Elizabeth attempted to halt her rushing feet, slid in the muck and tripped over them instead. Her body fell flat in the mud which splashed up her gown, caking her legs, chest, and face in the sludge that horses tread on.
She struggled to lift herself out of the clinging, wet dirt, but only made it as far as her hands and knees. She removed her hood in spite of the heavy rain, and stared with a gaping mouth at the image that shocked her into halting in the first place.
There was a naked man in front of her.
His body did not so much as twitch to give her proof of life as he lay face down in the middle of the road. There was no sign of a horse, nor any small item that could have belonged to him.
He had been robbed.
Eliza pushed her hands against the mud to push herself to him. She half crawled as her feet struggled for purchase in the slop, but her skirt, heavy with muck and rain, hampered her.
His face lay halfway inside a rain puddle that grew and filled with every heavy raindrop that spattered inside, filling the pool and endangering him.
If he did not wake on his own his fate would be sealed. He would drown if she left him like this! Elizabeth gave up on her feet and pulled herself to him with her arms. 'Twas easy with the slime-like quality of the muck. Upon reaching his still form she took his shoulder and pulled hard until he lay on his back, out of danger from inhaling the brown water.
The dirt that darkened his face washed away in the warm rain, revealing a square jaw, prominent brows and cheekbones, and a nose with only a slight crook in it. No bruise marred his perfect features.
"How did this happen?" She asked before deciding that the answer may lie beneath his mud caked hair.
Her hand hesitated before gently moving forward. She probed her fingers through the rough string. Mud and rocks slipped away with the intrusion until she found what she searched for.
A lump the size of a robin's egg sat stiffly on the back of his head, and it cracked open like an egg as well, trickling blood into her curious fingers.
She shook her head, terror filling her gut as she twisted her head in search of anything he might posses, anything she had missed that the wretched band of thieves may have left behind. A horse could take her to the nearest village where she could sell it for medicine. Surely the man would not mind in his condition.
She held back a sob as the bending trees, the sloppy road, and some leaves swirling in the whistling wind crushed her prayers. "Those brutes. Evil son's of swine."
Elizabeth stared down at the man in her arms, who did not stir at the sound of her black tongue. Her small body provided him with almost no protection against the weather and her helplessness engulfed her.
If she left him here he would surely die. Yet, she had naught with which to carry him back to shelter with, no cart, no horse, not even a mule. And even if she did have those things, she doubted she would be able to hoist him high enough to get him safely on a horse to begin with.
Elizabeth ran her finger through his orange hair. She would not leave him to this monstrous fate. She would not have the blood of another man resting on her soul because a group of foolish men had to excite themselves by taking their games too far.
Elizabeth threw off her cloak. The rain soaked through the material long ago, making it useless to keep her dry, but it could spare the man's dignity well enough. Perhaps when he awoke and discovered that she had dragged him by his hands through mud, twigs, and filth, he would not take his anger out on her.
Luckily her hut was not far.
Blaise's head burned. The heat ravaged his skull so harshly that he turned over in his sleep to angle himself away from the fire. The flames followed him.
"No more logs," His slurred voice commanded. His bed felt rough and gritty, bits of straw poked him and made his body tingle and itch. He would command the servants to laundry the sheets when he decided to awake. It felt as though he slept on a mound of hay.
A hand touched his shoulder. His father, surely, for no one other than he would dare enter his chamber to wake him. But no, the hand that touched him was small and thin, not large like that of a man. His step-mother?
In another of her playful tempers that only caused him more annoyance.
Blaise pushed the hand away. "Off with ye, Marianne. I am in no mood for your games."
"Marianne?" The feminine voice huffed as though affronted. "I am Elizabeth!"
Blaise forced his eyelids to open for him, a difficult thing since they felt as though they were being weighed down by rocks. When they finally obeyed his commands and opened, Blaise shut them tightly again with the sharp stabs that assaulted his eyes.
His hissed and rubbed his fists to his eyes. Those same feminine hands wrapped around his wrists and tried to force him to pull away but he held firm.
Whether he could see or not did not matter. His senses returned and the awareness that he was in a foreign place with an unknown woman filled his body with sharp displeasure.
He wished to see more of where he was, but pain, tears, and blurred images greeted him when he opened his lids.
"What did you put in my eyes, witch?" He growled, rubbing harder and hating his blindness.
The hands yanked themselves away. "Witch! I put nothing in your eyes! 'Tis only dirt."
He did not believe her. He had dirt in his eyes plenty of times before and not once had he ever been in such pain. "'Tis more than dirt. Only boulders could do this."
He tried to rub out the offending things, or at least move them to an area of his eyes where they did not cause him such discomfort. He needed to open them again and see where he was, be aware of his surroundings so that he might make an escape.
The female voice softened. "Aye, 'tis true. I would not be shocked if there were some rocks in there scratching at the whites of your eyes. 'Tis actually mud from the road where I found you."
Blaise halted the rubbing of his eyes but his hands remained in place. The road where she found him?
Aye, that was correct. He was riding his horse, heading back to Graystone castle because of the rain when he was stopped by a portly man in the middle of the road.
His memory could conjure no solid image, but he did recall how the man humbly begged Blaise for coins to feed his starving family with.
Sympathetic and eager to be out of the wet weather, Blaise reached for his pouch. He was promptly grabbed from behind and dragged from his horse, held down by what could only be a giant with the strength that overpowered him, and beaten over the head by another man, before all turned black on him.
Beneath the damp blanket, for the first time Blaise was aware that he was naked. The thieves took everything then. He could hardly believe his luck that they hadn't taken his life as well, though it would only serve him right for allowing himself to be tricked in such a manner.
He swore to himself to never trust another individual outside of his immediately family after Robert's betrayal. Now, because he so much as trusted that a beggar might truly be in need of sustenance, he found himself blind and helpless.
He clenched his fists in the straw. Relying on a peasant woman for aid. 'Twas humiliating.
"Is the pain so horrible for you to scowl so?"
The voice was soft, indicating that he was not being made a joke of. He still ignored the question. "Was there nothing left of mine scattered in the road? My sword, or horse?" He asked.
"Nay, only yourself. You are fortunate that I came when I did as you would have drowned had I not been travelling down that road."
Blaise sputtered at her strange lie. "Drowned? There are no streams near that road."
"Nay, but the rain does create small streams and lakes of its own, and you were laying face down in one of those growing puddles."
Her plainly spoken statement silenced him. He could hardly think at all. So the thieves left him for dead. He supposed he should feel grateful that they left him for dead rather than seeing to the job themselves, otherwise he would not have been rescued by the woman sitting with him.
He had no eyes so he relied on his ears to tell him that Elizabeth picked herself up from where she sat next to him, went to the other side of the chamber, and Blaise heard water being poured from a pitcher before she returned and sat next to him.
"Remove your hands. I'll wash it out. 'Tis clean water."
Blaise kept his hands over his eyes for one second longer, knowing that if he removed them the stabbing would return. But the offending rocks had to be taken out or else he would likely suffer with them for hours.
Her hand pressed against his chest, pushing back down into the straw. "Put your head back."
He did as he was told, removing his hands and forcing them down but still keeping his eyes firmly shut against the onslaught of mud in his eyes.
He felt her thumb and finger press just under and over his left eye, and he knew what she prepared to do before she explained it. "When you open your eye, I shall hold it open and pour the water in."
Blaise nodded and opened his eye right away. The pressure of Elizabeth's fingers kept it open when instinct forced him to try and lock it shut as cool water splashed across his eye and blurred his vision.
Blaise gritted his teeth, counted, and could stand no more and forcefully turned his head away.
Elizabeth cursed above him as she stilled the bowl to stop the water flow. "Fool! I have not yet finished!"
"I have!" Blaise hissed back, wiping the water out of his face and keeping his other eye shut while he tried to force vision to come to the one that was open. His eye was clean, he could see perfectly through it without the pain of being stabbed with tiny mud rocks.
Instead of peering at his surroundings, his good eye focused on the woman sitting above him who dared insult him. Blaise's breath caught.
Only at the sight of her did he realize that 'twas no common peasant who rescued him. Her language, while occasionally foul, had no country accent. The fingers that tended to him were not rough with working hard labour. Though her ragged appearance and loose wet hair suggested that what he saw was a common serf, her treatment of him proved otherwise.
"Who are you?"
"I told you, I am Elizabeth Hollow. You are in my home."
Blaise looked beyond her, his one hand still pressing against his dirty eye.
What he thought was a chamber in much larger dwelling was actually a hut that could hardly be considered a home. His bed of hay was at the far corner, in the center sat a small, dying fire that could in no way be responsible for his earlier discomfort.
His hand flew to the back of his head. He winced as the lightning-quick pain struck him. The burning returned.
"A gift from my attackers, no doubt." He muttered.
The girl said nothing, likely not wishing to anger him with any misplaced comments on his loss, so he returned to inspecting her home.
There were a few shelves of meagre possessions, pots for cooking and, to his shock, what he was sure was a lady's gown, folded and stuffed in one of the shelves.
He could hear the rain outside. It had been pouring during his attack, enough to keep him from seeing that there were men surrounding him before it was too late. 'Twas now at a gentle shower. Though Elizabeth's roof still leaked and dripped in some places.
Elizabeth gripped his chin and forced her to face him again, the bowl of water still in hand. "That is enough of you gaping at my home." She forced his other eye open and poured the water quicker than she had the last time.
Blaise nearly turned away again but fisted his hands into the damp hay and grit his teeth.
"Be still." Elizabeth commanded.
"I am, you wench." Blaise hissed, allowing her to wash the remains of dirt from his eyes.
When the bowl was empty he brought his hand up to wipe away the remaining drops still on his face.
Elizabeth slapped his hand away. "Stop that. You're spreading dirt around on your face." She applied a rough bit of cloth to do the job for him, then took his hands and washed them with the damp rag as well.
He kept his eyes on her while she diligently cleaned the drying mud from his fingers. Her thin brows came together over the largest eyes he had ever seen as her hands gently wiped the filth from him.
His hands heated under her care, and his body tingled. He cleared his throat, reminding himself that she could likely be the enemy. "Thank you."
The movement of her hands against his stopped. Her head did not lift but her eyes turned up to look at him beneath thick strands of her dark, wet hair that fell in her face. "I never would have thought that you should thank anyone for anything, milord."
The muscles in Blaise's body tensed, any warmth he felt over her touch vanished as a chill raced through him. He took his hands from hers and stood up, ignoring his nudity.
Elizabeth scurried to her feet and backed away a step, her eyes wide on him.
"How do you know me?" He demanded, stepping towards her. She stepped back again. He didn't care. She hadn't outright spoken his name but she knew who he was, at least enough to know that he was a lord despite how she supposedly found him naked in the muck. "How do you know me?"
She blinked, regaining her composure, though her hands clenched together in fright in front of her. "Your hair."
She raised her finger and pointed. "Everyone knows that lord Blaise Gray has that color hair. 'Tis the only reason I can think of as to why anyone would bother with robbing ye."
He sighed, relief pulsing through him at the obvious answer and hating how true her words rang to his ears. "Ah, I suppose that answer would have to be the truth."
Blaise relaxed his body, he did not want to appear threatening to this woman who'd taken him in and, according to her, saved his life. Despite his calm stance, she remained tense and at a distance.
Ah, yes, he was naked and alone with a woman. Blaise sat back down in her bed of hay and pulled the filthy blanket over his lap, only then did Elizabeth breathe a sigh of relief. She still did not approach him.
"I apologise for my behaviour. It slipped my mind that I am so easily recognised by my despicable hair."
Recognisable enough to be made into an easy target by thieves. He thought sourly.
Elizabeth nodded. "It is a despicable colour."
Blaise clenched his hands into her damp, filthy blanket. "Regardless, you have my word that while I am here, I mean you no ill will." If she made another comment like that, however, he might just take back that promise.
"Do behave so rashly with every lady you meet?"
He raised a brow at her and smiled at the obvious jest. "Lady?"
She bristled as his eyes travelled up and down gown she wore, covered in the same muck she'd washed from his face, hands, and eyes, fraying in all the places he could see, and thin enough for holes to penetrate. "Aye. Lady. My father was a wealthy knight, but my mother decided to raise me in poverty rather than have him know me."
"And, where is your mother now?"
"She is dead."
Blaise's thoughts went away with him again. He would allow himself to feel no pity while in this suspicious state. "I suppose you would prefer some sort of payment for your services then?"
She did not attempt to deny her intent, though there was no malice in her words. "'Tis the least you could do for a woman who saved your life, milord."
His suspicions that she may have had something to do with his situation raised up again. 'Twould not be the first time a member of the lower class had attempted to manipulate him to get what they sought.
Marianne Holton had attempted to kidnap him and force a wedding on him when he denied the proposed agreement of marriage. Instead, through sheer luck, she kidnapped and married his father by mistake, William Gray. Now they were known throughout the land as a couple completely in love and devoted to one another, with one child already and another on the way.
While alone with Elizabeth, nude and not a weapon on him, Blaise did not mention his theory lest she turn into a raving banshee and attack him with a log from the dwindling fire that she sat beside. She stirred something that smelled heavenly in the dented pot with a wooden spoon.
"I was not far from Graystone when I was attacked." He said, ignoring the scent. "Why bring me here instead of to my home?"
She looked over her shoulder, the disbelief in her eyes suggesting that she thought he might be the crazed one between the two of them. "Do ye take me for a lunatic? Just why would I go to your father's castle, dragging his naked son behind me and demanding entrance from the rain? They would have me locked away until you awoke, and then who would believe that I had nothing to do with your robbery—"
"When you asked for your payment?" He finished.
Elizabeth turned her head away, but Blaise glimpsed the rising color in her neck before she did. She poured a thick stew into a crooked bowl and handed it to him with a spoon.
She turned away from him immediately, not waiting to see if he would eat the stew or whether he liked it or not while she stood to face the opposite wall with her arms crossed. "You are not obligated to give me anything, nor am I entitled to anything. I was merely hoping that someone in your position may be able to help me leave this." She waved her hand around, indicating the square hut where she lived.
Blaise thought about it. The scent of the stew called to his nose and his stomach twitched, but he put off eating from it. "You are correct, I do owe you nothing."
Her back cringed at his words.
He sighed. "Yet I am not of the sort to abandon someone who did not abandon me. When the rain stops I will take you to Graystone and explain your situation to my father."
Elizabeth spun to stare at him. Her eyes sparkled with tear drops and her jaw trembled at his offer.
Feeling generous, Blaise dug the wooden spoon into the bowl, lifted out a mouthful of the steaming brown stew and took a bite. His eyes slid shut, savouring the taste. "Perhaps since you are skilled as a cook we can give you a position."
Elizabeth's face fell. 'Twas obviously not what she had in mind. Blaise chuckled and took another spoonful into his mouth.
If this wench thought he would give her a house and finery before he knew the truth about his robbery, then she was as mad as they came.
Elizabeth clenched her teeth, seething as he enjoyed the stew she created with the last of the essentials in her home.
Still, she supposed she should feel grateful, but she suppressed her sigh of relief until later. Whether it had been accidental or not, lord knew she didn't want the man left for dead, if he suspected that she had anything to do with his attack, he would kill her.
To Be Continued ...
A.N: This is the Sequal to Lady Thief, but I am attempting to write it so that yyou don't have to go back and read the last one to know what's going on.
Updates will be made daily unless something occurs that prevents me from doing this. Example, computer crash, power out, family emergency, etc.
I promised to post this starting today even if I wasn't happy with it, and I have to say that I'm not happy with it, not even with the title. Lady Thief took me almost a year to write and had several people from critique groups looking over my shoulder while I was at it. Lady Deception is a Nanowrimo novel and until today my eyes have been the only ones to look at it. Regardless, a promise is a promise. So enjoy it, and I'll continue to post chapters and edit as I go along just like with my other books so that it shines as best as can be under the circumstances.
Thanks for reading. And for those of you who wanted a sequal, thanks for pushing for it because otherwise this story wouldn't exist. And even though I'm not entirely happy with it as is, I still like it enough to be glad to have written it.