To Catch a Falling Thief
Blurb: A free online story that tells how the Black Prince, Declan, met his woman, and perhaps gives the reader a hint of how his descendants, Damian, Derek and Donal Black, might have come by some of their more peculiar ideas of courtship.
Approximately 400 years before the events in The Heartwood Box.
Declan sat at one of the outdoor tables at the biergarten. It was almost eleven, and the other patrons were peeling off. He had nowhere better to go, so he listlessly sipped from a heavy pewter stein, though he knew he shouldn’t. Fairies and alcohol were always a dangerous combination. If Titania knew, she would blister his ear with one of her officious lectures on how he was going to the devil. (To which he would reply that he’d been there as long as he could remember, at which she would attempt to glare at him, never realizing that those round eyes of hers were about as frightening as a kitten’s).
He felt a rather wan amusement when he noticed a small figure running along the stepped gables of the tall, narrow, triangular roofed townhouses. After flying up the stairs with the quick hustle of a child running from a bath, the figure flitted down the other side, and then without any hesitation jumped across the narrow gap to the one house that stood proudly insulated by an entire yard of air all around it, like a nobleman afraid of contamination by its unwashed inferiors.
The feat was enough to make the Fae prince sit up in his chair. Though the jump wasn’t difficult per se, the houses were five-stories tall, and to miss would mean certain death. Declan saw far better than any human in the dark, and he could probably step across the gap—but he also couldn’t die from that fall. The figure moved fleetly along the gutter on the edge of the roof. Declan nearly spat out his beer when the runner seemed to just fall off the side. In actuality, he had swung down from the gutter by his arms, and then slid through the open top of a window.
Declan was impressed in spite of himself. Such skills were nothing for a Fae, but for a human they were just short of amazing, and from his size, Declan judged the boy to be only fourteen or fifteen years old.
Declan raised his stein in a human toast to the little thief—because he was sure that was what he was. He felt no pity for his victims: this area was one of the wealthiest in Amsterdam. Those lucky enough to keep their money during the occupation had done so by collaborating, probably by turning in magic users.
Declan shook off the brief flare of interest. This city had been a mistake: a sprawling mass of filth, poverty, and brutality, coexisting alongside obscene wealth. Titania had meant well, but she knew nothing whatsoever of life outside her realm. She couldn’t possibly imagine a city like Amsterdam, which was now five years into a grueling occupation by the Spanish.
For reasons best known to themselves, the anti-magic fanatics that ruled Iberia had chosen to invade one of the few cities in Europe outside their own lands that was ruled entirely by humans. Ostensibly here to rid the city of “unholy” magic-users, in fact the viceroy and his troops had pursued the more profane goal of extorting every last penny they could from the populace, leaving criminal gangs in charge of actual governing. Thanks to the policies of these holy zealots, open sewers now ran down the streets, disease was rampant in poor and wealthy areas alike, education, businesses, trade, everything had fallen apart—all for the sake of expelling a dozen minor sorcerers, some disavowed Venetians, and a handful of witch-healers.
He should return to Venice, Declan thought, recalling the brothels there. It was humiliating, but the wizard brothels catered to a particular taste, and though the whores only submitted for the sake of gold not desire, some had pretended well enough to grant him a few hours of pleasure. Thinking over the past four months, Declan was sure Venice was the last time he’d even been able to achieve release.
Perhaps Titania’s banishment had cured him. If only he could throw himself at her feet with the news. But like most females, the queen was a soft-headed romantic. She would not consider the complete loss of sexual desire to be a cure.
Declan had almost forgotten the thief when he heard a loud crash followed by shouts and sounds of fighting. The thief suddenly appeared in one of the side windows on the third floor. Declan felt a sudden fear: this window was not within jumping range of any other surface—at least not a jump that a human could make. A cat perhaps could make the jump to the narrow ledge of the window belonging to the house across the alley. But Declan doubted he himself could do it—there was nothing to serve as a handhold. Though the human might survive the fall from the third story, he would certainly break his legs in the process.
Declan dismissed his fears. The boy was obviously an experienced thief. He would realize and find some other escape route—and anyway, though Declan had no pity for the householder, surely he could not feel great sorrow that a thief was being brought to justice, imperfect though it was.
Declan had just settled this within himself when he saw the little idiot throw his legs over the side of the window to sit on the sill without even checking first whether there was an escape from this window.
Despite the darkness and the distance, the Fae prince could easily see the lad’s panic when he grasped his situation. But rather than returning inside, he was eying that opposite sill. Declan slapped his hand down on the table. The boy had a burlap sack slung over his shoulder—it would throw off his balance on what was already an impossible jump.
A light appeared in the next room. A moment later the window was thrown open and a man with a cross-bow leaned out and aimed at the thief.
Declan didn’t think, but moving with inhuman speed, he stood and hurled his drinking cup at the guard, knocking the cross-bow from his hands, likely breaking them in the process. As the man bellowed in pain, Declan took two steps and then leapt across the thirty feet of the canal, to arrive beneath the window. “Jump!” he ordered.
“Who the hell are you?” the insolent little bastard yelled back.
“The person who is going to save your life. You have three seconds before I walk away. One…two…three.”
Thank the Mother it was a boy. Though Declan could have caught even an obese man, no adult would have believed him. But the boy gave a childish ‘what the devil’ shrug and actually jumped.
Declan caught him and lowered him to the ground. The boy immediately began to thrash and fight, but Declan easily kept hold of him. “There’s not much time,” he barked. Lights were flaring all over the house, and he could hear the rumble of men running to and fro, trying to find the thief. He began dragging the boy down the alley when the little thief fell to his knees, “Coo, what’s that? Think it’s silver?”
It was the pewter stein Declan had used as a missile. “It’s not silver, you idiot.” What kind of thief couldn’t tell silver from pewter? And what kind of idiot was he arguing with such a creature? The boy scooped up the mug, which probably cost a handful of duiten, and shoved it in his sack. He then tried to shoot between Declan’s legs, but the Fae was far too quick. He gripped the boy by the elbow and dragged him down the alley and across another canal to the next main thoroughfare. A few more streets in this pathetic excuse for a city took them closer to the walls and a decidedly rougher neighborhood. This close to the gates, there were several ramshackle travelers’ inns. He stopped in front of the one with the most signs of life. “Behave yourself and I won’t turn you in to the constable,” he ordered the lad and then entered and demanded a private room of the owner.
Observing the boy’s thinness, he added an order for a full dinner as well.
The host, an older man with tired blue eyes, paused uncomfortably and looked like he wanted to object. Was he refusing to serve the boy because of his poverty? Declan growled, and the man stammered out a terrified apology. Declan was glamoured to appear like a Slavic mercenary and wore no obvious signs of wealth. But disguising his aura of power and authority was an annoyance that he often dispensed with, especially since it spared him arguing with humans like this innkeeper.
The host licked some sweat from his upper lip, but moved to show them a shabby room off the main dining room.
Once they were alone, Declan let go the youth’s arm. Apparently saving his life was a grave offense, because the boy took a swing at him. Declan did not even bother to block the blow. Despite his impressive acrobatics, the thief threw a pathetic punch—indeed the lad didn’t even know how to make a proper fist. His thumb was squeezed inside his fingers!
Luckily, the boy’s blow wouldn’t have knocked over a toddler so there was no danger in his breaking his hand. When he saw his strike had failed, instead of backing off, the little thief shook his head furiously and then actually slapped at Declan girlishly with both hands.
Declan could only stare. The youth had no idea he was attacking the deadliest warrior in Faerie, of course. But Declan’s glamour disguised only his pointed ears and the Fae glow of his skin. It did not disguise the fact that he stood more than six foot four and looked strong enough to lift a draft horse—which he was.
In a tone that would give a Demon pause, Declan barked, “That’s enough.” He caught the thief’s slapping hand and squeezed hard, which caused the lad to sway dizzily and then fall to his knees.
Finally. But then Declan caught a look at the thief’s face staring up at him, and he almost swayed himself.
His thief was a girl.
She wore a boy’s clothes, and her ginger-colored hair had been shorn to fall just below her ears, but she was undoubtedly female. She was not fourteen as he’d thought, but closer to nineteen. She had enormous hazel eyes with delicate, auburn lashes. Even beneath the grime on her face, he could see the graceful curve of her brows and a charming sprinkling of freckles on her nose and cheeks.
Charming? Declan froze at the lunatic thought that had insinuated its way into his head. What on earth could be charming about this little urchin?
Declan was even more shocked when he realized his cock had shot hard at the sight of her on her knees. How humiliating.
He looked in disgust at the filthy face, tattered breeches, and homespun collarless shirt covered over by a decent-quality leather vest, no doubt stolen, which disguised her breasts, which were either bound or undesirably small.
“What do you want?” she snarled.
To his consternation, the answer to that question popped into his head in the form of an image of himself throwing her over his knee and heating up her backside for even contemplating that jump—roof to roof, five stories above the ground! Was she insane?
Or was he? He actually had to wrestle himself under control to keep from acting on the impulse.
He’d been wandering the continent for almost two years now, and he’d encountered thousands of women, but he’d never had to fight off his instincts once—indeed they finally seemed to have cooled, rather like scar tissue hardening over a once tender wound.
The girl must have caught something in his glance, because her eyes glazed and she swallowed. Again, he felt a wave of desire, but forced it down. “What is your name?” he demanded.
“Hans!” she snapped out.
“Lie,” he grated. It was impossible for a human to lie to a Fae, and it outraged him that she would dare.
“It ain’t a lie. My name’s Hans.”
“It isn’t, not it ain’t,” he corrected—and then ground his teeth. Was he a bloody school-master now? “Tell me your name!”
“Franz,” she lied again.
Declan breathed in and out. Inexplicably, her blatant lies pleased him—too much. With each one, he came closer to breaking down and punishing her. He gave her a smile that made her shiver and said, “Lie to me again, little thief, and I will punish you. Now, for the last time, what is your name?”
“Jan, you ugly brute!”
Ugly brute was he? “That’s two lies!” Moving fast as a leopard, he snatched her up, pulled her over his knee, gripped her wrists behind her back, and ripped down her breeches as the little human hollered and thrashed.
Once he saw her bared backside, Declan froze. What on earth was he doing? Whatever Titania’s commands, he was sure she did not intend him to return with a filthy human street urchin. Even if the heartwood box turned black, he could not make such a female his wife. He couldn’t even take her as a lover. He forced himself to look away from the lovely pale curves of her arse. He had to send her on her way.
He was about to shove her off again with a warning, when the girl screamed, “I’ll bugger you, you fat ugly cock-sucker!”
All of his good resolutions crumbled to dust. Declan crashed his hand down, causing the chit to howl furiously. He then said, “What… is… your… name…?” smacking her arse with each word.
“Win,” she sobbed out. “Win, it’s the truth.”
That at least was not a lie. He’d never heard the name before. Perhaps it was some sort of nickname. “And what, Win,” he asked, as he delivered another whack, “could possibly be so precious you would risk your neck to steal it?”
“None of your business,” the little baggage screamed at him. She didn’t sound remotely afraid of him—Declan, the Black Prince.
What a strange, perverse creature!
He brought his hand down a few final times, leaving her sobbing with rage, and her arse well scorched. He was instinctively moving his hand to soothe the pain with a caress when his Fae senses caught the scent of the girl’s desire.
Declan just about fell out of the chair. He forced himself to stop and practically shoved her off lest he take some unforgivable liberty with her—a girl who didn’t even know his name.
She jumped back, trying to keep her front covered on the assumption that he hadn’t guessed her secret. She pulled up her breeches and brought herself under control, throwing off the tears and finally resolving into a deep scowl.
A knock on the door interrupted their face off. “Don’t move,” he warned the girl, who was obviously preparing to bolt. He wondered how a girl with so little instinctive stealth could possibly have become a thief.
And to his great annoyance, he could think of nothing in existence more exciting than trying to find out the answer.
The host himself entered and then took his time setting everything out: knives, spoons, bread-board with the same disgusting rye bread that was served at every meal on every table in this wretched city, and finally two covered platters. Though trying to appear indifferent, the girl was eyeing the plates hungrily. It was difficult to see beneath the dirt, but he could tell from her wrists and shoulders that she was too thin.
She obviously wasn’t eating properly!
Another picture inconveniently popped into his head: the girl kneeling apologetically while he expressed his strong displeasure at her poor diet and then pronounced her punishment: he would feed her as she knelt by his chair, her hands bound behind her back. Some infernal imp within his mind tauntingly whispered the word “naked,” but he quickly squelched the thought.
Unfortunately, the damage was done. His cock hardened mercilessly as he imagined her meekly accepting her punishment, and then hardened if possible more when he envisioned her jumping up and attacking him, which would lead to another session over his knee.
The host was watching him nervously. “Is the boy…. I can bring… your servant… to the kitchen to eat, sir,” he said, his voice close to a whimper. “It’s no trouble at all.”
Declan could hear the lie in his voice: the man knew the “boy” was no servant. He was using it as an excuse to separate them. The human suspected him of planning to…?
His temper rose dangerously, but some buried voice of fairness recalled him to reason. It was hardly a stretch to suspect a mercenary who brought a boy this age to the private room of a tavern. Declan could even feel a grudging respect for the human, who braved one such as him to protect a street urchin.
That sensation of respect led to a bizarre hesitation over what he, the Dark Prince, should say--to a human tavern-keep! But he couldn’t help it: Declan had lived many centuries and he understood better than any human could the subtle but lasting damage it would do if he crushed this man’s instinct to help a child.
It was one of those rare moments when he regretted his Fae inability to lie—there was no denying he desired this “boy.”
To his surprise, Win herself came to their rescue. She gave the man a cool smile and said, “That will be all.”
The cheek of that little wench!
Her confidence must have reassured the host, because he practically bolted from the room. Declan gestured for her to sit and pushed both plates towards her. “Go on then, it’s getting cold.”
She sniffed as if she were doing him an enormous favor, and then took her seat. It gave him an unholy rush of satisfaction when she shifted, trying to find a comfortable position for her well-reddened posterior.
As he watched her eat, however, Declan became more and more uncertain about his little thief. She was obviously famished, but after she picked up the spoon, she seemed to be glancing at the table for a fork, a standard utensil in wealthy households, but unlikely to be on offer in an ordinary inn frequented by soldiers and working people.
Before taking a bite, she carefully pushed her food into distinct piles so that nothing was touching. As she ate, she was careful to get no grease or gravy on her hands, using the spoon and her piece of bread. It was absurdly feminine: had she never seen a human boy eat? Even Declan knew better, and he’d always refused to eat with humans before. And the good table manners were just wrong: working people, urchins, the poor, did not eat daintily from the side of their spoon as if sipping scalding hot consommé.
Most tellingly, though she ate greedily, she left the helping of boiled cabbage on both plates completely untouched. No child growing up in poverty would leave food like that, especially not a staple like cabbage, which was almost the only foodstuff available to the poor during the winter.
Despite the tattered clothing and the stealing, his thief did not grow up poor. He wasn’t sure whether he was relieved or angry that she was such a pathetic actress. She was clearly not equipped to brave the dangers of an occupied, crime-ridden city. Why on earth had she left her home and thrown herself on its mercies? Was it reckless willfulness? If that were the case, he looked forward to showing her what he thought of that. Perhaps she was dangerously naïve, unable to comprehend dangers that lay outside of her sheltered experience. Again, he would relish the chance to chastise such foolishness.
But perhaps she had been in some danger in her home—a retainer or relative might have tried to force himself on her; her father might have promised her in marriage to some heartless brute or repulsive old codger.
Declan knew himself well enough to recognize that he wouldn’t rest until he had the answers to these questions. And anyone who had threatened her would pay dearly.
“That was good,” she said, looking around the room in open surprise that this establishment would serve up edible fare. The girl seemed to have no notion of how easily and constantly she gave herself away.
To his astonishment she seemed cheered by the meal—almost as if she’d forgotten the spanking already, which of course made him want to start up again.
It soothed his anxiety somewhat when he realized that her experiences in the city, whatever their reason, had not left her jaded. Surely nothing too dreadful could have happened to her. And now that she had him to protect and guide her….
Once again, Declan was pulled up short by the absurdity of his musings—really ravings. What on earth was he thinking? He couldn’t recognize himself.
At Titania’s court, it was whispered he must be part demon—or at least Unseely. No one could believe a Fae could be that ill-tempered and boorish. He knew he was only tolerated because of his martial prowess. If not for his victories, Titania would have had to ban him or face revolt. As it was, he rarely lasted twenty-four hours before she was forced to expel him for some unforgivable offense. Except that of course, she always seemed to forgive him.
He wished he could call Titania a fool, but she was something infinitely more annoying and dangerous—a well-intentioned female, who to his endless disgust had decided that he needed saving.
“What?” the girl asked.
He’d been distracted, another lapse he could blame on this chit. “Did you get enough to eat?” he asked coldly.
“Yes, thank you,” she said, sounding completely sincere and even grateful. His ear could easily detect the cultured accent that she only intermittently tried to hide.
“Then perhaps you’d like to tell me why you risked your neck breaking into that house!” he roared out.
“What’s got into you?” she asked, raising her eyebrows at him.
This girl! “Do you want more time over my lap, little thief?” The little witch let out a long whistle, as if marveling at his cross temper.
“You do,” he said in an unmistakable tone.
“No, please, I beg you!” she cried, at least making a show of trying to placate him. His threat had her wary and rubbing her behind thoughtfully.
“Then answer the question,” he said more calmly.
Apparently once she judged the danger over, all caution deserted her because she answered impudently, “Go ahead, look.”
It was all Declan could do not to grab her again. He shook his head, forcing down his urge to punish her. Cleary with his little thief, if he gave in to every impulse to discipline her, the wench would never sit down again.
He salved his irritation with the reminder that he could always punish her five minutes from now since it seemed guaranteed that she would do something within that period to earn another spanking from him.
He opened the burlap bag and pulled out…an old wooden horse with yellow painted wheels for hooves and the tattered remains of a string to pull it.
It was a child’s toy, well used, even…chewed.
He held it out for her, waiting for an explanation. When she didn’t say anything, he growled, “You risked your life for this?”
“What? Don’t you think it’s valuable?” she said earnestly.
Not even five minutes! Apparently corrupted by his young guest, Declan didn’t try to hide his nature, but moved with inhuman speed to grab her and haul her over his knee. Again, he ripped down her pants and rested his hand on her already pink buttocks.
“Tell me now why I shouldn’t blister your rear end?”
“What’s got you in a lather?” she shouted back.
Declan smashed his hand down.
“Fine! I wanted it!” she yelled. Now he could hear a genuine emotion: rage.
It startled him for a moment before he smashed his hand down again. “That’s no answer: you almost died getting it. I want to know why!”
The girl started screaming incoherently at him, something about it not being his business and his being an ugly buggering brute of a bastard anyway and that she wanted it, which was reason enough.
Declan forced himself to exercise what he considered saintly restraint by giving her only four more smacks before he pulled her up again.
Now she was rubbing her rear end, glaring at him from beneath her hair, which had fallen over her tear-stained face. She cringed a bit, before steeling herself to stand straighter, refusing to show fear.
He realized he was glaring at her in a manner so threatening it had once reduced Titania to tears. He forced himself to relax his features—he really would be a brute if he frightened her. He felt strangely moved by her courage. For a moment it didn’t seem based on blind foolishness, but on sheer force of will.
“Why?” he said more gently. “Make me understand this.”
“I wanted it,” she said through her teeth. “And since I did risk my life for it as you say, may I please have it? Or were you planning to steal it from me?”
He silently handed it to her. Something passed over her face when she took it. The emotions were much too strong. She was on the verge of sobbing—she’d withstood two spankings from him, but seemed about to fall to pieces over this bit of chewed wood.
“It’s yours,” he murmured.
She blinked with surprise, and then her expression instantly transformed into one of blithe cheekiness. “It is now!” she boasted brightly. “Isn’t it grand? I always wanted one of these. Anyhows, them rich blokes don’t need it.”
She’d robbed her own house—that was the one explanation that could account for everything he’d observed. And if the servants there were trying to shoot her, then she’d had good reason to flee. Declan’s mind rapidly assimilated those facts… and then set them aside as somehow irrelevant. He could feel something dangerous awaken within him. The warrior in him sensed that she’d just revealed something crucial, exposed her main weakness—he just couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
The predator in him smiled. He could be patient. And the moment he understood what that weakness was, he would strike.
“Who lives in that house?” the soldier asked.
“No idea,” Winnie lied. That look passed over the soldier’s face again, like he wanted to haul her over his knee.
“Oh no, not again,” she warned him. “I won’t be able to sit as it is!”
To her satisfaction, he seemed to accept that unimpressive line of reasoning. She almost laughed that he did.
That was the fifth time she’d almost laughed! Damn it. She wasn’t in control and she needed to be. She didn’t want him to spank her again.
She reminded herself that those massive hands of his felt like wooden blocks coming down on her rear end.
He’d wanted to spank her nine times so far, but he’d only done it twice. She was having an awful lot of trouble figuring him out. She hoped it was the residual effects of hunger.
It had better be, she growled to herself. She wasn’t going to be trounced by an over-tall, over-handsome, black-haired bravo with a rotten temper.
How angry he’d been about that jump! That had been one of her almost-laughs. What would he say if he knew she’d made it the first time when she was eight years old? Would he spank her again? Unfortunately, there was some scary, deranged part of herself that was desperate to find out.
And it was touching that he’d worry like that. Only two people had ever worried about Winnie before, Maura and Ariel. And of course, it was wrong to laugh when someone worried—Maura had scolded her repeatedly for exploding in giggles when Winnie had practically given the poor woman a heart attack with her tricks. Winnie ruthlessly shoved all thoughts of Maura and Ariel away.
Maybe she’d nearly given the soldier a heart attack, poor baby. No wonder he’d spanked her. It occurred to her that she’d better not call him “poor baby” to his face.
Try as she might—and she really did try—Winnie occasionally spoke aloud without meaning to.
This man is dangerous, a deeply-buried, rarely-heard-from, sober part of herself warned. She needed to get away from him. Immediately! She’d been lucky so far that he’d not figured out her secret, but one lift of her shirt and it was all over.
Winnie knew she wasn’t in control of herself, knew she wasn’t being careful enough. He was no fool, and she didn’t know what he wanted other than to scorch her rear end.
It had taken him twenty-three seconds to reach the right conclusion about Horsie. If he found out the truth, she estimated it would take him fourteen seconds to reach the right conclusion about her.
Double Damn! Disguising herself as a boy had seemed like such a brilliant idea. There were thousands of boys here, loitering on every street and alley, along the sides of the canals, plentiful as stray cats and worth just as much.
The great overriding problem of Winnie’s life was that girls weren’t worthless.
They always had value, and every last whelp in this city thought he could bully them.
Why did this soldier have to be so handsome? And why couldn’t he just be a fool like other handsome men? It wasn’t fair! It made her want to scream, which was even more dangerous to her than wanting to laugh.
She could not lose her temper! Winnie repeated that to herself five times.
She must think of something else instead of how handsome he was.
Falk. Falk had seen her tonight—just barely and in the dark. Had he guessed the truth? He would when he saw what she’d taken. The only question was whether Falk would keep quiet to Gregor. It didn’t say much for Falk’s guarding skills that she’d not only escaped him, but had managed to sneak back into the house and then escape a second time.
Of course, Falk had been ready to shoot her with his crossbow tonight. He had seen her, she realized. That was depressing. He’d recognized her, and this was his solution—just shoot her and dump her body in the canal, cover up the whole failure. As if Gregor would even mind.
Winnie closed her eyes. How had she made such a mess of things?
“What are you so frightened of?” the soldier barked at her.
“You,” she snorted automatically.
Blast, there was that blistering look of his. Damn her cheeky tongue. Maura always warned her it would get her into trouble.
She wasn’t thinking about that!
“Sorry, don’t be mad,” she pleaded shamelessly. He just watched her from under those black bangs of his. Why did he wear his hair over his face like that? Did he have some ugly scar?
“Excuse me?” he snapped.
Bloody hell, did she just say that out loud? She needed to get control!
Covering, she demanded, “Do you have some ugly scar? Is that why your hair is over your face?”
Winnie cringed. Inane, insulting questions were one of her best deflections, but she kept forgetting she was supposed to be a boy. That didn’t sound much like a boy, even to her. Would a soldier notice something like that?
Why was he appearing beneath windows to catch falling thieves anyway?
She decided he was probably bored or broke… that is, she hoped not broke. Who was going to pay for that dinner? No, not broke. He wouldn’t order a meal and skip out on an innkeeper. Not this man. He might have spanked her, but he bought her dinner—two dinners! He caught thieves out of windows, bought hungry boys dinner, and wouldn’t cheat an innkeeper. Conclusion being: he wasn’t a murderer.
Unfortunately that didn’t explain him, and to Winnie’s life-long frustration, on this type of problem her vastly superior intellect was simply not up to the job.
Winnie knew she was odd—she’d been told it enough times in her life, at least 2,600 times by her own count. And she’d been called a pea-wit or something like it at least 1,500 times for forgetting things which others believed to be of earth-shattering consequence, but which she found dull or pointless. There were a lot of things she couldn’t read about people. Nuances of dress, speech, status, actual class, aspired class, profession, were lost on her. (Which she thought extraordinarily clever of her to recognize!)
But she always knew if someone was a fool and if he or she had malice towards her—which after all were the only things one needed to know about another person. She’d never in her life failed to identify an idiot or an enemy within four minutes of meeting one.
So despite the spankings, he wasn’t her enemy. And in his defense, he was an ill-tempered soldier and she had called him some pretty horrible names—at least they sounded horrible. She didn’t actually know what they meant. She was just repeating things she’d overheard Gregor’s men-at-arms say to each other when she used to hide on the windowsill and listen to their talk. And some things Ariel used to tell her when he was funning.
No. She wouldn’t think about Ariel.
The soldier was staring at her as if she were mad. Winnie was extremely familiar with this look. She’d been receiving it from nannies, maids, housekeepers, governesses, dancing instructors, shopkeepers, coachmen, tutors, and other assorted personnel her whole life.
Assuming she’d received that look four times a day throughout her nineteen years of life, subtracting two years for her infancy (that was a just supposition, but she didn’t see how a child who couldn’t talk could be on the receiving end of that look), she would have received that look at least 24,820 times, adding another 240 times for the months since her birthday, that would make 25,060 times—and now 25,061.
“Well do you?” she asked abruptly, trying desperately to rein in her spiralling thoughts. “Have a scar?”
He pulled back his hair.
She wished then that she hadn’t asked. Why did she have to be rescued by such a handsome man? It was so unjust!
Winnie truly didn’t think she’d ever seen a man this handsome, though he looked so cross and bleak. He was gigantically tall and strong as a plowman, but unlike a plowman, he was graceful as a cat, and so impossibly fast, she assumed she must have had some hunger-induced hallucination when she saw him move.
His face looked like a sculptor had carved it, like a statue of one of the mythical Gods. Apollo? No, Mars! The lover of Aphrodite. That is, Ares—the Greek name. (Winnie thought Aphrodite a much prettier name than Venus—she’d have loved to have been named Aphrodite).
Ares must be extremely handsome if Aphrodite, the world’s most beautiful goddess, loved him! She wondered what they would look like doing… that. Mars and Aphrodite. Ares.
Winnie had seen people doing… that many times. At least 207 times. She’d been roaming the roofs of the city for years and quickly discovered how very many people did… that, especially in empty fifth-story rooms. Husbands and wives, masters and maids, mistresses and maids, masters and footmen, footmen and footmen, mistresses and footmen, maids and footmen, even maids and maids.
There was a lot of doing… that, at all hours of the day or night.
(Though that was a secret, of course. People couldn’t know she knew about… that or how much she loved watching other people doing… that.)
Winnie felt a bizarre clenching between her legs, which for some reason made her face flush, no doubt making her look like a boiled bloody carrot—in infuriating contrast to the marble-complexioned Ares before her.
Before she lost her temper for the thousandth time over her abominable resemblance to a marigold, Winnie focused her thoughts on the problem of how she might calculate the odds of being rescued by such an extraordinarily handsome man. She quickly realized the problem wasn’t at all difficult. The chances were precisely 1: [the entire male population of Amsterdam.]
In contrast to that contemptibly unimpressive species, the soldier was graced with exotic dark looks. His eyes were black like his hair, and dark to the point of lightless, so that when she stared at him she had a sensation of falling into them—like the darkness that swallows you up and makes you fall through the bed in a dream. She yearned to touch his hair, just to make sure it was really hair and not pure shadow—she would run her hands through it and then push it back so she could see his forehead, trace his eyebrows with her finger, the strong line of his jaw, and those full, sensual lips….
But then she remembered her own hair that she’d hacked off with a penknife, thinking herself so bloody clever. This man who thought she was a boy—and not just a boy, but a thief, and foul-mouthed street urchin. Suddenly, she was close to tears, which would not aid her disguise at all!
He was looking at her like he was deciding whether she was crazy or needed more time over his lap. Winnie knew that look as well.
She needed a distraction for both of them and grabbed for eccentric non-sequiturs. “You look like Mars. Ares.”
Damn—there was no way that sounded like a street urchin.
Winnie whistled at the ceiling—that was another of her favorite techniques for deflecting questions. It made people so angry they would forget what she’d really done to make them angry.
He slammed his hand down on the table. Winnie jumped and rubbed her rear end again, before she whipped her hand away. The soldier wouldn’t just tsk, stalk off, give her a tight-lipped frown, or shake his head in despair if she made him angry—he would smash that platter of a hand down on her rear again.
“The god of war?” he said.
Her eyes widened. Did soldiers know such things? Well perhaps a soldier might. It would make sense. Perhaps they toasted the ancient deity the night before they marched off to conquer some village, decapitating the populace and then piling the severed heads in the town square, before putting the whole thing to the torch.
“What’s your name?” she asked quickly.
“Declan,” he answered as if chewing iron nails.
“You’re a Celt? How remarkable!”
His eyed narrowed. Damn, damn, double damn. A street urchin would not know that. He shook his head at her.
“Don’t!” she warned sharply. He was thinking about spanking her again, that was obvious.
Maybe she shouldn’t provoke him so much.
Winnie had not had much luck not provoking people during her short life. In fact, she’d almost uniformly provoked every person she’d ever met. She’d never been spanked before, which actually seemed like a bit of a miracle to her. But maids and hired help didn’t spank heiresses, and there was really no one else who could have except Gregor, who’d avoided contact with her as if she carried the Black Death.
She told herself she was merely curious about spanking because it was new. And of course, she was quite angry about it. Incensed!
It didn’t work. Though on normal days Winnie could lie as glibly to herself as she did to everyone else, she couldn’t now. The thought of him grabbing her and throwing her over his lap again was causing something far different from anger.
“Why do you wear your hair over your face if you don’t have a scar? You’re not that ugly!” she said, again reaching for an inane question.
“Don’t!” he warned.
She glanced uneasily at him. She could feel herself losing control of the conversation, which would eventually lead to an explosion of temper. That sober warning voice piped up that she could not afford to make a scene right now.
It was those bloody looks of his. Why did he have to be so handsome, this Mars? Ares.
“What did you want with the horse?” he demanded suddenly. “And recollect, you already know what will happen if you lie to me.”
“You can’t possibly do it every time I lie.”
“And you’re going to stop me with your great battle skills?”
“You know, you’re making me angry,” she warned truthfully.
To her astonishment the brute laughed! At her! She would have gotten really angry, except that he sounded like he hadn’t laughed in a century—which might be possible if he’d really been Mars. Ares.
To her great surprise, Winnie found the laugh contagious and couldn’t help giggling. It had been ages since she’d laughed—since Ariel. In order not to think of that, she focused on the soldier. He looked completely different when he laughed, no longer pinched and bleak. When not scowling, his lips were full and rose-colored, the only soft thing on his harshly handsome face. He really looked like he should be kissing Aphrodite. She wondered if he did… that. And if he did, who did he do… that with?
He was looking at her now with an expression that she instinctively recognized though no one had ever looked at her like that before, not even Ariel, whom she’d betrothed herself to when they were both seven. She kept staring at those lips. For the eighth time that night, Winnie felt that strange humming in her body.
Damn, Damn! Why did she have to cut her hair? She was going to cry!
“Come here,” he ordered softly.
To her profound astonishment, Winnie actually obeyed another person without any argument, comment, or procrastination. It was only when she was right in front of him that she wondered why she’d done that.
Her stomach clenched. “What…” she gasped, “what do you want?”
He was staring at her mouth. She moved her hand to wipe it, cover it, but he caught her hand and moved it back to her side and gave a little push to indicate she should keep it there.
He gently pushed her shorn hair out of her face, behind her ear. She tried to push away from him, but he caught her wrists and refused to let her go.
Why was he so handsome?
“Why did you steal the horse?” he asked softly. “And don’t lie to me, Win. Ever.”
Winnie’s mood made another abrupt shift. She laughed outright. Don’t lie ever? As in never? The idea was beyond absurd. Ludicrous. Winnie loved lying—she hated telling the truth, even about completely trivial, inconsequential things. In fact, the more pointless the subject, the more consistently and aggressively she lied. If someone asked her what she had for breakfast, she would say eggs, even though she’d had toast and beans.
She especially loved lying when people knew the truth. In her opinion lies were infinitely more effective and useful when people knew you were lying. The more shameless and obvious the lie, the better.
How could she possibly never lie! The idea itself was lunatic.
He traced a finger along her cheek and then held his finger up for her inspection: on it was a drop of liquid—a tear.
Told you so, mocked that hateful, sober voice of hers. He knows everything. He was watching the house.
No wonder he’d been there to catch her.
“You bastard!” she screamed, her voice shaking with rage. “You lied!”
“How?” he roared furiously, getting to his feet.
“You knew! You knew and you pretended you didn’t.” She swung her hand out to clock him. He caught it effortlessly with that ridiculous speed of his.
Big men like him weren’t supposed to fast. It wasn’t fair!
And people who disapproved of lying weren’t supposed to be deceitful! And now she was going to have an attack of temper, and it was all this monstrously huge, hypocritical soldier’s fault.
Why did he have to be so handsome!
“I could kill you for this!” she bawled out.
“Kill me?” he scoffed. “You realize, witch, that no one has ever called me a liar and lived to say it again.”
“Oh aren’t you the big man!” she yelled back. “You are a dirty, rotten, no-good pants-on-fire lying bastard! Now kill me! That’s what you were sent here for, wasn’t it?”
She’d never been this angry in her life. She wasn’t sure if she was more angry that he worked for her lying murdering thief of a brother or that he’d so completely deceived her.
Pretending to be taken in, while he’d known all the while. Treating her like a fool. That was for her to do to others, not others to her. Especially not oversized ignorant soldiers who looked like the god of war!
Double, triple, quintuple Damn!
“How much did he pay you?” she sneered.
“Who?” he barked.
“Don’t lie to me! My brother—how much did he pay you? Was it to kill me or just to take me back?” She was shrieking by now. He’d gone and done it: he’d made her lose her temper. She could feel the cascade of suffocating rage envelop her--as if she’d been plunged into a stream just above a waterfall and now was being helplessly carried along by it.
Somehow through the churning waters she heard the soldier haranguing her with his excuses. “I don’t work for anyone—I have nothing to do with your family.”
“You think you can treat me like a fool,” she screamed at the top of her lungs, trying again to smack him, hurt him, punish him in some way for this unbearable insult. The soldier stopped her hand and then gripped her shoulders, shaking her hard.
“Listen well, girl,” he said fiercely. “I have nothing to do with your family.” Somehow the words got through the roiling chaos that always gripped Winnie during her tantrums. He was telling the truth—she wasn’t sure how she knew, but she did.
She blinked at him, wondering how he’d snapped her out of her rage when none of the dozens of servants and governesses hired to raise her had ever once managed it. Now that she’d recovered, she tried to recall what she’d said, how much she’d given away of her situation. She had to say something, anything to distract him.
“Oh, why did I cut my hair?” she sobbed.
When she saw the predatory smile on his face, her knees collapsed under her. “Tell me your real name, girl.”
“Winnie,” she mumbled, even as recognition began to dawn. She’d lost.
Something else entirely had been happening here, something that had nothing to do with her brother or her disguise. The two of them had been playing a game, and he’d just checkmated her.
He knew she was sane.
She fumbled blindly for one of the pewter mugs. If she could only break some windows….
“I don’t think so, little girl,” the soldier said mockingly. He brushed his hands over her eyes, and the world around her went black.
Why did she cut her hair? Declan should have been flabbergasted by yet another female monstrosity coming out of her mouth, but to his surprise, he wasn’t at all.
His thoughts were in such turmoil, it was actually difficult for him to slow them down so that he might digest what he’d learned.
Who would have thought that his gifts for warfare would prove key to understanding an over-indulged nineteen-year-old girl? But Declan could recognize a fellow general when he saw one, though this wasn’t his usual battlefield. A military genius in the form of a slip of a girl, bearing the absurd name of Winnie.
Throughout the conversation, he’d known something was happening that he couldn’t see. It was the same feeling you had when despite all your precautions what you thought was a safe campsite was surrounded by an enemy gifted with stealth.
He could just sense a strategic mind at work, though he couldn’t have explained why. It was enough to give him confidence in its functioning, however, the way a man who understands nothing of mechanics and windlasses still trusts that he can raise a 900-pound drawbridge.
But the hair comment had given him the final clue he needed.
Declan had fought enough battles in his life to recognize a defensive strategy. The girl was like a city under siege. Her gestures and words were her ordnance. But like the greatest generals, she did not use her weapons in the expected way. Rather than bombarding her enemy, she used them as decoys, loud flashy explosions that drew everyone’s attention. Then while the enemy was distracted, she could send her forces out wherever she wanted—or in her case, a young, wealthy girl, who would normally live as a virtual prisoner of maids and governesses and chaperones, could wander the rooftops of a large, dangerous city, going wherever she damn well wanted.
The familiar dark side of himself was outraged by it and longed to lock her in his house, chain her to his bed, spank her lovely arse until she swore she’d never do it again.
But another, less familiar part of him was utterly mesmerized by the strange brilliant cunning of it.
Every movement, every explosive of hers fascinated him. Every reaction of his own astonished him.
She was used to being treated like she was mad—he just caught the look of triumph when he stared at her, stunned by one of her inanities.
He had too many questions to even list, but only two needed an immediate answer if he was to bring her properly to heel: how much was conscious and how much simply habit by now?
And why was she under siege at all?
But ultimately only one point truly mattered to him, and it was no question. She was his. He felt that with a certainty that was rapidly reorganizing the universe for him.
In the first place, he owed Titania a contrite, abject apology. He’d been a blind fool. He’d understood nothing. He could never repay her for what she’d done. How had she put up with him all those years? Where had she found the patience? The generosity?
Even more astonishing, his contrition and his gratitude both deeply satisfied him instead of mortifying him.
He didn’t want to put Winnie down, so he carried her to the door and called to the inn-keep. Too impatient to reassure the man, he used his glamour to muddle his thinking until he forgot any objections he might have to giving Declan a room.
Two minutes later, he lay his precious girl down on the high bed. His spell had left her looking so peaceful, so harmless. Declan barked out a laugh. His sleeping angel was about as harmless as a pixie, creatures who smiled playfully as they lured unsuspecting humans into the mire.
He took a damp cloth and gently wiped clean the grime from her face, exposing those adorable freckles. There were more than he’d realized. They were so utterly human—he loved them. Fae did not have freckles—their skin was pearly and always completely free of blemishes. They never scarred.
He gently took the vest off of her, and then her breeches, leaving her shirt and undergarments on. Beneath the shirt, she’d wound a long cloth around her breasts to bind them. Perfect.
He untied the knot and loosed the cloth, forcing himself not to look at her breasts while she was unconscious.
He created a soft shackle around her right wrist with one end of the cloth, wound it around the bed post and knotted it tightly, and then secured her left wrist with the other end.
Then he climbed in bed next to her, folding her into his arms, so he could just hold her while she slept. His woman was tied to his bed. For the first time in his life, he felt at peace.
To Catch a Falling Thief © 2013 Liliaford Romance LLC
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