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they’ll tire soon enough.’

‘But you are not as convinced.’

‘Would you be?’

Joscelin cut a chunk from the bread and dipped it into the soup. ‘You know how matters stand between my half-brothers and me,’ he said. ‘I’m the bastard, Ralf ’s the heir, and he rams it down my throat at every opportunity. ’ His expression was suddenly grim. ‘And Ivo’s like a sheep - follows Ralf ’s lead even if it happens to be off the edge of a cliff. Thank Christ I won’t be here much above a week.’

‘You’ve only just arrived!’ Maude protested.

‘I’ve a bad memory,’ he said ruefully. ‘It’s not until I come home that I remember the reasons why I left in the first place and by then it’s too late.’

Chapter 3

Linnet de Montsorrel stared at a cobweb veiling an oak roof-beam. A spider was sucking the life from a fly that was still twitching feebly in the vampire embrace. Giles bit the soft skin between her throat and shoulder. His fingers gouged her buttocks, drawing her up to meet the crisis of his thrusting body. Clinging sweat, raw, stabbing pain. He groaned, stiffened and jammed into her as he climaxed. Linnet arched in silent agony. His arms relaxed and he collapsed on her with a gasp, flattening her into the mattress. On the web above her the fly no longer twitched, a mercy not permitted herself. She remained Giles’s victim, to be unwrapped, impaled, and used repeatedly at his whim. Her ribs hurt and small spots of colour fluctuated before her eyes. ‘Please!’ she gasped. ‘Please, you’re crushing me!’

Still panting, he raised his head and glowered at her. ‘God’s eyes, don’t you ever do anything but complain?’ He slid out of her and rolled to one side. She averted her eyes from his genitals and closed her aching thighs. Her neck was sore where he had bitten her.

‘Don’t just lie there, fetch me a clean tunic!’ he snapped. ‘I’ve a rendezvous at Leicester’s house tonight.’

Sitting up, Linnet drew on her chemise and went to the clothing pole. Crumpled on the floor were his discarded shirt and tunic, the latter torn in his haste to bed her. He would expect it mended by morning but at least if he was going out she had some time to herself.

‘If you don’t like it, you should hurry up and quicken with a babe,’ Giles growled as he snatched the fresh garments from her hands. ‘The only child you’ve borne to me in six years of marriage is that milksop weakling out there and you know what I think about him!’

Swallowing, Linnet turned away to fetch his belt. Bearing Robert had almost killed her, for she had not reached her full growth then and her hips had still been narrow. Giles had told the midwives to save the infant - he could always take another wife and what use was a bad breeder anyway? But she had survived and one of the midwives had advised her how to avoid quickening again too soon. It involved vinegar douches and small pieces of trimmed sponge or moss soaked in the same. Of late she had stopped using them in the hopes of conceiving again but thus far there had been no interruption to her monthly bleeds.

Giles donned his braies and tied the drawstring. ‘You think I enjoy ploughing a corpse?’ He flayed her with a look. ‘I might as well spread the legs of an effigy for all the response I get from you!’

She risked a single frightened glance at his lean, tense frame, then looked at the floor. When he touched her, she did indeed wish to be dead or turned to stone.

‘Mayhap you dream elsewhere,’ he said as he plunged into his shirt and tunic. ‘You must know that I was displeased with your boldness this afternoon.’

‘I’m sorry, my lord; I was only thinking of Robert’s welfare.’

‘Were you indeed? I saw the way de Gael looked at you after you spoke to him. A man of his ilk needs little encouragement.’

‘I swear I gave him none, my lord.’ Cold fear rippled up Linnet’s spine. She knew what he was capable of when riled. ‘On my soul I swear it.’

Giles snatched the belt out of her hands and she flinched. ‘On your soul?’ he enquired softly. ‘Shall we not say rather “on your hide”?’ He ran the learner through his fingers until they stopped against the dragon’s-head buckle.

‘On my hide, I swear it,’ Linnet said, looking at the intricate curlicues of English workmanship on the cold, solid bronze and knowing how much their impact hurt. ‘I swear it.’

Giles drew out the moment, letting her suffer. ‘I might have trusted you once,’ he said huskily and a shadow of pain tensed the corners of his eyes. ‘Then I discovered that any bitch in heat will run to be serviced by the nearest dog!’ He jerked the belt around his lean waist and latched the buckle. ‘If you give me cause to reprimand you again, you know the consequences.’

Linnet lowered her eyes and stared at the floor. She could see his legs, the right one thrusting belligerently forward, encased in soft red leather. ‘Yes, my lord,’ she whispered, feeling cold and sick.

He pivoted on his heel and headed to the door. ‘Hurry up and get dressed, you’ve a household to order. Make yourself useful for something at least!’ He flung out the door and she heard him descend the stairs, yelling at one of his squires to summon a boatman to row him downriver to Leicester’s house.

After a moment Linnet gathered herself sufficiently to take a comb from her coffer to tidy her hair. She did not want to summon her maid; she needed a moment of solitude to compose herself, to fix in position the calm facade she would present to her household. Hair smoothed, she picked up a small clay jar of marigold salve to anoint the mark on her throat.

It was not the first time that Giles had bitten her, nor the most painful, but as she broke the beeswax seal and took a daub of ointment on her fingertip, her eyes stung with tears. Jesu, how she hated being at his mercy, trapped like a fly in a web.

Vision blurring, she sat down on the strongbox, which stood beside Giles’s clothing chest. The studs on the iron reinforcing bands dug into the backs of her thighs, which were still tender from the grip of his fingers. Beneath the strongbox’s twin locks lay the coin from the sale of their entire wool clip and all the rents and toll monies from their villages. So did all the silver plate from the keep at Rushcliffe. The latter was part of her dowry and Giles had no right to bestow it upon Robert of Leicester for some dubious scheme in Normandy. Giles needed this coin to keep the moneylenders at bay. Promises did not put bread on the board and her husband had already taxed the villagers to the limit of their means. If there was a bad harvest this year, some of their people would starve for the cause of an adolescent youth with delusions of grandeur.

Giles was supposedly accompanying Leicester across the Narrow Sea to offer support to King Henry’s efforts to crush his rebellious sons, but Linnet suspected that treachery was intended. Giles disliked the controls that King Henry had imposed on baronial rights and would certainly not beggar himself to go to the King’s aid. To her husband, the prospect of an untried youth on the throne held endless possibilities, especially for the men who helped to place him there. It was a gamble, it was treason, and she had never seen Giles so excited - irritable and exhilarated at the same time. And it was she who bore the brunt of his mood swings.

Rising from the coffer, Linnet wiped away her tears on the heel of her hand. They were a release, nothing more. Giles was not softened by them and she would have dismissed them from her armoury long ago had she not discovered that others were less impervious to their effect.

She set her jaw and summoned Ella with a stony composure that did not falter even when the woman’s eyes flickered over the ugly, blood-filled bruise on her neck with knowing, unspoken pity.

‘You’ll be wanting warm water and a towel first,’ Ella said practically and went to fetch them.

Linnet lit a taper from the night candle and crossed the room to the small, portable screen at the end. Behind it, exhausted by the long, fraught journey, her son slept in his small truckle bed. Against the pillow, his hair stood up in waifish blond spikes. He was fine-boned and fragile, light as thistledown, and she loved him with a fierce and guilty desperation. Frail children so often died in infancy and she would find herself watching him intently, waiting for the first cough or sneeze or sign of fever to have him swaddled up and dosed with all manner of nostrums. And if he did live to adulthood, what kind of man would he make? Never such a one as his father, she vowed, although God alone knew the ways in which he would be twisted when he left the safety of her skirts for

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