Grimme paced in his chambers, furious, but how much at which woman, he could not say, which was even more maddening. If Grimme knew only one thing about his favorite mistress, it was that she would do anything in her power to destroy Brìghde in Grimme’s eyes. Unfortunately for Emelisse, Brìghde didn’t care what Grimme thought; she was not interested in a petty scrap. If Emelisse provoked her enough, Brìghde would simply break Emelisse over her knee like a dry twig.
Brìghde had every right to expect her seat to be empty and he was furious with Emelisse for challenging both his and her authority after he had told her never to sit there again. Though Grimme had told Emelisse he would never wed her, he hadn’t wed anyone else, either, which gave Emelisse hope that he would one day. She was angry and bitter, which he understood, but had no sympathy for. He should have known Emelisse would make things difficult for any woman he married, but had given it no thought whatsoever.
But he was also furious with Brìghde, so much so that he could understand why her father had had to stick a sword in her back to say her vows. She had challenged Grimme’s authority in front of the entire hall, his knights, servants, mistresses, and son, and that could not be borne. If she had wanted, she could have killed Emelisse right then and there before he could forestall it, and never mind her skill with poison!
That girl was trouble and he dreaded what she would do next.
But now she was not an amusing oddity and he needed her for far more than a surety against Grimme’s murder at Sheffield’s hands.
Hamond appeared. “My lord, Sir John begs an audience.”
Of course he would.
Once he clipped down the stairs and entered his father’s chambers, he noted the small, filthy, prone male on the rug in his path. He stepped over it and threw himself in a chair across the desk from Sir John. “What,” he sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose.
“I will be blunt,” his father said with a strength in his voice Grimme had not heard in a long time. He opened his eyes to see Sir John fussing with the parchments on his desk, organizing them, tapping them square. “You were wrong to question Bridget’s handling of Emelisse.”
“Papa,” he sighed wearily, “you take Bridget’s side because you don’t like Emelisse.”
Sir John looked up, his expression one of fury. “I despise Emelisse. She is a poison in this household and she has been since you bedded her. God knows why I supported her all those years.”
Grimme sighed. “I was fifteen.”
“How many times did I tell you not to stick your cod in madwomen? How many times did I tell you that no matter how beautiful a woman is, someone, somewhere, is tired of her nonsense? How many times did I warn you away from her? But nooo,” he mocked. “You were in loooove.”
This was a lecture Grimme had suffered through for years. “And I’m not anymore. Why are you so angry? She has no power and Bridget did what you have wanted to do for years. You should be giddy.”
Sir John chortled. “No power? No power but that of negligence. Since you have not allowed me to have command over them, and you have not taken them in hand, they have the ultimate power. I did not realize it until Bridget came, but this would have happened whether or not I could climb stairs because you have given them right of refusal to me. And before you deny that, remember the bills in Hogarth and Waters that went unpaid for months. What could I do but grumble and rage at them? And they still would not bring them to me. Now that Lady Bridget, who has rule over me, has shown she can and will take power by whatever means necessary, you will be forced to see and do what I have been begging you to for years, if only to keep Bridget from killing Emelisse with her bare hands.”
“You are angry,” Grimme whispered in some awe, as he had never seen his father so.
“I am,” he snapped, “but I did not know how angry until this morning when Emelisse usurped Bridget’s place. I warned her it was not seemly but she scoffed at me, as she has done for years also, then she dared Bridget to evict her. And now the entire household knows the lord of this keep is the hapless, helpless fool being led around by his cod by four women, and the new lady of the manor is the only one amongst you with any sense and strength at all. Bridget is the ruler here and she demonstrated that to every one of your commanders.”
“It is not being ‘led around by my cod,’” he sneered, “when I have a house full of women who have always gotten along—”
His father hooted.
“—and all I want as a man coming home is to have a happy household and a happy family. Then I bring home this, this, this—woman who turns everything upside down.”
“Did you or did you not ask her to do so?”
“No! I asked her to take your place!”
“You cannot have both, Son. She can rule everyone, including your mistresses, or she can sit by the hearth and embroider for all the good she can do when you refuse to make them behave as part of a household. Take them in hand yourself or allow Bridget to be the enemy. She is clearly willing to be seen as such and has no investment in the opinions of anyone here save mine. For her, her word is law and by God everyone will bow to her. If you sit at her side being lord of the earldom and leave everything else to Bridget, you will be seen as a powerful pair who can rule more than a mere ten thousand acres with one small hamlet on its outskirts. Is that not why Henry sent you home?”
“Aye,” Grimme mumbled.
“Ply your women in private and soothe the wounds Bridget inflicts upon them, berate Bridget in private, but never take their side against her in public again. Your credibility as a lord and leader depends upon it. If you had brought home any lesser of a woman than Bridget, nothing would have changed.”
“Are you finished?” Grimme asked.
“I will not tolerate Bridget assaulting my women at all, much less in public.”
“If they defy her, they must pay the price whether in public or private. Bridget is asserting her power in the most efficient and unmistakable way possible. What would it say that Emelisse challenged her to use force and then she backed down? It would say she was not fit to rule here and that she would be no more effective than I am. You would not hesitate to put a soldier to the lash should he defy you as Emelisse defied Bridget.”
That was true.
“Order cannot be maintained without a strong leader, and I could not be it because you tied my hands.”
There came a knock upon the door, which startled all three of them. The prone male hopped up and sped to a corner behind some drapes with remarkable speed. Sir John said, “Come.”
It was Brìghde herself. She hesitated when she saw Grimme, but squared her shoulders and skirted around the desk to Sir John’s side and presented him with a parchment. “I would like to give William permission to transfer the bulk of our funds into the Medici Bank. Would that be something you would advise for or against?”
Grimme watched his father’s face light up. “I have been wanting to do that since William told me about it. ’Twill safeguard any losses from an attack by Sheffield. We may not even have to go to Italy—”
“I approve of a bank,” Grimme said, “and the reason, but not one in Italy. Transporting that much coin is a risk I will not take. There are banks in England, surely. Mayhap even France.”
“No, there are not,” Sir John said with overdone patience. “And we can purchase a sea insurance contract.”
“This is household business,” Brìghde growled.
“This is my money,” Grimme snarled back, and was satisfied when she looked away. “We have hiding places that are sufficient.”
Cowed, she went back to conferring with Sir John. She was humble in Sir John’s presence, almost bowing to him, grateful for any sign of approval, and after what she’d said of her father, Grimme could see why. Although she had been here over a month now, she still flushed slightly when Sir John praised her. Her expression was soft and open, unlike how it had been when confronting Emelisse then Grimme. To walk into his home and see her as a “virago” was something else again, and it thoroughly discomfited him.
If you do not rein your women in, I will.
Maybe his father was right, Grimme thought. Perhaps the best course of action would be to step out of the fray completely as he had always done and tend the business of acquiring more knights, training them, and fortifying the keep. What did he care about his women versus his wife, so long as his wife could control them, and he continued to bed the four and sit next to the one at supper?
And most certainly, his wife could control them—if he let her.
“Bridget,” he grunted, startling both her and his father.
“I apologize, on Emelisse’s behalf, that she sought to usurp your position at breakfast.”
She blinked. “Uh … oh.”
“I will not interfere with your disciplinary decisions again, as I simply do not want to be bothered. I would request, however, that you find some other way to control them than touching them, much less hurting them.”
“Mayhap you should instruct them not to dare me to, as I have never met a dare I would not take.”
“That is fair,” he conceded.
Brìghde chewed on her bottom lip. “What,” she began carefully, “did you expect when you brought home a wife? You never answered.”
And she had not acceded to his request, but he let it go for the moment. “I expected that my wife would be no different from them, and that the household would simply have one more woman in it.”
She nodded thoughtfully and mused, “Aye, I suppose ’tis not a large expectation when one plucks just any noblewoman out of her wedding.”
“Tall, willowy, blue-eyed blonde Scots noblewomen were in short supply.”
Her face flushed. Ah, so she knew it for the insult it was. Good. Grimme almost regretted saying it, but Brìghde needed to be punished and that cut was as far as he would allow himself.
“If you had not been so dimwitted as to snatch the wrong bride, my lord,” she said softly, the fury in her expression clear, “you could have had a tall, willowy, blue-eyed blonde Scots noblewoman who is also capable of being castellain.”
Grimme’s eyes widened and his bottom lip eased downward, his mind spinning with what could have been if he’d listened to the banns more closely and arrived in time.
“I am so sorry you got me instead of Lady Margaret Dunham. One look at her and your spindle would have been hard as a rock. You wouldn’t have had another thought in your head but that you had to have her and you wouldn’t have waited until you got to the register, never mind wooing and seducing.”
That was when he noticed her mouth was tight and trembling and she was swallowing quickly, which meant she was about to cry.
He whispered, “I’m sorry, Bridget.”
“I will take your name and some coin and Troy as payment for my work here, and be on my way to my brother at Dunham. I can find my way there without getting into trouble. You will have to look at me no longer. Get a babe on someone else, say I was in confinement, and then that you sent me away because our bargain had been fulfilled and I was no longer needed.
“I am the only thing between the duke and the survival of your earldom. I was the only one between my father and this pitiful piece of property. Do you know how easy it would have been to escape you? But nooooo. You’d rather endure a siege by an enraged father to get the blonde. And I agreed to bear the heir of a man who can’t stand to touch me. God, I’m an idiot.”
He shook his head. “No. Please, let me—” He stood and reached for her, but she skittered away from him and ran out of the study.
He made to go after her, but his father snarled, “Don’t. The look on your face was disgusting. Bloody hell, I could’ve had the blonde and got you instead!”
Grimme lowered himself into his chair slowly and looked at his father, who shook his head.
The intruder came out from behind the drapery snickering. “That was worth the journey,” he cackled and planted one arse cheek on the corner of Sir John’s desk.
“Mouse!” Grimme barked at the visitor. “Go take a bath. You stink.”
“Aye, I will, as that’s the only reason I visit. But first! Tell me exactly what your favorite whore did that you had to apologize to your beautiful bride on her behalf?”
Sir John gave Mouse such a vividly gleeful account, Mouse grew an evil grin. “Beautiful and vicious,” he purred. “Where is she? I’ll go take a bath right now and give her a babe. You’ll never have to worry about it.” He looked at Sir John. “You and I have trod this ground before.”
Sir John shrugged. “I don’t really care whose babe she has, just so that she has one,” he said smoothly, glaring at Grimme, “since the only male in this room who doesn’t want to fuck her is the only one who needs to.”
“May I have her, Grimme? Please?” Mouse whinged. “I’m more handsome than you are, and I’m not a grotesque giant.”
Both were true. “I’m also not thirteen. Boy.”
Mouse snarled and kicked his shin. Grimme chuckled when he winced.
“Philippe—” Sir John rumbled.
“Philippe!” Mouse crowed. “He’s very angry. Now tell me what she meant about your dimwittedness. I thought your plan with her was brilliant. Sheffield was furious, which was delightful for me to witness, but not so delightful for the poor wench he slapped across the room for daring to serve him what he asked for.”
“He meant to snatch Lady Margaret,” Sir John said.
“Aye, I know that. I just assumed he found a better candidate and made a sensible bargain.”
Grimme slid down in his chair.
“It was a mistake!” his father snapped. “He snatched the wrong girl by accident, and just completely devastated her by so obviously regretting he didn’t get the blonde.”
Mouse gaped, then he started to laugh. Then he roared until he was coughing. “And all these years I was jesting about your dimwittedness. This is perfect!”
Grimme deserved it, and Mouse was the only person in the world other than his father who could get away with mocking him so. Finally, Mouse managed to calm down, but he was wiping his eyes. “I told you to take some time to go about gaining a wife the usual way of nobility.”
“What else should I have done?” Grimme barked. “You told me I was in imminent danger.”
“Not that imminent, but you didn’t give me a chance to explain before you stopped listening to me. As usual.”
“What noble father is going to give his girl over to a bastard whose holdings are tiny, five years old, and on the Scottish border? There is nothing to recommend me.”
Mouse gaped at him. “Nothing to recommend you?” he gasped, horrified. “You’ve a title, wealth, and the king’s ear. There is nothing more a noble father could beg for!”
Grimme scowled in confusion and met his father’s equally confused look. Grimme looked back at Mouse. “But I have no influence—”
“You have a great deal of influence! You see your worth solely as it pertains to Sheffield because you have been in France, so you act like a naughty squire serving his cruel knight, desperate not to get his arse beaten. You sneak around to get what you want when you do not have to. No noble in England would turn his nose up to have you as an ally.”
“But I only have ten thousand acres.”
“And a standing army of three thousand, which is more than most nobles have no matter their acreage! Why did you not tell me this?” he pled, genuinely upset.
Grimme was oddly warmed by Mouse’s distress. “I … hadn’t put words to it yet, I suppose,” he answered vaguely.
“Grimme! Do you not understand why Henry sent you home?”
Grimme looked at him helplessly. “To put the earldom to rights so I can go back.”
“No! To be his political ally here. A king needs loyal nobles. You are far more valuable to him as a noble than you are as a knight on the battlefield. He sent you home to establish yourself amongst the nobility, to make alliances, which, aye, include marriage and you made a fairly powerful one. You will never be on the battlefield again so long as Henry needs your voice amongst his leadership. Did he not tell you any of this?”
“No, and don’t lecture me,” Grimme snapped, angry at the possibility he would never be able to war at Henry’s side again. “You know who you are.”
“And you need to know who you are, which is not insignificant!”
“Well, he thinks he is,” his father grumbled. “Both of us, rather. Not knowing how to— Knowing nothing about nobility— I can make money and he can make war, but that’s all! I didn’t think about his chances for an alliance with another noble any more than he did. And then he—” Sir John waved a hand at Grimme in frustration. “Just happens to snatch the exact girl he needs, who wanted to be snatched, can teach us both, and set this earldom on its feet, but neither one of us knows quite what to do with her. We don’t trust her, we don’t even know enough to ask the right questions—her first observation was that we had no lawyer. How were we supposed to know we needed one? So we have to allow her to do whatever she wants and hope she doesn’t betray us.”
Mouse scowled. “Wanted to be snatched? Start from the beginning.”
Grimme sighed and relayed the entire story, including Brìghde’s Trojan horse dilemma and Walter Fàileach’s plan for her death.
Mouse didn’t laugh, which surprised Grimme, but he was contemplating. “That’s the devil’s own luck,” he mused. “For both of you.”
“Not the devil’s!” he barked. “God’s hand.”
Mouse sneered. “You’ve not done one bloody thing in your life to earn God’s favor.”
“Mayhap He has things in store,” Grimme said archly, “a greater purpose for me.”
Mouse rolled his eyes and Sir John snorted.
“Very well. You snatched the wrong girl, you both seem to have outwitted your masters, but sadly, she is a brunette.”
Grimme nodded wearily. “Worse. She has become a very good friend—”
“I’d hate to have you as a friend. Bad enough working for you.”
“—and I do not befriend those I fuck, and I do not fuck my friends.”
Mouse blinked. “Oh. Well. Then I see your dilemma.”
“Aye, I knew you would.”
Mouse threw up his hands. “I cannot advise. There’s a reason I don’t fuck my female friends. If I had any left. I stopped making them because of dilemmas such as this. And you—” he said to Sir John. “You fucked every female friend you ever had. Couldn’t keep a male one to save your life.”
“Don’t make friends with women you don’t want to fuck.”
“Do I have to listen to this again?” Grimme groaned.
“Aye, that lecture is a bit rug-worn,” Mouse agreed.
“Neither of you have ever listened to a bloody word I say anyway!” Sir John planted both elbows on his desk and clapped his palms to his face and rubbed it. “Bridget is the first female friend he’s ever had. ’Tis simple enough to avoid fucking one’s male friends.”
Grimme gnashed his teeth and looked at his father. “Since you are the font of wisdom of all things women, what do I do?”
“Why don’t you try kissing her?” Mouse asked, exasperated.
“I hope you have not allowed her to see that face!”
“Now I am serious,” Mouse said, entirely seriously. “Get me some good clothes and a haircut, and I will look something approaching my age. Trust me, I can seduce her.”
“I am not going to rear your get,” Grimme said flatly.
“Grimme,” his father said gravely, “either do it or let Philippe do it. Bloody hell, summon Aldwyn, as we all know how he feels about brunettes. She will make his heart stop and he knows how to seduce a woman.”
“Son, I do not want to spend my last days listening to you make an ass out of yourself with a girl who’s been nothing but good fortune for you. If you want sympathy, you’ll not find it here. Now, out. You both stink, albeit of different filths.”
Thoroughly chastened, Grimme took his leave and trod heavily up the stairs and then up another flight to Emelisse’s chambers. He walked in to find her with her maidservant brushing her long flaxen hair. The finger-shaped bruises on her fair skin were already starting to form from her chin to jawbones to cheekbones, and she was holding cool cloths to her face.
“Begone,” he said to the maidservant with a wave of his hand. As soon as she left, he growled, “Do not ever gainsay me again. You embarrassed me.”
Emelisse sniffed. “You are angry because I showed you your wife’s weaknesses.”
“Don’t challenge her to lift you out of her chair with one hand, and mayhap she wouldn’t have to show her ‘weakness,’” he sneered.
“Is that what she told you? That I dared her to?”
“You lie to me all the time, but I never cared before. Now I do. I have no reason to believe her, but I have every reason to disbelieve you. Stay out of her way. You will not like the consequences.”
“I told you I will not be ruled by that bitch.”
“No!” she screamed. “I will not!”
“No arguments!” he snapped, infuriated all over again. “Circumstances are what they are, and Brigitte is my wife. You are first in my bed, as you have been for the last eleven years, and Brigitte is nowhere near my bed, so you must console yourself with that.”
“Oh, aye, after she announced your bargain to the whole of Kyneward! Her as castellain in exchange for legitimate sons!”
“Marriages are bargains!” Grimme roared. “That is its entire purpose! An exchange of wealth and land. Usually it is between the groom and the bride’s father. In this case, ’tis between the groom and the bride herself because we need each other to further our own goals. Her statement should take no one by surprise.”
“But what of love?” she whinged.
“Love! Love is a fairy story made up by bards to entertain bored nobles!”
“But I love you!”
“You lust to possess and control me, which you cannot do, which you should have learned ten years ago. So what did you do? You had my babes so you could control and possess them. Know this: I am Brigitte’s husband. I am glad to be Brigitte’s husband. God has blessed me with the privilege of being Brigitte’s husband. There are many reasons I did not wed you, so do not ever refer to me as your husband again.”