By Thatelan law, a marriage wasn’t fully legal until it was consummated. The duchess had also made her intentions clear, despite being eager to return to her own lands. Bedding her was to be expected, per their arrangement. It should come as no surprise that they’d share a room at the inn, being newlyweds. His eyes went once again to the item sitting on the pillow. “You want to tie me to the bed.”
“Yes.” Her smile was that of a lioness who’d spotted prey.
“And if I let you, you’ll double the stipend.” He stared at the coil of rope.
“I’ve found a new stallion is often skittish at the first ride. Offering a reward can smooth the process.” She waved a hand. “But our bargain was that you will submit to my will.”
“Obeying you is one matter.” He shook his head. “Being rendered helpless is another.”
“Hence the offer of the reward.” The smile never left her face.
Ruarc exhaled, then glanced at the woman standing behind her. “Your maid is still present.”
“Enjoy the small pleasures of rank, dear husband. She’ll save you the effort of undressing yourself.” Something of his reaction must have shown on his face, because she laughed. “Come now. She did quite well last time.”
“I am fully capable of undressing myself.”
“I’m sure you are.” She shrugged. “But I like the way you blush when she unlaces your breeches.” Duchess Vitalia straightened. “Stand, and let her undress you.”
He took a deep breath before rising. The maidservant’s smile was a catlike mirror of her mistress’s as she began unfastening his doublet. She took her time, putting on a show for the duchess. He clenched his fists, but stayed where he was. After he was naked, the maid went back to her position behind the duchess.
Her eyes raked over him. “Well?” She raised an eyebrow.
Kiera would be smart with the coin, see to their security. This wouldn’t be forever. Just until… “It will be as you wish.” He exhaled.
“Wonderful.” She stood then, and trailed a hand across his chest. “Relax, darling. You may even enjoy yourself.”
She took her time with the knots, positioning them with precise aesthetic perfection. He might not be the first stallion she’d ridden, but he was the first destrier. Ruarc had resisted at first, when she’d spread-eagled him atop the bed, but he’d relented before she could give an order. A destrier indeed. Mighty, and yet understood that his place was beneath his rider.
Still, with any new pet, it was best to start slowly. Ensure they got properly accustomed to your touch before you truly put them through their paces. Vitalia trailed her fingers over Ruarc’s chest. His muscles were firm, powerful. He’d won the melee, proving himself one of the finest warriors in the realm. And he was completely at her mercy.
That thought brought a smile to her face. She leaned forward and pressed her lips to his. There was the barest heartbeat of hesitation before he met her kiss with his own. She trailed a hand down to toy with him, fondling him as she tasted his lips. He was young, a healthy male in his prime. His body responded perhaps quicker than he would have liked.
Teasing him was a delight. The proper way to tame a beast was slowly. Her fingers moved, gentle and tender, until he was writhing beneath her. He pulled at the restraints, and she heard the wood of the bed creak a little as she toyed with him. Ruarc was panting now, moving with her rather than against her, and there was hunger in his kiss when she met his lips again.
When his body began to arch, she took her hand away. His eyes met hers, betraying his confusion. She smiled, then kissed him again. She laid beside him, pressing her body against him as she let him come back from the edge. “I…” He gave her a small frown.
Vitalia pressed a finger to his lips, then smiled at him playfully. “Do you want me, Ruarc?”
He gave her an uncertain look. It rather amused her. So strong on the field of battle, and yet here, tied to the bed beneath her, he was all but lost. “You made it clear what I want isn’t relevant.”
“Mmmm…” She bent her head to run her tongue around his nipple, then began caressing him again. He let out a soft moan as she once more took him to the edge. Then she moved up to whisper in his ear. “Do you want me, Ruarc?”
Twice more, she teased him, bringing him to the edge. He struggled against the bonds in earnest now, his body slick with sweat as she brought him close to the breaking point once more. “Do you want me, Ruarc?”
“Yes.” The word fought its way free of him.
Only then did she rise, and let her gown fall to the floor. She straddled his chest, letting him catch his breath again. “Yes what?”
His eyes, green and desperate, gazed back at her. “Yes, I want you.”
Ruarc sat still, letting Madzia bandage the abrasions the ropes had made on his wrists. She’d used an ointment, quietly assuring the duchess there would be no scars. Assuring the duchess, but not him. The duchess seemed pleased to learn there’d be no marks on her new pet.
She’d ridden him hard, then woken him at dawn for a second ride. Only then had she released him from the ropes. When he’d reached for his clothes, she’d informed him that from then on, he must ask her permission to dress unless clothes had been specifically laid out for him. Then she’d run her fingers through his hair before talking to Madzia about how it should be cut.
Pet was the right word. And yet, when she’d had him helpless, she could have done far worse. She hadn’t hurt him. She’d in fact tortured him by doing the exact opposite of hurting him. He glanced at her as she ran the brush through his hair, then caught Madzia giving him a knowing smile. And the maid had watched the entire thing.
The groomsman had the carriage waiting. It would take them another week to get to her estate. Her lands were far enough south that depending on who drew the map they bordered Jolusth rather than Ipruci. Fortunately, they were also far enough east and heavily forested enough that the Wilders didn’t come that far for raids. Though she owned several estates, she chose to make her home in Castle Faylin.
He hadn’t thought about how far it was, nor how isolated. The duchess preferred her privacy.
“Your family has cherry orchards?” It took him a moment to realize the duchess had spoken.
“Yes, milady.” He hesitated. “There are vineyards as well, though they are still young.” His father’s project. He’d neglected the building itself and indebted them still further in the hopes it would pay off. He’d died before the first bottle had been opened.
“Now that, I did not know.” The duchess smiled. “Tell me, what would it take to make those profitable?”
“Father had just started planning the irrigation canals to…” He trailed off, noting that the gleam in her eyes was predatory once more. “Time. Only one hill has been planted. It will take a few years yet before there are enough vines for practical use.”
“Years, hmm?” Her smile widened.
“Well?” Durante raised an eyebrow at Madzia.
“He nearly broke the bed posts struggling against the ropes, but he let her tie him.” She licked her lips.
“Did she let you play?”
“It was their wedding night, Durante.” She chuckled. “Though she did let me watch. He turned red whenever he remembered I was still in the room.”
“I’m not allowed near him until we are back at the castle.” Durante sighed.
“He’s not in deep enough yet. Push him too hard or fast, and he’ll balk.” Madzia shook her head. “Remember Raoul?”
“I remember everyone that has stabbed me.” He glared.
“Yes, well, if that one stabbed you, he’d do it properly.” She patted his hand. “And Gian’s so meek he’s hardly any fun sometimes.” She glanced over her shoulder at the carriage. “She mentioned once we are back at the castle she’d going to collar him.”
“Metal or leather?” He personally was hoping for metal.
“I hope leather. Nice and snug.”
The next night she didn’t bind him when she took him to her bed. It was a test, of sorts, and she was fairly sure he figured that out for himself. She’d been curious to see if he’d try to take control, to use his greater size to pay her back for the humiliation. Durante and Madzia had been within earshot just in case, and the rest of her guard was nearby.
Instead of making any sort of overture, he simple asked her what she wanted from him. “Tell me…” She sat down on the bed and looked him over. He’d stripped to his undergarment, a sort of loincloth, but no further. “If I had taken you to my bedchamber at our first meeting, what would you have done?”
“I would have attempted to please you.” His voice was cautious.
“How?” She arched an eyebrow at him.
“I…” He hesitated. “I hadn’t thought that far ahead, milady.”
“The scar on your left hip.” She gestured for him to sit on the bed. When he did, she shifted to put her feet into his lap. “Where did it come from?”
“A crossbow bolt, milady.” A trace of a smile passed over his face.
“Tell me.” She nudged her foot against his torso.
It took him only a moment to get the hint. He caught her foot in his hands, and began kneading the sole. His hands were strong but gentle. “I was fighting the one they call the Stone Dragon, milady. His foot slipped in some mud, and I found an advantage. I…” He gave a small shake of his head. “I nearly had him when one of the crossbow men…” There was a trace of frustration in his voice. “Decided to take a shot.”
“Wait…” She blinked. “One of our crossbowmen or theirs?”
“Ours.” Ruarc exhaled.
“One of our crossbowmen shot you?” She stared.
“I am reasonably sure they were aiming at him.” Ruarc continued rubbing her foot as he spoke. “Fortunately for me, he found the situation hilarious and decided since I’d been doing so well until that point, he wouldn’t kill me or take me prisoner.”
“He spared you because you nearly killed him?” She gave a disbelieving laugh.
“Wilders are…” He smiled a little before switching which of her feet he was rubbing. “A strange people.”
“Mmmm…” She pulled her feet away, then touched the bed next to her. “Come to me.”
He obeyed, crawling up to lay beside her.
The last two days they camped rather than stay at an inn. She’d bedded him every night, but while she expected him to do as he was told, she hadn’t tormented him again. He found himself hoping the first evening had simply been a test. If that were her game, he could survive. In retrospect, the evening had not been without enjoyment.
Ruarc hesitated before glancing back at the horses. Sita was there, with his saddle and what few belongings he’d had to bring with him. “Milady…”
“Yes, darling?” She smiled, putting a hand on his arm.
“Would it trouble you if I did not ride in the carriage today?” He raised an eyebrow. “I would like to take in the scenery.”
“You asked permission.” She smiled, then stroked his cheek gently. “That pleases me. You may ride.”
“Thank you.” He bowed and kissed her hand. Among her own men, he wasn’t certain yet what qualified as public versus private. Better safe than sorry.
It didn’t take long before her groomsman brought his horse to fall into step with Sita. “That really is a magnificent animal. Is she truly Petobae bred?”
“She is.” He patted Sita’s neck.
The groomsman, Durante, let out a low whistle. “How did you come by her?”
“A fool who thought he was better with a blade than he bet his horse against mine that he could beat me in a duel.”
“I’ve a stallion at the castle. Wilder-bred, one of their ones that can just about walk up the side of the mountain. Wouldn’t mind seeing what comes of such a blending.”
He gave the man a slightly wary look. The groomsman knew of the bargain. He’d been in the room when it was struck. “It is a thought.”
“You’re wondering if you’re going to be given a choice in the matter.” Durante smirked. “She bought you, not the horse.” He shrugged, then pointed. “There.”
The castle was just visible through the trees. It sat atop a small rise, giving it a good view of the surrounding area. The land around it was jagged with ravines. It was not a structure that would be easily besieged. As for the castle itself… “It sits atop the hill like a vengeful dragon.”
“Like a vengeful dragon…” Durante nodded. “I like that one. You should tell Her Grace that.”
Sita whickered softly, and he patted her neck again. He wasn’t entirely certain who the gesture was intended to comfort.