He wanted to grab the key and storm from the room. Ruarc could feel his face burning from humiliation. And yet, if he left empty-handed, his brother was a dead man. A whore, she’d called him. Worst part was she was right. He took a couple deep breaths, and then took his seat once more.
The maid who’d stripped him brought in the meal. He started to open his mouth, then caught himself. She hadn’t given him permission to speak yet. Ruarc looked up to see her giving him a pleased smile. “Now, as to terms…” She looked down at her plate, her voice prim. “I will first go over what is in this offer for you, and what is not. You will not be given access to my fortune. I will, however, purchase the markers for your family’s debts. Your estates, and your brother’s recent mistakes. Additionally, I will provide your family members with suitable stipends. I will also see to the repairs on the estate itself.”
Ruarc went still, as she laid out everything he wanted and more. He took a sip of the wine, and noted his hand was trembling just a little. The duchess must have noticed as well, because she smiled again. “You can, of course, refuse. In fact, you may walk away at any time. Your sisters are pretty, no doubt they can find work in a brothel. You could support your mother and your youngest sibling by returning to the life of a soldier, at least as long as you escape injury. Your brother…” She shrugged, then waved a hand. “You may speak.”
“You’ve made your point, Your Grace.” He was surprised to find his voice steady. “Perhaps you should explain what it is you want from me.”
“In public, you will play the role of my adoring and devoted husband. You will, if necessary, defend my honor and other such matters. Should I bear a child, you will claim the child as yours and defend the child’s honor as well.” She speared a bit of meat on her fork. “In public.”
A show. A pretense, so she could avoid having a husband with sufficient power to interfere with her. And yet if that were all she wanted, there were plenty of weak dandies about for her to choose from. Fools who had to have six servants before they could dress themselves. “In public.” He slowly nodded. “And in private?”
“You will assume no control over my standing or finances. You will assume no power over me at all. You will do as I tell you, and submit yourself to my will.” Her smile became predatory. “I have no interest in you as a husband, Ruarc. But as a plaything?” She looked him over. “I think I will enjoy you thoroughly.”
It was all he could do not to flinch. A whore was exactly what she’d make of him, if he agreed to this. And a cuckold beside. “My sisters will require dowries.”
“Their needs will be met, as long as you keep your end.” She speared herself another bite of food. “Displease me, and their stipends will be cut off until you submit to whatever punishment I deem satisfactory.”
“Not courting a husband…” He gave a bitter shake of his head. “You’re buying a slave.”
“Precisely.” She bit into the meat.
Durante exchanged a look with Marzia. The knight was going to take the deal. Otherwise, he’d have put a halt to things when Marzia had stripped him. From time to time, the duchess had serving boys in to play with, paying them handsomely for their service and their silence. She’d even purchased a few lovelies from Manisar. As much as he enjoyed the meek little things, the man at the table was something else entirely. A warrior, strong and powerful. A young nobleman in his prime. He was hard at just the thought.
Her grace had laid the terms out for him bluntly. A prenuptial agreement with draconian terms, leaving her the power in their relationship. She’d put in safeguards. In the event of her death, he got only what she specified in her will and the rest went to her designated heir. If his death came at his own will, his family would be left with nothing. And she retained the right to divorce him.
The knight was handsome. A war hero, from what he’d learned, but cursed with a father that had no business sense and a brother who apparently had no sense at all. His hair was jet black and worn a bit longer than was currently in fashion. He had a strong jaw, with delightfully masculine features. The small scar on the left side of his face enhanced rather than detracted from his appearance. Standing, the knight was about four inches taller than Durante himself, and much more muscular. The thought of such a creature submitting was almost intoxicating.
The bells rung not long after dessert had been served. He blinked when the knight immediately stood, grabbing the key off the table. Sir Ruarc snatched the purse off the stand, then strode toward the door.
She smiled when he stopped before putting the key in the lock. For a hundred heartbeats he just stood there, breathing. Then he turned back. As she knew he would. “My family is not to learn of this arrangement.”
“You would rather they think of you as a gold digger rather than as a whore?” She arched an eyebrow, noting he flinched at the word. “Understandable.”
“My brother’s marker…” He took a deep breath.
“His safety is assured the moment you sign the contract.” She waved a hand, and Marzia set the scroll on the table.
Slowly, almost as though he were being dragged, her prey came back to the table. He unrolled the scroll and started to scan it. Then he just gave a small shake of his head before grabbing the pen from Marzia and signing his name. “You have a deal.”
Vitalia rose, then gestured for him to stand in front of her. He obeyed silently. “Kneel.” He took a knee, a knight’s gesture of respect. “No, my boy.” Her smile showed teeth. “Kneel.”
He glanced up at her, then nodded before shifting his position. She smiled as he went to his knees properly, his hands palm down on the floor as he bent with his head bowed. A gesture of supplication. “Such a bargain should be sealed with a kiss.” She extended her leg, putting her foot near his head. “Don’t you think?”
There were smiles on the faces of Durante and Marzia as he leaned forward just enough to press his lips to the top of her foot. Oh, yes. He would do nicely.
Ruarc paused, making sure his face was composed before he entered their tents. He tried to make himself look pleased. He should be pleased. They, at least, were safe, their futures assured. He took a deep breath before entering. Teague and his mother were still up, as was Kiera. All three looked a little frantic, and Kiera actually stepped into a protective position in front of Teague before realizing it was just him. That was almost enough to make the smile real. Had Kiera been born male and Teague female, things would be different indeed. “Teague’s safe.”
“Thank the gods.” His mother collapsed into her chair.
“Brother, I…” Teague’s eyes were wide.
“If I ever catch you in a gambling den again…” He started shaking his head.
“I’ll cut your fingers off.” Kiera finished for him, waving a dinner knife. Then she turned toward him. “I’m sorry about Sita.”
“I, uh…” He’d had the entire trip back here to decide what he was going to tell them. He shrugged. “The duchess saw me tilt against Count Servo and unhorse him. She doesn’t like him, so she’s offered to be my patron.” He tossed the purse to Kiera. She’d be smartest with the coin. “She was fairly generous about it.” That part, at least, was close enough to true.
“Ruarc…” His mother was no fool. She clearly knew there was more to it than that. It was past mattering.
“A lot rides on the melee tomorrow.” He exhaled. “I need to get some sleep.” He walked past them to his section of the tent, and drew the curtain closed.
The first test came the next day. She’d be lying if she claimed she wasn’t at all nervous. A lot rode on his ability to convince people he was a lovestruck puppy. Him overplaying it could be nearly as disastrous as a wooden performance. Still, with Durante holding his brother’s marker she could keep him in check.
She’d put him back on the lists, making it clear she was doing so to spite the count. Ruarc greeted her gallantly when he came out onto the field, requesting her favor to wear in the melee. She tied a ribbon around his arm, laughing as she did. Innocent gestures, performed by others all over the field. Two brothers were having a mock battle over who would fight for the honor of their six-year-old niece. After the laughing girl chose the elder, the younger immediately turned to the elderly lady Amedea and requested her favor. The old woman grinned as the young man swore to fight valiantly in honor of her beauty.
Both lost in the first round, but they’d won some appreciation from the audience for their antics. Madzia brought her a cool drink as she watched the combat. She’d expected Ruarc to perform well, and was not disappointed. He beat Count Servo handily in the second round, then raised his sword triumphantly before bowing in her direction. That alone was worth the hundred gold she’d paid him as the count slunk off to lick his wounds.
Three rounds later, and he was still in the game. The best four warriors were all that was left, and her recent acquisition was one of them. A smile came to her face when he bested Sir Livio, leaving him facing Baron Rinald. “Well now, Madzia…” She laughed softly. “You do have a good eye.” She glanced at her maid. “The brother?”
“A useless fop.” Madzia shook her head. “Seeing how unalike they are I cannot help but wonder if his mother cuckolded his father.”
“Things have certainly worked out to our advantage.” She smiled as she took another drink of her iced wine.
Baron Rinald was both powerful and skilled, and at this point they were both tired. If they weren’t careful, the duel could turn deadly. He bowed to his opponent. The Baron bowed in return. “When this is over, lad, I’d like to hire you for my guard.”
“The offer is appreciated, my lord.” And he couldn’t help but wish it had been there yesterday. “But I fear I’ve taken service elsewhere.”
“Pity.” They took their position. “Good luck, young sir.”
“And you, my lord.” They went silent as the crossed swords.
The baron had an advantage in experience, while Ruarc himself had reach. He caught the feint before the baron could strike, then twisted to take advantage of his longer arms. The baron recovered quickly, catching the blow on his shield. Ruarc pushed forward, only to find the baron was sturdier than he looked. Instead of continuing the push, he relented, making the baron stumble forward just a tiny bit. It was enough to give him an opening.
He kept up the offense, not letting the baron recover. After a few more moments of combat, the baron stepped to the side and offered a salute. “The match is yours, Lord Ruarc.”
His victory gave him a perfect excuse to invite him to dine with her again. He kissed her hand as he accepted, but she didn’t miss the wary look in his eyes. Vitalia smiled. Marzia had a good eye indeed.
She had no intention of pushing him too far. Not yet. Not until they were safely wed and back to her estates. Patience was a virtue. And the anticipation just made everything sweeter.
“You’re getting married?” Kiera stared at him.
Keeping the smile on his face was harder than anticipated. “She’s a beautiful woman.”
“You’ve known her a week.” She narrowed her eyes.
“Mother and father had known each other for two hours before they were wed.” Ruarc shrugged.
“Yeah, but that was arranged and they’d both known about it for years. You…” Kiera frowned, then glanced at where Teague was reading to their sisters. Then she slowly nodded. “You’re not in love. You’re…” She turned back to him. “Ruarc…”
His sister wasn’t stupid. She didn’t need to know the details of the bargain he’d struck, but she wasn’t stupid. “She needs a husband who can defend her. I’ve got a family I need to keep fed.” He shrugged. “It’s not that different than being a soldier.”
“Except you liked being a soldier.” She sighed, then exhaled. “I could kick Teague.”
“You’d have had more time to think of something. Something better.” Kiera looked down.
“Kiera, I need you to be strong. Because let’s face it…” He glanced toward Teague before looking back at her. “When I’m gone you’re the head of the household. You can go back to Elk’s Rest and…” He took a deep breath. “The Duchess agreed to send some funds to get repairs started. Someone’s going to need to oversee things and take care of mother and the others and…”
“Make sure Teague doesn’t accidentally walk off a cliff?” She rolled her eyes.
“Or set himself on fire…” He sighed. “Again.”
Kiera snickered. The smile vanished quickly. “When will we see you again?”
“I…” That would depend on the duchess. “I don’t know.” He brushed her hair back. “I’ll write to you. Often.”
He played his part beautifully. Her uncle hadn’t suspected a thing, other than to note that her new husband wasn’t particularly bright after looking over the prenuptial agreement. She’d drawn a few envious stares from the other ladies of the court as Ruarc played the part of the attentive beau. He’d been resplendent in the garb she’d chosen for him.
And once in the carriage, with none to see, he’d simply gone quiet. Vitalia smiled. He’d done well, and deserved a reward. “I’ve acquired the markers for your family’s estate.” They’d cost her a considerable sum, but they also technically made the land hers if she called upon them and they couldn’t pay. And they couldn’t. It was supposedly a lovely piece of land, with cherry orchards.
“In the interest of ensuring your…” He hesitated a moment. “Investment does not run into difficulty, I suggest the business of the estate be handled by Kiera.”
“The eldest of your sisters.” She nodded. “That can be arranged.” She gave him a contemplative look, and noted he shifted a bit uncomfortably beneath her gaze. “The stipend is enough to keep them fed and clothed. I’ve matched the pay you received in the army.”
His head came up, and she knew why. It was barely enough to keep them above poverty. He started to protest, and then caught the look in her eye. He took a deep breath. “I take it you’re going to offer me the opportunity to increase the amount?”