They did not take his order to open their chambers well.
After gathering his mistresses in his chambers the next morning, he paced in front of them, his hands behind his back, and barked,
“This is not up for discussion! You cannot imagine how embarrassed I was to be told our bills had not been paid, and in front of my wife! Why could you not have simply given the bills to Sir John?”
“He would snap at us,” Emelisse hissed, “and I do not like being snapped at by that—”
Grimme turned a stony glance on her that quelled her immediately. “You do remember who helped us through our first years together, do you not?” he murmured threateningly.
“If you refuse to do anything useful, at least be grateful to the hand that feeds you.” She looked away. “We understand each other, then. So now. Let us discuss our children. You—” He pointed at Emelisse. “—have kept the boys penned up and made them angry at the younger two for their freedoms. You do not allow them to attend their studies, so they are practically illiterate. You—” He pointed to Dillena. “—have made Terrwyn angry that you do not give him as much attention as Emelisse gives Gaston and Max, nor as much freedom as Maebh gives Pierce, and you do not enforce my order to tend to his studies.”
“That is not true,” she said with angry dignity, “but I refuse to discuss that with you here and now.”
“Hrmph. And you—” He pointed to Maebh. “I’m furious with you. Did you know that Pierce walked to Waters and back by himself?”
All four of them gasped, and Maebh went white.
“Ten miles. On foot. A five-year-old. Alone. He would only admit to having done it once, but I have my doubts. You have completely ignored him. They—” he said, swiping his finger from Emelisse and Dillena, “met their sons when we came home and fussed over them. Pierce won the fight, but his mother was nowhere to be found. He should have ridden in the victor, but he was completely forgotten.”
Maebh had the grace to flush and look away.
“Then! There are their studies! They are my sons and no son of mine, bastard or not, will I allow to grow up as illiterate wastrels.” He looked at Emelisse. “They are not babies and I am tired of them acting that way. Crying and wailing that their younger, smaller brothers won the fight.”
“This is her fault!” Emelisse screamed, hopping to her feet and pointing her finger in his face. He slapped it away. He tolerated that from Brìghde because she was his friend, gave good advice, and had thus far not led him astray, but he would not tolerate it from his women. “She has been here not even a month and has caused utter chaos!”
“No!” he snapped. “She has revealed it. I will allow her to repair it and to do that, she must have free rein, which I have given her. You will submit to her orders.”
“There is something about her,” Emelisse hissed, “something you want, something you’re drawn to.”
“Aye, there is,” he sneered. “Her mind, her willingness to work, and her womb.”
“And her nobility!”
“That too,” he agreed.
“You have never met a woman you either did or did not want to bed. You bed the ones you do, and ignore the ones you don’t. You do not bed her, but you certainly do not ignore her.”
“That’s true,” Ardith said matter-of-factly.
The other two nodded, though they were not upset.
Grimme closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “She is my wife, which is an entirely different circumstance altogether. We are all treading into the unknown together, including her.” He opened his eyes and swept his finger across the four of them. “All of us. I want her to be happy here because it will make all our lives easier. At the moment, I am being a welcoming and gracious host.”
“‘Welcoming and gracious host?!’” Emelisse hooted. “You spend more time with her than you do all of us put together, and you would jump into the trusses if she snapped her fingers!”
“Also true,” Ardith once again volunteered, with the other two agreeing.
“She tells you to take our sons away from us. You do. You get up early from a long night of fucking three women—”
“Four,” Maebh said helpfully.
Emelisse snarled at Maebh, who pointedly yawned.
“—four women to take her to Hogarth. She goes alone because you changed your mind for some reason. You drop everything to marshal a force and chase after her. She tells you to let our sons fight to the death.” Grimme snorted. “You do. She tells you to throw open our doors for her inspection, and you do that too! You are a nettle, clinging to her skirt, unable to be plucked off.”
Grimme ignored that. “When she is more settled, I will leave her to her business and she will leave me to mine. Until she gets everything running smoothly, her business is my business and, since you are my business, you are now her business too. Cooperate, and she will be courteous. Do not cooperate, and she will get cruel.”
“And you will allow that?!” Emelisse screeched.
He narrowed his eyes at her. “If this demonstration is anything to go by, I may allow her to keep you in the donjon as long as she wants.”
“If you do,” she snarled, “you will never have my cunte again.”
He laughed and pointed to the other three. “Aye, I will. And the three maidservants who look like you, as well.”
She bent over at the waist and released a blood-curdling scream. “I hate you for that!”
“Emelisse,” he said archly, “that is the second time in as many days that you have threatened me with that. One day you will wake up and realize that I have complied. If you hate me that much, you are welcome to go back to France with everything I have ever given you. I will give you the funds to last you the rest of your life in some comfort, so long as you shepherd it carefully, which I doubt you know how to do.”
“I want my sons back!”
“No.” He raised an eyebrow. “Stay and obey, or go and be free of me and Bridget.”
“You said,” she hissed, “that I would not have to obey her.”
“I said that I could not imagine what order she could give you. Now I can and I know why and I agree. You will obey her. Make a decision.”
Furious, she crossed her arms over her chest and flopped in her chair.
“Do we understand each other?” Grimme looked at each of them in turn until they acquiesced with varying expressions, none of them good.
“When does she take count?” Dillena asked with quiet dignity. She did everything with quiet dignity—except fuck.
“She will tell you.” He looked around at them. “Do not force me to involve myself between you and her again. The boys are gone, assigned to knights far out in the encampment where I have no reason to go, much less you. Emelisse, if I catch you riding out there to see them or take them treats or abduct them home, I will turn you over my knee. Dillena, I understand you will miss Terrwyn, but you know this is the proper thing to do.”
“Aye,” she muttered.
“Maebh, I dare say you would hand Pierce over to Bridget with a smile, aye?”
“Not with a smile,” she returned, entirely serious.
“What does that mean?”
She shrugged. “You think I don’t pay attention, but I do. I give him everything he wants—”
“You give him what you think he wants.”
“I try!” she snapped.
“He wants your attention.”
“What do you say to a child?” she demanded. “What conversation is there to be had?”
Maebh wasn’t a conversationalist.
“He’s five. All you have to do is fuss over him a little and make sure he won’t walk ten miles by himself.”
“He wants her,” she said doggedly. “She makes him happy and I want to make my baby happy. I don’t know how to do that. She—does. Clearly she has a gift for rearing boys and I don’t. None of us do.” Emelisse opened her mouth but Maebh pointed at her and snarled. “Shut up. You are cruel to my baby and your brats torment him endlessly and I have told you before to stop and make them stop, but they only get worse. You encourage it and their father,” she sneered at Grimme, who stayed silent because he deserved it, “doesn’t want to hear it. I cannot protect him from you, Lord Grimme won’t, but she can. She won’t put up with you or your little monsters because she doesn’t have to!”
“My monsters?!” she shrieked. “Yours terrified and humiliated mine yesterday in front of an entire town!”
“He’s five and he beat your ten-year-old!” Maebh sneered. “I’m proud of him.”
“It needed to happen,” Dillena added serenely.
Grimme’s eyebrows rose.
He let this go on for quite a while, as he was now fully immersed in his sons’ upbringing and he needed to know what he had never cared about before. He was ashamed of that, ashamed it took a twenty-two-year-old abducted virgin all of two days to see it, know what needed to be done, and risk a new friendship to correct it. But of course she would know how to rear boys. She had six brothers and had worked as a nursemaid, which he respected far more than he respected any of these women, mothers of his children or not.
Finally, he had had enough. “Silence.”
There was silence. Except for Maebh. Of course. “If he hates me for drawing away from him, but he’s happier with her, I will have no regrets.”
Mayhap he had severely misjudged the mother of his youngest son. “I’ve never known you to demonstrate such selflessness.”
She snarled at him, and he decided to think about that later, as that was, indeed, one of the most selfless acts he could imagine.
“Cooperate with Bridget—and I will order her to be nice—and you will have no problems. Ignore her the rest of the time, and she will ignore you. But remember this: She does not want to bed me any more than I want to bed her, so you do not have to fear her. No, Emelisse, I was not off fucking her whilst the boys were fighting. I was right there, watching with half the townsmen whilst she was off buying them weapons.”
“I don’t want them to have weapons!”
“And that is part of my quibble with you. They should have weapons, and you took away the toy ones I gave them, which makes me furious.”
Her face was flushed. Her jaw was clenched. Her eyes were narrowed.
“To your other point: I fuck you.”
“All of us,” Emelisse snarled.
Grimme spread his hands and shrugged helplessly. “I cannot help my appetite. If any one of you could sate me, I would not need the rest of you. I will not control it if I don’t have to, and I don’t have to because I am the earl. I want what I want, and what I want is my house filled with women I can fuck anytime, anywhere, any way I want.”
Grimme looked at Emelisse expectantly.
She huffed. “But not her.”
“Not her,” he said flatly. “Until I can force myself to it, and you—” He pointed between Ardith and Maebh. “—will have to sit in a corner where I can watch you fuck so I can get my cod in her. Unless my chamberlain finds me some magic potion.”
“Can I have a go at her?” Maebh asked brightly.
“Maebh!” Ardith cried, slapping her arm.
“Ow! What? She’s pretty and I like her bubs.”
Emelisse huffed in utter disgust.
“You may not fuck my wife.”
“But her bubs!”
“They are very nice,” Grimme agreed, “but you have the pick of every wench in this entire keep. You can’t have mine.”
“Why don’t you allow her to choose a lover and have his child?” Dillena asked quietly, logically. “No one would ever have to know.”
“That’s what I said!” Emelisse said with excitement.
“While that is an excellent idea, I am not rearing some other man’s by-blow. Unless one of you has another child and I can pass it off as hers. I could accept that solution.”
He looked directly at Emelisse, who flushed and looked away. The others were silent.
“Mmm hm,” he hummed smugly. “Don’t be careless. If any one of you catches ever again, it’s Bridget’s.”
“Why can I not have her?” Maebh demanded. “I can’t get her with child. Oh, I know! I could swive her whilst you watch and ’twould be enough for you to get it in her. She will lie flat, I will lie atop her. You put your cod in her and pretend it’s me!”
“Maebh!” Ardith cried again, louder this time.
“Also an excellent idea,” he said firmly, “but no. Don’t ask again. Now. When you pray, if you do, beg for her easy fertility toward boys so I don’t have to think about this anymore. Dismissed. Not you, Emelisse.”
When they were finally alone, Grimme loomed over her. “If I ever hear of,” he whispered threateningly, “or catch you treating Terrwyn and Pierce with anything less than perfect courtesy, I will turn you over my knee and beat your arse so hard you won’t be able to sit down for a week.”
Her face went white and her eyes widened. She gulped.
“They are my sons and you have no right to them.”
She gathered herself and hissed, “Then mayhap you should not drop them on my head after fucking their mothers all night. As they are your sons, don’t expect me to look after them.”
Grimme drew himself up. “You’re right,” he said quietly.
That surprised her.
“The reason I changed my mind about going to Hogarth with Bridget was because she chided me for expecting you to take charge of them when I’d kept their mothers up all night long.”
She looked stunned.
“She advocated on your behalf. In fact, was quite horrified on your behalf, and I was furious with her, but she was right. I apologize for asking you to do that. I now understand some of your frustration and anger.”
“Uh … oh.”
“But my warning stands. You are free to ignore the boys, but do not be cruel to them. Do you understand?”