THREE

"End it? 'Tis impossible."

He was laughing at her! The nerve of him! She was completely serious!

She clenched her hands in his bed sheets and tightened her jaw. She would be taken seriously. "Nay, we could do it. I am not truly your wife until the marriage has been…" she blushed and plowed on. "…consummated. We can petition for an annulment."

William stopped his chuckling and folded his arms. Marianne did not know what to make of his stance until he spoke.

"You are more simple minded than the average female."

"What?"

"We both swore in front of a houseful of guests that you and I have been one already. How would we explain such a thing to them? Without ruining my reputation," he added when she tried to speak up.

Marianne chewed her bottom lip. He was right. Everyone on the bottom floor already thought they had consummated the marriage and would likely not believe otherwise even if told so.

She thought of allowing him to question her virtue, but that would not work either since everyone assumed she had given it to him weeks ago.

She clutched the bed sheets tighter, wishing for a solution to present itself, but none came.

He watched her with his piercing eyes, waiting to see what she would do to bring a solution to their problem.

She pounded the bed. "But can you not see how wrong this is? You would only be using me to disperse of your anger," she accused, her voice high pitched, hoping to stall what was to come. "You are vengeful and 'tis disgusting!"

He shrugged. "Aye, 'tis true."

Marianne gasped and stepped back. "You admit it!"

"Of course I do!" He roared, coming forth but not passing the bed she hid behind. "Why should I cater to your emotions after you put us into this position? And even if the possibility of an annulment was still available to us, I would not allow you to have one even if you had not been so reckless, and foolish, and stupid as to kidnap the wrong man!"

A swelling ache built in her chest and rose up painfully, and Marianne put her hand to her throat to ease the building lump.

This was not what she wanted. She walked away from Ferdinand and into something just as horrible. Why was she such a fool?

William knew she had naught to give, nor any other excuses, but she would not surrender.

"I refuse,"

"Refuse?" His face exploded in red, fists clenched and shook at his sides.

Marianne watched, mixed fascination and fear as his veins popped up around his forehead and neck. She stepped back.

"Nonsense! I am your husband and you my wife. 'Tis my right to demand this of you, and should I wish it I could walk over to where you stand and take you. You would have no one but yourself to blame."

Marianne wished he were laughing again. That mockery would have been preferable to the anger she had to deal with now.

"You should think very carefully, Marianne,"

She tensed when he used her given name, lacing it with a cold and unforgiving hiss. Whatever patience he had with her had vanished.

He was still not finished with her. "My reputation would suffer incredibly, that much is true, but who would be forgiven for this should the truth raise its head? Myself or you? You are the culprit here and should I turn you out of my house I doubt very much that your father would welcome you back into his. Not for all the gold in the world, I would say."

Marianne fought tears. The fight only worsened her sore throat and she was certain it gave her a red face.

Why did he have to be so infuriatingly correct? She had no choice in this matter. 'Twas his right to ask for what was his and sinful that she should deny him, just as it had been sinful for her to disobey her father and Ferdinand and rush behind his back like that to kidnap herself a husband.

And look at the rewards that act bestowed upon her.

000

William took note of the helplessness of her stance as his words sunk in. The loosening of her shoulders and the enlightenment that showed in her face as she realized her defeat.

He knew she would give him what he wanted, but never before had he been brought so low as to force himself on the unwilling. No matter how much the woman in question richly deserved it.

His fists clenched at the thought, and the consequences she would suffer if he went through with such a plan were more than he wished to inflict upon her.

He regretted the anger he displayed to her, his cruel words and the fear he could see in her now.

He could not punish her like this.

He crossed to the other side of the bed in two swift strides and lifted her chin. How strange to see it so low when he was used to having her thrust it in the air in that prim way at him.

She was nothing like Alice.

Perhaps Marianne's courage in the church had been an act. A shame, really, since he rather liked her that way. The idea that she could be as mousey as every other woman he had ever met was nearly as infuriating as believing he had been cheated in a dice game without proof.

But then he recalled, only moments earlier bluntly refusing to give him what was rightfully his to take, and he changed his mind.

No, she was a courageous woman, bold and daring. She simply had no place to put it all. Right now, however, her pride had suffered a beating.

Damn if it was not killing him to not take her.

He could not help himself. He kissed her. He had to. He had not touched her like this since the day of their wedding when he forcefully pulled her mouth to his, and he had to experience it again. This time, however, he was sure to keep his touch light, his fingers threading through her hair unthreatening. He didn't want her springing away on him again.

He was shocked when, after a moment, she moved her lips against his, pressed herself closer and clutched his shoulders for balance. Her mouth parted and he groaned and plunged in. His body readily responded to her and he reminded himself that she only did so because she thought it was what he wished her to do, not what she wanted him to do.

For the second time, he made a decision concerning her that he knew he would likely regret.

He pulled his lips away from her mouth, pleased to see that they were fuller from his kiss and her cheeks were coloring the same shade as her hair, and he could tell 'twas only the embarrassment that put the color there, not any fear he had caused.

He removed his hands from her and stepped back, relishing her confused eyes, and hands that were still held out to him.

He bowed his head. "Goodnight,"

He spun on his heel and left the room before he decided he could not go through with it, no doubt leaving her very confused in his wake.

000

A week passed, and most of the guests had their fill of food, drink, and music before departing for home with both her and William's blessings.

Marianne still spent every night in William's chamber, in his bed, waiting with shaking anticipation for him to come and take her. And every night he either slept next to her without so much as laying a little finger on her body, or he disappeared for the night to some mysterious place and she did not see him at all.

It made her strangely angry to think that he was most likely with a mistress, but there was naught she could do to stop or scold him in that respect but to glare at him at the table whenever they took their meals in their chamber.

He never spoke to her except to ask if she found her new living arrangements comfortable. Considering what she had expected of him the night she made Graystone her home, his concern irritated her. On that night he could barely keep his hands, or his anger, to himself. Now he never touched her.

Marianne was grateful for his distance at first, but as time went on it made her horribly lonely. Not for the first time since she had discovered the truth in that old church did she wish she had thought her plan through a little more carefully.

William's footman, Adam, gave her a tour of her new home, the first she would receive since living at Graystone. Only after she tired of sitting around not knowing anything of her new home he had done so after she demanded it of him.

Judging by the healthy complexion and casual form of the tall, dark haired man, Marianne knew that William must be a good master who took excellent care of the needs of his servants.

Perhaps a little too good.

In the week that she'd lived in the castle, Marianne had seen little of anything other than William's chamber, the great hall, and the gardens. While she saw naught but utter devotion from Adam when he did his chores, the other servants worried her.

Nearly every new morning she awoke to a chilled room. The maid was usually late to light the fire. Often times Marianne found either herself or William, when he bothered to sleep in his own bed, rising to set the logs ablaze. Her food was served cold, the gardens were in a decaying mess of weeds and bugs, and more than once she had walked down the halls to see several men and maids conversing among themselves as if they were the masters of the castle rather than the ones who kept it in fit condition. Some of the same servants she suspected had hid away from the wedding celebration to avoid their work.

Something had to be done, and Marianne wondered if this was the true reason William had agreed to marry her in the first place.

Her own words rang back in her ears, You will be rewarded with a suitable dowry, a woman of age to bear you children and handle the affairs of your home.

It was high time she started acting like she was the lady of Graystone. She made a mental list of the things that needed to be done, a mental list she planned on presenting to her husband to prove that, despite their situation, she could show him that their bargain could work.

"These are the stables," Adam said, leading her inside. The smell of earth and manure scratched her senses, but the stench was not strong enough that she needed to cover her nose. Once Marianne's eyes adjusted to the dim lighting she saw that despite the condition of the castle, the stables were kept remarkably well.

The dark haired man shifted his feet and looked about as though expecting his master to appear at any moment. "I don' know if you should be in here, milady."

Marianne ignored him. Grooms had stacked the hay stacked properly, fresh water and grain for the horses had been laid out while the grooms inside brushed the animals. Her eyes found Archer down at the other end of the stables, sitting on a stool under a window and cleaning out one of the horses' shoes with loyal attention.

Marianne suddenly felt as if she could float away. How happy she was to see him, unhurt and where lord Gray said he would be put.

"If I am to be the mistress of this castle then 'tis time I see what needs to be done." She lifted the hem of her gown to keep from dirtying them and continued to where Archer sat. Happiness filled her when he looked up at the sound of her voice. How she wanted to speak with him. "This will be just fine."

He stood when she approached and bowed, but then looked over her shoulder and saw Adam.

Damn! How could she apologize to Archer if William's footman insisted on following her so closely wherever she went? Before she could steal Adam away to have her tour of the castle, lord Gray had seen them, pulled her away from Adam and had made clear to her that he wanted no one to know that she had forced him into a marriage. There was not a chance he would have let a servant, even if he was the most loyal servant, know about the condition of their union.

'Twas foolish for him to have Adam remain so close. The true reason was that he did not want to risk that she might run away.

Regardless, the apology would have to be postponed for later. Perhaps now was the best time to simply speak with him and determine if he remained angry with her, or if his back still stung from her father's treatment.

When he bowed to her she was pleased with the easy way he did so. Perhaps his back no longer troubled him as much as she thought it did.

"Milady," Archer greeted her, sparing Adam a nod of his head.

"Archer," she did not know what to say. What would a gentle-bred lady say to the man hired to keep her horses? She had never had to watch her tongue around him before. He was much more like an older brother than a servant, especially after Reggie's death.

She could think of nothing to say, and Adam's presence had naught to do with it. "You look well,"

He nodded. The horse whose shoe he had been cleaning nudged him, and Archer reached a hand up to stroke his muzzle without taking his eyes away from her. "Robert 'as been keepin' me busy. Keeps my mind from wanderin' to … other things."

Guilt attacked her entire body and clawed her mercilessly from the inside. He referred to his family, the family he had been separated from for protecting her from her father. There was no scorn in his voice, none directed towards her at any rate. Perhaps this meant he would forgive her?

"Yes, the stables are kept much better than the castle. Perhaps I could convince my new husband that 'twould be more suitable to spend our nights here."

A ghost of a smile cracked Archer's miserable lips before disappearing.

Adam cleared his throat. "Naught here has been well kept for quite some time. Master Gray usually has to make his demands known loudly whenever he wishes the stables as clean as this. I too am amazed at the neatness in here. No doubt 'twas all your doing rather than Robert's?"

Archer hesitated, eyed Adam carefully, then nodded when he finished judging his character. Marianne could hardly blame him. No one really wished to speak ill of their superiors should their words make it back to the person in question.

Marianne blew air out of her mouth. How many of William's servants were running loose throughout his household? How could he be so cold to her and still allow these people to walk all over him as they seemed prone to do?

Seeing William would have to wait for later. She could not wait to tell him of her plans with his castle. No, she would set her commands in motion now, before the servants knew of his wishes, and let him see that she was as fit to run a household as she claimed.

She straightened her back and reminded herself that she was the lady of the castle. "I would like to see this Robert. If the stables are his business, then he should be in here with Archer and not out doing … whatever he is doing at this time. Where is he?"

Archer hesitated. "I think 'e is with master Blaise, milady,"

She blinked, unsure of how she should feel about having missed seeing Blaise. After a week she had almost grown to think she would never see him. It appeared he spent much of his time hunting and riding, or hiding in some other part of the castle. "Is that so? Doing what?"

"Riding, most likely," said Adam. "They do that. 'Tis the only thing that will get Robert to move his, er, to get 'im working, milady."

She tapped her chin, struggling over whether she should await his return or harass the servants into working. "Hmm, when do you expect them back?"

Archer shrugged. "They left some time ago, milady. I 'xpect they shall return shortly."

No sooner had the statement left his lips did two horses gallop into the stables before jolting to a heavy halt out of the reach of the sun, kicking up earth and strands of hay.
Marianne's stomach ached. Even with the dim lighting she knew who it was. With a little warning she might have fled before they arrived.

She had dreamed of this confrontation for months, but dearly wished for it to not happen now that he was here. Now she must finally meet Blaise. The man she was supposed to marry and the man that turned her down.

The thought lit a fire of anger in her heaving chest. 'Twas his fault she was in such an awkward position and she would do well to not forget it!

With the light behind them she could not distinguish the two from each other at first. When they lowered themselves from their horses, the older of the two allowed the grooms to take his horse away while the younger held the reigns tightly. As he approached the light in the windows, Marianne found that if not for the clothes they wore, which clearly stated their differences in station, she still would not be able to tell one from the other. The sight sucked the breath out of her.

Both men were of equal height and hair color, a bright orange only found on the carrots in Marianne's stew, that met in a small widow's peak in the center of their foreheads. Both pairs of cheeks were equally spotted with freckles, though they did appear fading on the face of the older man. And one did appear some years older. He was older than William even, though not by many years, with deep lines under his eyes and aging hands.

Marianne saw no laugh lines around his mouth either, and she pondered over what could prevent a servant, who was offered so much freedom, from ever smiling.
For a servant neither his posture nor step was humble, he stood as tall as the young lord walking beside him, though he did keep one hand clasped over the other.
The younger one must surely be Blaise, but they looked too much alike to not have any blood connection.

Surely Archer had made a mistake. But when the younger one handed Archer the reigns of the magnificent animal he had been riding, she knew that no mistake had been made.

"See to it he gets watered." He patted the animal fondly on the neck. "Benedict ran well today."

Archer bowed. "Aye, Master Blaise."

"Youare Blaise?" The words burst from Marianne's throat without her permission. She deeply suspected it when she saw them, but 'twas shocking nonetheless to find it to be true.

He turned a scornful eye to her, his nose upturned in sneer. Then he looked at her red hair before a flicker of recognition dawned. "Yes, and you must be my new stepmother."

To Be Continued…

A.N:

Grumpirah: Hey, I'm so happy the story is agreeing with you so far, hopefully this chapter is to your liking as well :)

Lady Thief Fan: Hi, thanks so much for reviewing, yeah reviews are nice I hope that everyone who leaves one likes the story as much as you, or, failing that, gives some suggestions. Well, hopefully you'll continue to find everything just as intriguing as the story moves forward, thanks for reviewing!