Hampshire, Autumn 1311
Somewhere in the Royal Forest
Lord William Gray struggled against his kidnappers but the hands pressing him to his knees were like iron. Ropes squeezed his hands behind his back and a cloud of dust wafted upward under his weight made him choke.
He did not know these men, none of them could match his strength, but together they held him easily. His face burned with anger and fists clenched behind him.
Now more than ever he wished he never put his sword away those years ago and let his skills rust like they did. His laziness put him in this position.
He struggled to calm himself and regain any dignity he could. "Why have you abducted me?"
He struggled to recall anyone he vexed in recent memory, but none came to mind and he could only assume they were common thieves.
They brought him to a dilapidated church, tumbledown pews providing a home for moss and insects were highlighted by the lit candles that barely won the battle against the darkness. This was not a random act.
The men grinned, some exposing yellowing teeth, and nudged each other.
William narrowed his eyes in thought. Surely they brought him here to pray for their souls after they killed him. But no, murder is not an act of the religious, and thinking of death would not help him. He needed to concentrate on escape, search for a weakness in their party and exploit it.
"We don' know why the lady wants ye, but she's paying us a wealthy sum to not ask no questions." The little one of the group lied to him awkwardly. The man had overly large front teeth and smelled as if he slept with the pigs and looked very much as if he would rather be with them than in this church with William.
It took some seconds for the man's words to sink in, and William was sure there had been a mistake when they did.
William softened his voice and decided to make no mention of it. He did not want to be on his knees with a gaping expression on his face with men who might possibly murder him at a whim.
Best to flatter them. "But you do know, do you not? This lady of yours would have to have a higher than normal intelligence to hire such capable men."
Their attack had indeed been quick, precise and without warning. But a tingled warning crawled up his spine, something he had not experienced in years, when the bushes stilled and not a bird chirped on the road he traveled. His hand naturally wrapped around the handle of the blade he carried but before he could pull it from its leather sheath,
he was ambushed and pulled from his horse and dragged to the ground while hands forced his arms to twist tightly behind his back.
His horse bucked and cried under the sudden onslaught of men, but a resounding smack on his rear sent him charging into the woods.
And while they were busying themselves incapacitating him, he made sure to look at the exposed faces of every man he saw.
They kidnapped him without bothering to properly conceal their faces in the sunlight. Whoever this lady was, she must have been desperate to trust such skittish people, and foolish to not take the proper precautions before carrying out her plan. Which brought him back to the question of why someone would pay for his kidnapping.
The buck-toothed one did not take kindly to having his secrets weeded out. He stood before William in a blind act of confident mockery, his short body towering over William's kneeling one, the swine smell wafting over him and threatening to choke him like the dust flying around the church. "Ye're in a house of God, milord, what do ye think she wants ye fer?"
William's breath caught, but before he could shout an indignant reply, the doors at the front of the church burst open, bringing with it the brisk, cool wind, autumn leaves and a flash of sunlight before the doors were quickly shut again. The hope of the light did not last but the fresh air reached him and he breathed deeply, a nice exchange for the damp and stale air of the old church.
The figures who entered were cloaked and hooded, but his hunched back and the brown color of the first cloak suggested an older man, while the straight-backed, bright blue-embroidered cloak wrapped around a taller, slimmer figure, hinted of someone much younger and wealthier. The hoods they wore and dim candlelight made it impossible to distinguish any features, but he saw the delicate hands of a woman folded delicately in the trumpet sleeves of her gown.
They were slim and fair in color, devoid of any sign of work or wear. William imagined they would be soft to the touch. They clenched and unclenched nervously as her footsteps echoed towards him. William remained on his knees and had a vague sense of the lumbering fingers on his shoulders disappearing, but he did not try to rise to greet the lady, or to escape. All he could do was stare.
So this was the mysterious lady kidnapper.
His sense of duty prompted him to bow to her, even while on his knees with his hands miserably tied behind his back, but his pride and anger allowed him to give her nothing more than a nod of acknowledgment. "My lady,"
She gave a curt curtsy in return. "My lord."
How odd, she managed to make his title sound insulting.
She lowered her hood, and, devoid of the proper headdress, revealed a shimmering tangle of windswept red hair, so bright it commanded his attention and he nearly forgot to look at her face.
He knew he needed a fitting description of the woman who planned this crime so that he could hunt her down later. Not many young maidens possessed hair like that. Why did he not recognize her?
Her eyes, cool grey windows with flecks of blue hiding in their depths, like the morning sky fighting to emerge after a battle with a storm, flickered with confusion before they raged like a thunderstorm. "Who tied his hands? Untie him this instant!"
Her face, peppered with freckles, flared to the same color red at her hair, and the buck-toothed man untied him.
Through his gentle movements William knew that while the red-haired woman was in their company he replaced his confident personality with a humble disposition.
He rubbed the red crater that snaked into his skin from the biting ropes. He moved to lift himself to his feet but the men pressed him back to his knees, which he was sure were building similar red marks.
He glared at her and noted how she said nothing in his defense this time. She looked down at him with curiosity and anxiety glinting in her eyes, hiding behind crossed arms. Seemed she liked him where he was, but was as uncomfortable with the situation as her band of kidnappers. William was tired of these inexplicable clues being thrown at him but grabbed at whatever was thrown his way.
Red-haired maidens were known for their fiery spirit, but he always laughed away the notion. Women were flighty and fickle, not brazen and rash. And now it seemed as if Fate laughed back at him in the form of such a woman for dismissing the idea.
Her cold smile was awkward, as though unused to using her lips in such a manner, and it made him puzzle over her further.
"Does your seat make you uncomfortable, my lord?"
He gritted his teeth. William would ensure he returned this humiliation in full, with added interest.
"Not at all, my lady." A shudder crept up her cloak. He smiled with pleasure at the small discomfort he was able to inflict.
She was quick to compose herself. "May I inquire as to what age you are?"
The question rocked him on his knees, but he answered her anyway. "Six and thirty, my dear, and since you find no qualm about asking my age, may I ask yours?"
By the look of her he guessed her to be just over half of that.
Her face reddened again, her arms tightening in their crossed position, and she looked away from him. "Nay, you may not."
William clenched his jaw at her audacity but held his tongue in check because of their current differences in position. He held the kneeling position while hers was one of power.
After silently studying him with a finger on her chin, she approached, her shoes loudly clicking in the disintegrating church. Candlelight danced on her skin. She had the air of a victorious warrior.
She stared down at him, and he stared back, unblinking and daring her to make her next move. She shocked him by offering him her hand, a risky thing for her to do, whether he was on his knees and surrounded or not.
He took her smaller hand into his larger one, her skin soft against his rough hands, and he squeezed. She did not flinch but dug her nails into his flesh in a warning response, and he found himself secretly pleased, though he refused to soften his grip and locked his eyes with her. They were challenging and unwilling to move an inch in their silent exchange.
She broke the silence. "Well?"
He cocked his head, the expression on his face flickering with confusion before he could control himself. "Well what?"
"You are on your knees, I am here, and this is a church. You may ask me to marry you now."
"Not at all, my lady."
The chill in his voice was so frigid it cut through the already cold air of the church, and Marianne shuddered. She had only just entered the church and greeted him with insult, so he could hardly be blamed for filling his voice with deep loathing for her.
His wonderfully deep voice, like silk sliding over naked flesh, had naught to do with her shudder though. She certainly could not imagine kneeling on a rotting, splintering floor for very long without feeling a complaint in her knees, but beyond that she was too shocked with his appearance to care.
This was Blaise Gray? The cocky swine who denied and insulted her without even having the courage to do it to her face? He was so old. Much older than what she had pictured him to be when her father spoke of him. Half the reason she staged this horrendous affair was to wed someone closer to her age other than that lecherous old man her father had chosen.
What her father had been thinking when he had arranged it as a back-up match, she didn't know.
Granted, Blaise Gray was certainly much younger than Sir Ferdinand, who was old enough to be her grandfather, with the face of a sagging dog and the manners to match. In fact, Blaise still looked relatively young with only a few grey hairs above his ears to give the sandy head some distinguished color, and tiny bird's feet under pale blue, untrusting eyes hinted that he had not smiled in some time.
He was not unappealing. His shoulders were still broad, his chin was 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.
When she first entered the church, she had not noticed the small flaws brought on by age. She felt she could get used to him in time.
Perhaps that was what her father had meant when he described Blaise as being a younger man. He could have meant younger compared to himself or compared to Sir Ferdinand. Either way, it was an improvement over a sixty-three-year-old husband.
Just to know for herself the differences between the man glaring up at her and the one she was escaping from, she asked him his age—without thinking.
"Six and thirty, my dear, and since you find no qualm about asking my age, may I ask yours?"
Her face reddened, she looked away from him, and then in her embarrassment denied him the right to know her own age. "Nay, you shall not."
His face tightened and fists clenched, but she hardly cared. Blaise knew she was old maid, he had made that much known to her in his letter, but she would never allow him to know her exact age.
Her age had, as the numbers added up, become the very problem that prompted her into this position in the first place, and if she told it to him 'twould do nothing more than give him something precise to attack her with, and she refused to hand him that pleasure.
Though in her defense, 'twas unfair that three and twenty should be considered so old.
Marianne raised her chin. She reminded herself of why she was here and why he was here, and felt her courage glow and swell. She would make it up to him when they were properly married, and only after he atoned for his sins.
She approached him, the click of her shoes slow and matching her heartbeat, and with every step she felt her once thriving courage cower and shake like one of her useless guard dogs. Puffed out and brave until hissed at by a stray cat.
Still, she was proud when her hand refused to shake as she held it out to him, and he eyed it suspiciously before reaching out to take it into his larger, firmer grip.
Marianne was momentarily distracted by how his hands managed to be neither soft nor truly rough. She imagined that he once handled a weapon quite often with those hands but had not done so for some years. She had to pull herself from her scattered thoughts to keep a straight face for what she about to say.
"You are on your knees, I am here, and this is a church. You may ask me to marry you now."
"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 tried 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. She refused to allow him to marry her off to a man with one foot already in the grave.
"My Lady," Gray's eyes were flashing, and he bore 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. "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 that after so many years spent as a bachelor would suit you well."
Gray's eyes turned away from her, his brow 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 had expected him to consider their offer within the hour of Marianne's proposal.
When he returned his eyes to her, Marianne was taken in by the color of their blue. 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 remained sure 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 too long either 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 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 sparring with her.
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, but he assumed his title would make up for his longer years.
He wondered if she was a widow and that was 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, without using his proper title.
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 bore her teeth to him as he had done to her.
William could see how she dearly wished to tell him what she thought of his plan. But she looked above him to the men who held him he saw when she changed her mind.
Curiosity peeked, 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 called Archer 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.
For their lives.
He no longer saw them as confident, 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, and 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, and Gray smirked and rolled his eyes, as though he had seen them behaving quite differently at one time. Marianne had to wonder what he knew that she did not, for surely they would not have been so bold with an earl.
Father Mitchell shifted his aging feet. "Are you prepared to take this step then?"
Marianne gasped when Blaise 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 Father 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." Father Mitchell's demeanor and voice held every respect entitled to him.
Marianne held her breath when he 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 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 soon 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 she was a woman with enough of a brain to handle herself and 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 before she knew it the ceremony was over.
She would not have noticed if not for the strong hand that tangled itself in her hair, pulling her forward until her lips clashed against the lips of her new husband.
A tongue invaded her mouth and her mind experienced a moment of nothingness before her senses came back to her.
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 instead of using her hands to push him away she grabbed hold of his tunic in her fists to keep from sinking to her knees.
Never had her lips been so fully claimed by the mouth of a man. She had seen kissing before, but was sure that none of the couples she had caught capturing moments alone had looked quite the way she did.
Her mouth tingled and her body buzzed with a passion that made her previous fire blazing sin appear as nothing more than a helpless spark. Her breasts buzzed, puckered and swelled when he pulled her to his chest. And she could not explain why she wanted him to touch them other than to intensify the flickering feeling.
When he released her Marianne could not stand in the spinning room, and she blindly reached her hands out to Father Mitchell to keep from falling to her knees. He caught her and dutifully allowed her to lean against him to catch her escaping breath.
'Twas several seconds before she could bring herself to notice her own men whistling and jabbing each other, grinning in her direction. Even Father Mitchell smiled in the weakening candlelight.
She wanted to accuse them of not aiding her when their captive so obviously attacked her, but she could not bring herself to be upset with them. He was now her husband and could do with her as he pleased, and it was her wedding day. Certainly it did not happen the way she expected it would, but she was delighted with the outcome nonetheless.
For the moment.
A sharpened quill was put in her hand, and she dipped it in the bottle of ink Father Mitchell provided before signing her name in the appropriate place that would make the marriage legally binding.
She looked at her signature before allowing Blaise to do the same, pleased with the clean way her script looked despite her numb fingers. Father Mitchell sanded the document.
"Congratulations, my lord. May you be blessed with many more children and long life." Mitchell said when he finished signing.
Marianne caught his words and looked between the two men, thinking there had been some sort of mistake. "More children?"
She was unaware Blaise Gray had any children.
Her question prompted him to stare at her. "I have a son, did you not know that?"
Marianne shook her head. She hadn't known that. When her father discussed Blaise with her, he never mentioned children.
She looked up and saw that Archer and his men were now looking amongst themselves curiously, muttering as if they would find the answer for her strange behavior in their party.
A possible answer appeared like a splash of cold water, and Marianne felt her stomach fill with dread.
She eyed the man before her carefully. Her husband. "My lord?"
She saw him for the first time and really noticed his age, and the feeling that a mistake had been made would not uncoil itself from her gut.
Her mouth dried and she could taste cotton. "Lord … William Gray?"
He stepped closer, a spark in his eyes that told her he was becoming aware that something was amiss as well. "Aye?"
Marianne put a hand to her mouth to keep whatever was inside her from coming up that way. "Oh, good Lord."
She ran from the altar and burst through the doors of the church. The sharp chill in the air only made her situation more real, and she knew she had to escape it.
She could vaguely hear Archer calling after her, no doubt confused by her actions, but she refused to stop. Refused to face what she had done to her men and to William Gray.
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 had kidnapped the wrong man. She'd married the wrong man!
To Be Continued …
A.N (update July 2011): For those of you who have faved this story and are re-reading it, or are just discovering for the first time, I've uploaded Lady Thief to Smashwords so you can enjoy it on your reader instead of from the screen of your computer. The editing was gently redone and the beginning scene of this chapter switched around a little as well, along with one of the love scenes being slightly reworked. This is to keep both copies of the books from being exactly the same should anyone happen to read both, and also because I think the one on Smashwords reads better now. The cover art is professional and looks pretty good I think In the month of July 2011 it will be offered for free as part of the Smashwords Summer sale. You just have to put in the coupon code offered on the book page https:/ www . smashwords .com/books/view/57922 If the page doesn't show properly, then type in SSWSF during the checkout, and that should work. After that, it will go up to 99 cents to hopefully offset the cost of the cover artist.
The sequel, Lady Deception, will also be uploaded just as soon as I get another cover for it and do some more editing. Thank you!
A.N (From original post): Something a little different from the usual thing I do, this is my first Historical which has been looked over by a critique group and is in the middle of seeing another critique partner, but I figured that posting it like this would encourage me to work more on it. It is finished with the exception of polishing the last half, updates will be posted daily after I've read over the chapters, and if there are any historical errors that I might not know about (And there are a lot) feel free to let me know :) Thanks.