her and walked out of the stable, leaving her alone. She panted, searching for air that fled the stables while leaning against the stall for support.

While calming the heat in her cheeks she wondered how he could make her go from an angry fool to a wanton puddle like he did, and her cheeks heated again with the smile that brightened her face.

Whether he knew it or not, there was something between them, whatever that feeling was, she could not believe a man could do that to his wife without feeling something.