Grimme and his captains were deeply engaged in whatever drills they were practicing, so much so that the next morning, he and they all bolted down their breakfasts with barely a word.
“Wait,” she said as she caught him when he arose to head out to the practice field. Grimme looked at her, irritated, distracted. She snapped her fingers in his face. “Pay attention.”
“What’s your favorite color?”
His mouth dropped open and then his expression hardened and his nostrils flared. “Brìghde.”
“I am absolutely serious. I am going to order new livery. I know you hate black, and I want to know what would please you.”
“Black,” he snapped and scraped his chair back so fast it fell over, then stalked out of the hall, all his knights following him.
She and Sir John exchanged looks. “Did you say you are going to order new livery?”
“Aye, and bedsheets. Why?”
Sir John’s brow wrinkled and he slowly arose and shuffled toward his office, gesturing for her to come with him. He sat heavily at his desk and sorted through his very tidy stack of papers that were arranged in some way she did not understand. He pulled out a bill and handed it to her. “That is from the seamstress in Waters. Livery. Bedsheets.”
Brìghde studied the bill. “Firstly, I would not order good livery from Waters. Secondly,” she said slowly, “there is no new livery in the larders and nothing but worn bedsheets upstairs. I had my maid ask the paramours’ maids about the state of their bedsheets, and ’tis the same. A countess, an earl, and his mistresses should not be sleeping on bare threads.”
“I’m sure it’s just an error,” Sir John said wearily.
He didn’t believe that.
“I will rectify it,” Brìghde murmured.
He flopped back in his chair and said, “How long will it take you to get the keep into the order it should be?”
“Uh … I don’t know. Grimme is convinced the duke will be coming soon, but I don’t know what that means. We must be ready, and I am hurrying. Why?”
“I am tired and I want—” He snapped his mouth shut.
Brìghde’s mouth twisted and she looked away.
“Go,” he muttered. “Just … go.”
“I … will need coin,” she said uncertainly in a small voice.
“Coin?” he barked. “To go do … whatever you do?”
“No,” she said, confused. “I’m going to Waters. To find out about this bill.”
He blinked. “Oh. Aye. I suppose you will.” He made shooing gestures as he arose and she left his study, closed the door, and waited for him to open it and put a pouch in her hand. She counted it.
“That should be enough.” She smiled at him. “Thank you.”
He did not smile back. He nodded wearily and closed his door.
She hurried up to her chambers to tell Avis where she was going, then across the hall to ask Hamond if he felt Lord Kyneward needed anything. Razors. She clipped down the stairs, out the front door, and ran across the inner bailey to the outer bailey, to the stables. “Good day!” she called.
Grooms popped out of the stalls and fell all over themselves to bow and serve her. No, here, they would not be able to laze about as the indoors servants had done before Brìghde had come to set them aright. This was the marshal’s domain and he would know if the slightest, most insignificant straw were out of place.
“I would like my horse, please.”
“All pardons, my lady,” one ventured. “Which one is yours?”
“The golden destrier with the white mane and tail.”
Their mouths dropped open, which Brìghde found extraordinarily satisfactory, and she preened.
“But … my lady … that’s … a really big horse.”
Once Troy was led out, she admired his deep golden hide and nearly white mane and tail, and the thick white feathers about his hooves.
“My lady, all pardons, but the only side-saddles we have belong to the mistresses, and they are not big enough for your horse. Are you sure you would rather not ride one of the palfreys? Or at least a gelding?”
“No,” she said airily, “I would not. Saddle him with what he came with.” She put her nose against her horse’s and scratched his cheeks. He huffed and nibbled her nose with his velvety lips. “I grew rather attached to this lad on our journey, did I not? Aye, I did,” she told the horse. “You are a pretty lad, aren’t you? Aye, you are.” She hugged his neck and spoke to him, then fed him carrots whilst the grooms saddled him. “Have you seen your consort today? She doesn’t like me.” When her bag of carrots was empty, they assisted her in mounting.
Once again, she arranged her skirts so that they would protect her against the leather yet allow her knees movement. She started when a saddled sway-backed nag was drawn up next to her and a groom mounted, then looked at her expectantly.
He gestured to the portcullis. “Whenever you’re ready, my lady.”
She laughed. “Oh, no. You are not coming with me.”
“But if I don’t, my lord will—”
“And if you do, I will. You stay here.”
“My lady,” he begged. “Please.”
“Nooooo.” With a laugh, she kicked her stallion into a flat run and thundered out the portcullis and down the lane, leaping carts, children, sheep, and gates.
For the livery, the clothier had to visit Kyneward for an extended stay, but she had no furniture. It would have to wait until they had some. But the sand was running through quickly until an unannounced visit by the duke. She would go to Hogarth soon to start outfitting the keep in earnest. Today, Waters was her destination. She let the horse have his head for as long as he wanted. When he slowed, she pulled him back to a walk for a while, then cantered the rest of the way into the village.
She garnered many a shocked look as she clip-clopped merrily into the hamlet. She waved. “Good morning!” she called to that farmer. “Good morning!” she called to this baker. “Good morning!” she called to the seamstress, which shop was the first place she was headed. She stopped her horse and dismounted (not without some difficulty). “I am Lady Brìghde Kyneward,” she said to the still-dumb woman.
“I know,” she whispered. “Ye came through here three days ago with the earl.”
Brìghde smiled. “Excellent! Then you likely know I need clothes.”
“Aye, but my lady, I do not carry such finery, nor do I know the latest fashions. I provide linens and rough livery for scullery maids and the like.”
Her eyebrows rose. “But I do not need the latest fashions today. I need you today. Would you rather I take my business elsewhere?”
She gasped. “No, no! Welcome. Welcome, my lady. Come in, come in.” With that, she yelled a boy’s name into the shop and presently, one popped up. “Take my lady’s horse to the livery.”
Brìghde nodded approvingly and followed the woman into the shop. She looked around. It was unimpressive at first and stayed that way throughout her inspection. The fabric was rough and in uninteresting colors, half of it black. She sighed.
Black was her favorite color.
“Now, I must tell you,” Brìghde said finally, “that I am a working lady, and will soon take over Sir John’s duties.”
“Oh?” she asked carefully.
“Aye. Serve me well today and you shall have all the business you could dream of.”
She bobbed a curtsy, but looked more afraid than delighted. She might not know how to manage more business. Oh, well. She would learn.
“Thus, I am in need of more rough gowns such as I am wearing and servants’ clothing for myself. ’Tis why you are perfect for my needs.”
The woman’s jaw dropped. “But my lady—!”
“No, no. I am serious. Please take my measurements and get me three daily gowns, two sleeping kirtles, and four sets of pages’ clothing. Can you do that in a week?”
She gulped. “Yes, my lady.”
“And … oh. Sir John was teaching me the ledgers, and I saw some of your bills and I thought that mayhap a delivery of bedsheets and livery was not accounted for properly? I could not find the merchandise.”
The woman struggled to keep her smile in place, but her skin paled. “I must have mixed up the bills, my lady. The bedsheets are awaiting delivery when the livery is finished.”
“Excellent! Also, I was wondering if we have any credit against future purchases? Or perhaps we have not settled our accounts properly? I have not been able to go over all the bills, you see. I would not have you go unpaid.”
She gulped. “I don’t think so, but I will go over my records and calculate it. If so, ’twould have been an honest mistake.”
Brìghde waved a hand. “Everyone makes errors,” she said reassuringly. “I’m sure everyone in Waters has made errors at some point or another, no?”
“I—I wouldn’t know, my lady.”
“Mayhap,” Brìghde said softly, “some other merchants might like to be made aware of any errors in calculations for goods to the keep. Oh, and in future, please direct the deliveries to me. Now!” she resumed brightly. “About my new clothing … ”
• • •
She spent the day going through the hamlet ordering what she could from the few resources available and making sure every single merchant knew they would be undergoing scrutiny by the new countess. Kyneward had merchant credit all over Waters, and would need few coins. Now, how to keep that from Sir John so as to spare his feelings, she did not know.
She bought a good pair of scissors and several razors from the blacksmith in coin, as the blacksmith would admit to no credit there. She went to the cobbler and ordered another pair of boots, but could not order slippers or fine shoes, as he did not trade in finery, either. She purchased an entire set of sewing implements. The only other thing she purchased outright was a wheel of a particularly good cheese (which made the cheesemaker preen) and a loaf of bread, then a bag of pears for Troy.
She sighed sadly. His name was particularly poignant to Brìghde, considering the task her father had assigned her when she became Lady MacFhionnlaigh.
Now she would never have to carry that out.
The earl had rescued her from more than a miserable marriage to a miserable man under miserable circumstances. Aye, it was indeed worth promising children to a strange man who had abducted her to get away from MacFhionnlaigh. Further, the earl was kind, funny, and handsome. When the time came, lying under him would be no hardship.
Her brow wrinkled. Unless … he was so averse to brunettes he could not rise for her at all, ever, and if his collection of tall, willowy, blue-eyed blondes (including three maidservants) was anything to go by, it would be quite the hardship for him to lie with her.
She could admit that would bruise her vanity, as she was not accustomed to being rebuffed for her appearance, so why would it be a pleasurable experience for her if she knew all along that he was disgusted by her? She couldn’t bed him if he had to force himself, for she would have to beg and why should she beg to carry his babe? It wasn’t her earldom under attack.
She was not so desperate to keep him as a friend as to be able to swallow that insult without stating her opinion.
’Twas almost sunset when she and Troy trotted into Kyneward’s stable, where the grooms barely spoke to her, would not look at her, and stayed as far away from her as possible. She huffed and stomped her foot. “What has happened that you barely acknowledge my existence?”
“They have been roundly berated for allowing you to go out alone,” came the earl’s deep voice, filled with anger, from the entrance to the stable. She turned to see him standing by his destrier, reins in hand, glaring at her. “And they may be even more severely disciplined, once I decide upon it.”
She clucked. “Oh, really,” she huffed. “They tried, and I ordered them not to. Then I outran them. They had no chance even had they disobeyed my order, especially with that nag they had saddled. And then I would have berated and disciplined them. Recant your beration.”
“Wife,” he growled.
“Husband,” she mocked with wide eyes and fluttered her eyelashes at him.
She knew she had him when his mouth started to twitch. He opened his mouth, pointed at her, took a breath, and said— Nothing. He simply started to laugh. “‘Beration’ is not a word.”
“It is now. Give your reins over, tell them you won’t discipline them any further, and inform them that I will go out whenever I please with or without whomever I please on that horse—” She turned and looked at a groom. “His name is Troy. He is mine. No one else rides him when he is not occupied in training or warfare. Have my purchases taken to my chambers, the one across from his lordship’s.”
“Aye, my lady,” he whispered.
She turned back to the earl. “—and to pamper him shamelessly with pears and carrots and whatever else he asks for.”
He sighed and threw up a hand. “You heard her.” He handed over the reins to his horse and offered her his arm, which she took, and strolled with him out of the stable, through the outer bailey, inner bailey, and up the stairs to the great hall.
“I never thanked you for offering me your bed the first night.”
“You’re welcome,” he smiled warmly.
“How did you know where to find me?”
“You disturbed one of my knights, who fetched me, as he was horrified that a countess had to sleep in a chair in the barracks. And,” he said slowly, “I … apologize for snapping at you this morning. I have much to think about.”
“Thank you also for returning Hamond to me.”
“I was very angry,” she said simply, “but after some thought, I realized that because you immediately honored the bargain at great sacrifice to yourself without complaint, I wanted to show you my gratitude.”
He slid her a glance. “You didn’t want to find a new chamberlain.”
“My favorite color is green.”