Gwyneth and the Thief
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Lady Gwyneth of Haverleigh, fifteen and weary, breathed deeply as she tilted her head and looked up at the sky. Weak wintry morning sunlight shone through the barren branches of the wood. To her right ran the river, swollen with melting snow. To her left a steep slope rose, shielding her from the north wind. Despite that, she shivered and wrapped her cloak more tightly about her before she sat upon a fallen log.
Her dog trotted up to stand beside her, and she reached out to pat his massive dark brown head.
“We'll go back soon, Rufus,” she promised. “Just a little while longer.”
In truth, she could not and should not linger long here, because she was alone save for her hound, but she needed the peace and quiet, if only for a brief time. It was difficult having everyone in Haverleigh look to her for guidance, as they had since her father had fallen seriously ill. Her mother had died when she was less than two years old, and her elder brother had passed away of a fever five years ago, which meant she was in temporary charge of the estate, although she was only a girl.
Indeed, a year ago, she would not even have been permitted to walk out of her father's castle without an escort. That was when they could still afford to keep a garrison, and before a bad harvest and the cost of equipping her late brother as a knight had depleted their funds. They had used all that remained of their money to pay King John's taxes. When the soldiers of the garrison realized her father could not pay their wages, they had departed.
Her father had never paid much heed to money, as long as Haverleigh provided enough to pay the taxes and allow them to live in some ease. Unlike many a noble, including their neighbor, Baron DeVilliers, the earl of Haverleigh had no lofty, grasping ambitions.
Unfortunately, her father had not foreseen how an illness, a bad harvest, and an increase to their taxes might one day put his family, his estate, and their village in jeopardy. Baron DeVilliers, whose personal greed knew no bounds, had seen an opportunity. Shortly after Gwyneth's father had become sick, the baron had arrived at Haverleigh to offer her both his protection and marriage.
She would rather marry the meanest pauper in London than marry Baron DeVilliers. As for his “protection,” he would use that as an excuse to gain control of her family's estate, though her father yet lived.
So now her days were filled with trying to run the estate, and preventing DeVilliers from swooping down like a hawk to snatch it from her.
How she wished her father was better, her brother alive, and her mother, too! Then she would not have this great burden pressing on her day after day, hour after hour. Even now it was tempting to keep on walking through the forest and away from the responsibilities that awaited her back in Haverleigh.
But she could not and would not abandon her father or the people who lived on their estate. She was the earl of Haverleigh's daughter, and she would not shirk her duty. To do otherwise would be dishonorable and disgraceful.
With a low growl, Rufus stiffened and raised his head -- a warning that someone was coming.
Gwyneth jumped to her feet, straining to see through the trees, her ears alert for any unusual noise. The unexpected sound of male voices drifted toward her like spirits on the wind.
Who could it be? This was her father's land, and nobody lived near here.
Maybe it was outlaws or poachers. If they were thieves, her fine cloak would be reason enough to attack her.
Her fear building, she tried to whistle for Rufus, but her throat and lips were dry with dread.
“Rufus, come!” she croaked as she began to clamber up the muddy, slippery slope. She grabbed on to roots and rocks, and paid no heed to the mud clinging to her clothes.
Rufus thought this some kind of game. His tail wagged, his eyes gleamed, and he yipped like a puppy as he gleefully followed her.
Once at the top, she threw herself down in the mud behind a fallen tree. Rufus flopped beside her, his tail still wagging, but at least he was mercifully silent.
Peering through the space between the log and the ground, barely breathing, she watched four rough-looking men approach on the path below her. All wore brown tunics, dark woolen breeches, and thick leather boots. Each carried a sword in a scabbard dangling from a belt at his waist. All but the last had another knife stuck through his belt.
The man in front, who looked to be the leader of the small band, was very tall and lean. A long, thin scar curved from the outer edge of his brow to his chin. The two men behind him were heavier, and she could hardly see their faces for the dirt and their long, straggling dark hair. They both carried large leather pouches.
The fourth man brought up the rear. He was more slender than the others and wore no linen shirt beneath his leather tunic, so his muscular arms were bare despite the winter chill.
These men had to be thieves or poachers and were surely very dangerous.
Wishing she had never left the castle, Gwyneth tried to flatten herself even more against the ground.
“We'll rest here,” the tall man announced in a harsh, stern voice as he came to a halt where she had been moments ago. He sat down on the fallen log and waited until the others had stopped. “'Ere, give us that pack, Drogo,” he said to the biggest of the filthy men. “Time to split the takings.”An Avon True Romance: Gwyneth and the Thief. Copyright © by Margaret Moore. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.