Over the next few days, Brìghde was able to establish somewhat of a custom: Arise just after lauds, go to her morning prayer and confession, ride Troy harum-scarum through all of Kyneward without Grimme and Helen, arrive in time for breakfast, get about her inventory, have supper, then exercise a mare. She and Enyo got along famously, as she did with all the other mares but Helen. Helen would still not allow Brìghde alone in her stall with her, but would take the treats she was offered and suffer being petted and told what a good lassie she was.
Brìghde explained to Sir John and William about the circumstance between the mistresses and the merchants. She explained the arrangements she had made for a fresh calculation. She explained that she was now going to take an inventory of the mistress’s chambers. And that once everything was reconciled on the Kyneward books, she would meet with the merchants and reconcile with them.
Sir John gaped at her. “He said yes?”
“I have wanted to do that for years, and stopped asking when I could no longer climb the stairs.”
Brìghde relayed the whole of the conversation because she relayed the whole of almost all of her conversations with Grimme to Sir John.
He was howling with laughter by the end of her recitation, and though William was amused, he couldn’t quite grasp why it was that amusing. “I would give the next five years off my life to have been a fly on the wall at that family council,” Sir John said, wiping his eyes.
Brìghde nodded crisply as he wound down. “Just so. Thus, William, you and I are going to start with Ardith and Maebh. She’s the newest; she cannot have that many things.”
Maebh did not protest. She did, however, sit in a dressing gown with her legs spread, watching Brìghde suggestively. Ardith was nowhere to be seen.
“You’ve got to be off your tot!” Brìghde finally exploded when she could turn in no direction without Maebh there flashing a bit of skin or looking Brìghde up and down as if to devour her. William was utterly mortified and busied himself in the maidservant’s antechamber, which had not yet been counted. “I’d no more swive you than I would Grimme if I didn’t have to!”
“But you do have to,” she purred with a lilting Irish brogue, wrapping a lock of Brìghde’s hair around her finger, “so when you have, then you’re welcome to come to me. You might like what a woman can do for you. You don’t even have to wait since I canna get you with babe and he’d never have to know.”
Brìghde huffed, smacked her hand away, then turned, only to have her arse squeezed. She yelped and gaped at a very smug Maebh.
“I am not ‘off my tot,’” she said matter-of-factly. “I am completely serious. You are beautiful and I want to see all of you and I wanna suck your bubs and lick your muff.”
Brìghde took a deep breath. “While I appreciate that you appreciate my beauty—”
“Maebh!” Grimme barked from the doorway. “I told you you could not fuck my wife. If you can’t keep your mouth shut and your hands to yourself whilst she’s here, get out.”
She huffed and stomped her foot. “You said you would have to watch Ardith and me swiving in the corner so you could get it in her.”
Brìghde’s mouth opened a little bit, feeling sick to her stomach, tears stinging her eyes for more than a few reasons, and she looked at Grimme wide-eyed, who was furious.
“I can do better than that with my little bitty nymphie. You don’t want her but I do. Mayhap she would like to be swived by someone who wants her. And why do you care so much anyway? You’ve no reason to be jealous.”
“Maebh,” he growled. “Out.”
She huffed her way out of the door.
There was a long silence. Grimme’s face was flushed and he would not look at Brìghde. She turned away, and said, “Thank you,” as clearly and brightly as she could, but it was not very bright.
“Bridget, I’m sorry,” he sighed. “When she starts talking, she … ”
She waved a hand. “This is what I asked you for,” she said crisply. “You have made it easier for me and I appreciate it.” She faked a laugh. “I canna write when I am being seduced!” With that, she strode to the first chest and tried to see through her tears. There were dresses upon dresses upon dresses upon dresses, all stuffed in many, many chests with no care. She would have to take them all out, spread them across the bedraggled bed, and describe them.
She stiffened when she felt his hands on her shoulders. She gulped the lump in her throat.
“You are beautiful,” he whispered. “But my taste is very specific.”
“Why?” she asked as disinterestedly as she could manage.
“Emelisse was my first.” Brìghde nodded. “When I first got her with child, she barred me from her bed, and I was in need of release. I found Ardith. I went back to Emelisse, but got her with child again. Then I found Dillena. Then Dillena was with child. Then there was Maebh. In short, they all look like Emelisse because I want Emelisse, but I very often cannot have her.”
That was oddly logical.
“Do they mind?”
“Emelisse is the only one who cares. The rest simply enjoy themselves. Maebh— She will fuck anyone who catches her eye, man or woman, and I have to credit her—she has very discerning taste. You should be flattered. She is not to fuck any other man but me, but she is free to have any woman she wants, except you, so now you are even more attractive to her.”
Brìghde nodded. Truthfully, it was nice to know that someone in this keep found her bonny enough to seduce.
“But they each do something different that I like, that Emelisse will not do—” And didn’t Brìghde already know what those were! “—and I will not force myself on a woman who cannot bear my attentions. It is convenient you are as reluctant to bear me as I am to be upon you, but it is also inconvenient to the necessity of the deed. I will feel as if I am forcing myself upon you and that never makes me rise.”
That, too, was logical; in fact, utterly courteous.
If it had any basis in truth.
“If that is so, then what would have done with an unwilling captive?”
Silence. “I … don’t know. Now that you are here, I cannot remember my reasoning.”
Brìghde didn’t know what to think about that. “You said something about a surrogate? One of them may have another child.”
“I already asked,” he said dryly. “There were no volunteers.”
He was the earl. He could command them. “Maidservants?”
“I would rather not have a child by a maidservant.”
He was closing down all avenues except Brìghde but he could not swive her without his harlots in a corner. She gulped.
“It is not simply that I am a brunette?” she asked, hating herself for asking.
He sighed. “I cannot rise for brunettes, no. I have tried. I tried the other night. It’s humiliating.”
“You … did not want me to buy or wear black. Is that … ?”
He hesitated. “That is … difficult to explain and I would rather not.”
So they were connected. ’Twas not her. ’Twas not brunettes. ’Twas the color black—and he feared witchcraft.
No, a warrior like him would not want to confess that.
She did not know what to think about this, and she rubbed her forehead. “Well! You must do what you must do, I suppose.”
“I intended for you not to have seen Maebh and Ardith whilst you and I did the deed.”
“Can you not simply use your imagination?”
He laughed. “I don’t have an imagination.” He turned her around and looked down at her. Fortunately she had managed to blink back her tears and none had fallen so her face wasn’t wet. “Bridget, when the time comes, I will take my time. I will teach you how to have pleasure, because if you are frightened or hurt or stiff or … anything but relaxed and willing, I won’t be able to do it. There is an additional complication. Because I consider you my friend, I value you for something other than your cunte, mouth, arse, or womb. ’Twill be difficult for me to separate my friend from the act.
“If you will allow me to teach you pleasure, I may be able to do it without Maebh in the corner, and I may even find it changing my taste a little. Furthermore, when you have had my sons, I would that you find a lover of your own, and engage with him—or her—without fear. You will have to ask my women how not to conceive with any other, however.” Oh. It wouldn’t matter if he ordered them to have his child to pass off as Brìghde’s, then. They simply wouldn’t comply. “I’ll not rear another man’s whelp. Would you allow me to try?”
“That was the bargain, was it not? I did not gainsay you the other night when— Um.”
“Aye, I am sorry. I know that was hurtful. I saw a beautiful woman, not a leprosy-befouled witch. But then I saw the glint of your hair in the firelight, which … But here,” he said softly, “this is what I want you to know: I have not slept with Emelisse since I was a squire. I have not slept with any of the others at all. I don’t want to. I have known you for a month, and I have slept with you for a third of that. That is something they covet desperately.” He shrugged. “Emelisse. Dillena is so quiet, I’m not sure what she wants most of the time. Maebh and Ardith sleep together. I would likely not be welcome.” He chuckled.
“Why are you telling me all this? I do not need to know the details of your relations with them. Would rather not, in fact.”
“I am telling you this because we are friends and I want you to know everything, and know that I value our friendship enough to tell you these things. I value that you and I can sleep together. I also wanted to apologize again for the other night.”
“You said you do not swive men, but did you sleep with your other friend? Aldwyn?”
He shrugged. “In the same tent. We’d lie awake at night and plan how we were going to conquer the world. He would get one half, and I the other, and then we would change places. We were more brothers than friends, which is—should be, anyway—a deeper bond, and I wish my sons had that. ’Tis why I want you near when I want to talk, the way Aldwyn and I did.”
“I am Aldwyn,” she said dully.
“Aye!” he said with excitement. “Precisely! Thank you. ’Tis what I told Emelisse to reassure her. If I could not talk to you, if we were not friends, I would not want to sleep with you. And that, my dear wife, is far more important to me than where I stick my cod.”
He left, happy that, in his eyes, the argument was satisfactorily resolved, whilst Brìghde could barely keep herself from crying. If she said what she thought, he would take umbrage that she dared tell him he was wrong.
She was his former dearest friend’s replacement. That was all.
Friends. And this one, she couldn’t simply drift away from when she’d had enough.
“He’s not Roger MacFhionnlaigh,” she whispered, as she got on with her chore, “he’s not Roger MacFhionnlaigh.”