It took Brìghde and William a full sennight to complete the inventory of the paramours’ chambers, and Brìghde threw herself into it wholeheartedly not because she wanted to paw through Grimme’s mistresses’ things, but because she had to do something other than attempt to drink herself into a stupor to keep from remembering his brutal rejection of her, and then the fact that he had spoken so vulgarly of her behind her back to his mistresses. All of them.
She felt completely and utterly betrayed, and what had she done? Kept it to herself instead of punching him in the face.
Grimme had finally been able to go an entire ride with Helen alone without being thrown, but Brìghde could barely stand to ride beside them, so she had excused herself and ridden Troy elsewhere.
It was getting more and more difficult to be content with the fact that he didn’t want to swive her because he continued to remind her of how she repulsed him. Seeing her naked, touching her, then walking out angry had been a devastating blow to her vanity.
It wouldn’t hurt quite so much if she did not find him so handsome.
During the week of inventory, all but Dillena had ridden into Waters with their grooms, likely to test the strength of Brìghde’s order, and returned furious, for they could not even purchase bread to eat at midday and they were hungry. Brìghde greeted each one of them with a tiny smirk of victory.
Dillena was the one with the fewest possessions. She was thoughtful about what she purchased and had nothing that was not important to her. She had a writing desk, piles and piles of parchment, many quills, and lovely, expensive inks. She had an entire chest full of parchment she had written on and illuminated beautifully. “Ohhh,” Brìghde breathed in awe. She handled them gently and profusely complimented Dillena on her talent, then respectfully put the chest back without digging in it at all. She didn’t care what the parchments were hiding; they were too beautiful to touch. Her jewelry was simple but elegant, and at the conclusion of the inspection of her chambers, Brìghde could not with any certainty say that she had anything that could have come from Waters or Hogarth without having been paid for. Thus, she apologized sincerely, to which Dillena gave her a small, dignified nod.
Maebh and Ardith had the most, but they shared everything, and they flung their jewels throughout, under the mattress, in their shoes, wrapped up in blankets.
“Why don’t you keep them in their boxes so they won’t get lost?” Brìghde asked, confused.
“Oh, we do,” Maebh said. “The ones you found are used for—” Ardith slapped a hand over her mouth. Brìghde sighed and rolled her eyes. There were many things there that had come from Waters and Hogarth that she marked it as possible theft.
Emelisse had … everything. Her chambers were a wonderland of sparkling jewels, sparkling satins and velvets in light blue that matched her eyes, sparkling trim, sparkling shoes, sparkling trifles and toys for the lads that did not seem to be used. Brìghde was careful to ask Emelisse to present her items so that Brìghde could write them down and not disturb anything. She also was careful to compliment her on her taste. It wasn’t hard. Emelisse’s taste was exquisite and though it was much, it was not overmuch.
Emelisse did not know how to respond to either the respect Brìghde showed her or her compliments.
“Thank you, Emelisse,” she said courteously when she closed her ledger and prepared her quills and inks to return to Sir John’s study.
“What did you need that list for?” she asked sharply.
“To discern what you may have stolen from the merchants in Waters and Hogarth,” Brìghde said matter-of-factly.
Emelisse’s face flushed. “If Sir John does not pay a bill, then that is his doing, not mine!”
“He can’t pay bills you don’t give him. I don’t know if Grimme—”
“Lord Grimme to you,” she snapped.
“Noooooo. I am to call him Grimme. Or anything else I feel like calling him.”
“May I … ” She gritted her teeth and closed her eyes. Her fists clenched. “May I have coin for Waters?”
“Not one farthing.”
Emelisse opened her eyes and her expression was pure poison.
“You will not be getting any coin for anything anytime soon, nor will I allow you to go to Waters or Hogarth for the foreseeable future.”
Emelisse’s expression twisted. “You bitch.”
Brìghde nodded. “Aye.” She looked around. “Tell me where you acquired your new hangings so I may compare them to the bills I paid.”
She did, through gritted teeth.
“If you are nice to me,” Brìghde said airily as she left Emelisse’s room, “I could be persuaded to change my mind.”
That stopped her cold. “How nice?”
“Not that,” Brìghde huffed. “Be cordial to me and I will be cordial to you, and if you can do that long enough, I’ll forget how angry I am that you were cheating the merchants in Waters and giving us a bad reputation in Hogarth. I want goodwill amongst those we need, as ’tis easier to get what you want when you’re pleasant and fair. Brute strength is so tiring because you must needs always watch your back.”
Thus, after having just surveyed Emelisse’s chambers, when Brìghde went back to her own, she looked around and her shoulders slumped. It was awful, a hodge-podge of mismatched furniture found in dark corners at the farthest parts of the keep, left behind from its last occupant, simply thrown in any room to land wherever it might. Aye, she had hired carpenters, who were here, but the wood was being cut out in the forests, which would take quite a lot of time, and furnishing all the chambers would take at least a year. Could she get away with postponing a wedding celebration for one year just so she could get the keep in order? Would anyone understand? How terrible a breach of etiquette was it?
It still didn’t solve the problem of a surprise visit from the duke. If that happened, the only place she could put him was Grimme’s chambers and even then she would have to put the duchess with him. It was an appalling display of barbarism.
She had not yet been to the dower house, but as the keep had been stripped of every odd thing to put in Brìghde’s chambers, she had no hope of anything in a boarded-up relic.
She needed livery, hangings, drapes, but she couldn’t have those until she had furniture to house the clothier and his staff and his goods.
As to her wardrobe, her new gowns should start arriving any day now. The only nice gown she had was her wedding dress, which had been beautifully laundered and mended, but she was loath to wear it. It reminded her too much of the sword point in her back.
She rubbed that spot.
“Why are you not at supper? I am waiting for you.”
Brìghde looked over her shoulder at Grimme, who was leaning against her threshold. “I’m sorry. I … did not realize it was so late,” she muttered.
“What’s wrong with your back?”
“Nothing. ’Twas where my father had the point of his sword and sometimes I can still feel it.”
“Would you like me to send up a tray?”
“Aye, please. Thank you. And wine.”
He didn’t move. “Brìghde?” he said softly, coming into the room, framing her face in his hands, and tilting it up. “What’s wrong?”
She gestured around, her mouth twisting. “I want my things. I appreciate that I will have new furniture, but I wish I had my other things. And my dog.”
“Your belongings and your dog are all at MacFhionnlaigh, aye?”
“I will send out a company to fetch them and since we would not have to go through Fàileach lands, we can easily avoid your father. I doubt your father’s army would be interested in a procession of villeins moving elsewhere anyway.”
She raised her eyes to meet his soft brown ones and sighed. He was so handsome, with his strong jaw and straight nose and long golden-red hair and … he would have to force himself to bed her, and involve his women to do it.
It was humiliating.
She nodded hesitantly. “If … if that is something you are willing to do, then, yes. I would like that.”
He pressed his mouth to her forehead. “You are my friend, Brìghde, and I will do most anything for my friends. Sleep with me tonight? I’ll rub your back for you.”
No. She did not want to sleep with him. “Aye, that would be good, thank you.”
He was true to his word: He sent up a tray with twice as much food as she could possibly eat (she ate it all) and two pitchers of wine. Whilst she was eating, one maidservant after another brought up hot water and filled her tub.
“Lord Kyneward said to bring ye a hot bath, m’lady,” one girl said.
“That was thoughtful,” she said softly, a smile curving her face. “Thank you. Two more pitchers of wine. No, three.”
They curtsied and then, once she had finished her meal, Avis helped her wash her hair. When that was finished and she was otherwise bathed, she relaxed there looking at the wall and drinking.
So she didn’t have her things or her dog. Her circumstance was disproportionately advantageous:
She had been rescued from a life she would have abhorred, from a task she was terrified to carry out and terrified not to. She’d left the convent with nothing and attained home, so she knew she would leave MacFhionnlaigh eventually—but what would happen in the meantime, how long would it take her to prepare, and could she get away before her father ran out of patience with her?
She was married, so she could not be forced to wed.
She was under the protection of a wealthy English earl with a standing army (albeit half the size of her father’s) and who was a dear friend to the king of England (who was in France).
She was an English countess, which outranked a Scottish clan chief.
The earl was kind, generous, thoughtful, enjoyed her company, considered her a dear friend also, and made her laugh.
She was the prime ruler of a keep, with power she had coveted since she had served as her mother’s apprentice and then as a housekeeper.
The earl’s father treated her with kindness and praise, something she craved.
She felt at home here, as if she had lived here forever, as if she had known Grimme and his father forever.
She was grateful. She truly was, and she hoped that her work here could adequately show her gratitude.
The disadvantages of her circumstance were so minor as to be a mere annoyance and yet …
Why was it so hurtful that her husband did not want to swive her? She should be grateful for that, too. Was her vanity that vast, that she could not stand for one man to find her repulsive? She did not expect him to lust for her the way he did his mistresses and the maidservants, but finding her repulsive, the way she found Roger, was something else again.
It was that, she realized. She did not mind if someone didn’t find her attractive; not everyone was attractive to everyone else. It was that he considered her a replacement for his dearest friend, who was a male, and he found men repulsive. That still didn’t explain it all, however, because—
But then I saw the glint of your hair in the firelight …
There was something very, very wrong with her husband.
’Twas late when the water grew cold enough to wake her up. The candles had sputtered out. The fire was still well fed, and she saw that Grimme was asleep in her bed. She smiled a little. A man who found her repulsive would not want her to sleep with him or offer to rub her back for a wound that never existed. Would he?
She climbed out of her tub, dried herself, and put on her sleeping kirtle. She often slept naked, but she could not with him. She stood looking down at her husband, so still and peaceful in sleep.
His big body.
His long, strong legs.
His wide, muscular shoulders.
His broad back that was, at this moment, bare to the waist.
His long golden-red hair.
He was … dazzling.
She had stopped lying to herself after the third time she was dismissed from being a scullery maid. It was not, in fact, the housekeeper’s fault that she did not see Brìghde’s worth. No. It was Brìghde who could not accept that her status in the world was sleeping in cinders and eating porridge. If she wanted to remain sleeping in cinders and eating porridge instead of outside in the dead of winter with only one big dog for warmth and stolen bits of food to eat, she was going to have to stop acting like the lady of the manor and start acting like a scullery maid.
She had never lied to herself again, for her survival depended on her ability to accept and manage the brutal truth. So she could not now continue to lie to herself that she did not want her husband in her bed for something more than sleep.
What she could do was keep her imagination from running amok with what could have been if he had the least amount of lust for her. She had many times witnessed people in various stages of the act, but once, unfortunately, she had witnessed it from start to finish. It had been an interesting thing to watch—until she realized that she would be expected to do that with Roger. Then she vomited. Here, now, looking at her husband asleep in her bed, for the first time in her life, she wanted that for herself.
She was free of repulsive Roger, but the man she wanted to swive found her repulsive.
With a long sigh, she checked the fire, climbed into bed beside her husband, and took care not to touch him. It was a big bed; that was simple enough.
Brìghde clutched her crucifix and brought it to her lips. “At least he’s not Roger MacFhionnlaigh.”
“What’s that?” he muttered.
“You’re not Roger MacFhionnlaigh,” she repeated.
He looked over his shoulder. “Where did that come from?”
“I was thinking of our disproportionately advantageous bargain.”
“Um … there is something … ” She grimaced.
“Say it,” he said flatly, turning over onto his back.
She took a deep breath. “As we await you to sit for meals, ’tis terribly inefficient for us to wait for you at breakfast when you do not appear without notice. Business must be gotten on with, your knights need to be in the field, and it is embarrassing to Emelisse that we know if she is sitting, you will not appear because you have been swiving the night away. Twice this week you have slept until noon. It weakens my credibility for all to look to Emelisse to know whether to be seated or not.” It also hurt.
“That’s fair,” he agreed agreeably.
Brìghde released a sigh of relief.
“Aye, see? Friends. That wasn’t even an argument. Now turn over and I’ll rub that sword point out of your back.”
She sighed with pleasure when his big hand pressed into her back and wished it were more.
“Go to sleep, Brìghde,” he murmured. “As long as I live, no one will ever have a sword in your back again.”