The Middle Ages
Matilda fully interpreted the meaning behind the Abbess’s flared nostrils and frown lines. It was an expression of abject disgust. The old nun, her wimple entombing her head like a white coffin, slapped Matilda’s face hard. The only other person present slipped away into the shadowy recesses, his black garb aiding his escape.
The Abbess’s lips trembled with rage and fear. “You will never tell a soul what happened here.”
Why would Matilda? What possible reason would she have for telling anyone what she had done in the vestry?
Matilda hung her head and knelt with her palms pressed together. “Gracious Lord, I beg for forgiveness for my poor judgement. Reverend Mother, I have committed no carnal sin. I placed my faith in one who I should not have trusted—”
“You lie,” the Abbess shrieked. “He would not have been tempted if you had kept your skirts by your ankles. I shall have you thrashed. We have a bench set aside for just such a punishment. The birch will drive out the evil in your heart.” Father Mark had made similar claims, but not while using a birch.
“Will banish you.”
Matilda looked up and fluttered her long eyelashes. “He’s very rich. Wouldn’t you prefer to keep my annuity, Reverend Mother?”
“You despicable creature.” However, the Abbess stepped back from striking Matilda again. Matilda had not taken any vows of chastity and was free to come and go. “This is how it will be… you will leave, tonight, and I shall write to your father, telling him of your unsuitability as a postulant. You’re nothing like your sister; she’s an excellent novice. He will atone for your sin with a dowry to be repaid annually.”
A saintly sister and a father who liked to bribe his way through life. Matilda’s family were well-known. “And Father Mark?”
“Will no longer hear mass at St. Winifred’s. I shall request another priest from the bishop’s diocese to conduct our services.”
Good, thought Matilda. If he had tempted her into committing wicked acts, what of the other novices and nuns he had ruined with his silvery tongue and nefarious greed? Unfortunately, she was the one who had been caught with him, and the others, like her who were steeped in boredom and lewd thoughts, were left blameless. The appointments in the vestry were shared between them, often by the drawing of straws. The fanatical priest, who spoke of hell and damnation from the pulpit and blessed them when they knelt at the altar, was as lewd as a horny hog. He had begged Matilda to let him touch her and she had held out until she’d heard the others boast of their accomplishments with him. Naturally, in the end, she regretted many of the things he had done to her. It was only her lust that had kept her from denying him, and one day, she would have to pay a high price for that extravagant behaviour. But not now, and certainly not in the presence of the Abbess, who, bewildered by Matilda’s confidence, had hurried away.
Alone at last, Matilda smiled. It would not end too badly for her. Nobody wanted a scandal in a convent, and with luck, she would leave in time for the first festival of the new season. Months wasted in a nunnery being taught piety and Matilda had learnt plenty of new things, none of them suitable for a house of God. She was ready to marry.
“Delightful, is she not, my lord? And to think, she’s barely nineteen and already a fine lady.” The young knight rested his elbow on the table, placed his chin upon the cup of his palm, and sighed heavily.
“Spoilt is what I see,” Gervais said. He tracked the lady in question as she moved upon the balls of her feet, fluttering two curtains of her eyelashes at anyone who dwelt upon her smile. Her face was a cherry blossom, the heat of the fires apparent on her cheeks, while the colour of her eyes, like lush green meadows, reached across the space between them.
“She comes with a generous dowry,” Geoffrey said cheerfully.
“If that is what you need.” Gervais suspected Sir Geoffrey Pole required a considerable dowry to keep his family’s debts from ruining the dynasty. There’d been generations of Pole knights, many whom had served the king in the crusades, then battled the French in Normandy, before crushing rebellion closer to home. A well-liked and respected family. But their debts were threatening, and if they failed to pay them off, their lands would be forfeit.
Gervais was awash with gold and property. The benefits of selling his services to the highest bidder rather than swearing allegiance to one king. Mercenaries were paid, not bribed with titles and wealthy girls to marry.
However, Sir Geoffrey was correct; Lady Matilda Barre was extremely pretty and vivacious.
“Tell me more about her,” he asked the younger man.
“Oh, she’s the second daughter of Gilbert Barre, Baron of Tilbury. A good family, loyal, and blessed with two worthy properties, some land in Normandy from the old days, and a couple of ships. Two elder sons, already married, and the older daughter, well, she’s pious and decided to stay in the convent where she spent her formative years. Tilda, I mean, Matilda, left under a cloud, unfortunately.” Geoffrey frowned.
“How so?” Gervais wiped the wine from his lips. The extravagant meal, served in the earl’s Great Hall, was coming to an end, the boards would soon be removed ready for the dances, and Matilda would no doubt choose to dance with some young buck. The hall was packed with gentry; it was the season for courtship: spring. The festival, chosen to honour some saint or other, was the perfect opportunity for nobles from across the county to visit the earl’s great fortress, to celebrate and woo their intended.
Geoffrey cleared his throat and glanced around. The hubbub nearly drowned out his low voice. “Caught, skirts up, with a priest. Now he claims she tempted him with evil spirits. The priest flagellated himself all night, praying to the almighty for salvation from his sins. Matilda was duly asked to leave. I think the Abbess was close to thrashing her with a birch, but Matilda’s father, who has a weak spot for his daughter, brought her home instead. He told my father in confidence. The abbey which houses the convent has done poorly at hushing the gossip.”
“A thrashing sounds a suitable penance.” Gervais had heard the story from somebody else. The convent had its reputation to maintain; noble families often sent their daughters to a nunnery to teach them piety. Obviously, they had failed with Matilda. So, the possibility she was not a virgin might hinder her marriage options. There again, given the hawkers following her around the hall, maybe not.
“Does it bother you that she’s lacking in good grace?” he asked Geoffrey.
The boy blushed. “I refuse to believe those who spread malicious lies. I spoke to her brother, and he insists she is unspoilt.”
A brother would though. “So you are prepared to court her, woo her?” Gervais called over a servant to refill his goblet.
Geoffrey’s eyes sparkled. “I would scatter petals on the ground upon which she walks if it will bring her to my side as my wife.”
Gervais stopped short of rolling his eyes. Romance inflicted the young at heart. Since he was past those youthful years, and worldly, he said nothing to dampen the poor knight’s spirit. Gervais preferred a demure woman, convent bred or not; it mattered more that she learnt quickly, behaved, and accepted her husband as her master. Love, whatever that was, he had managed without in the ten years since he’d acquired adulthood.
Matilda, rising to her feet and paying little attention to the movement of people around her, bumped into a servant carrying a jug to the upper table where the lords sat. The wine spilled down the front of her dress. The page tried to wipe the spillage with his napkin, but she slapped his hand away.
“You clumsy oaf. How dare you. This is my finest gown. Ruined. I shall have you whipped.” Her shrill voice carried over the musicians in the minstrels’ gallery. A few people ceased talking and stared at her.
The spillage was light, it barely formed a stain. However, she sought what she desired, an audience. “Father, this curd charged into me and look, my gown.” She wobbled her lower lip productively.
The baron extradited himself from his conversation with the earl and came over. “Hush, my dear. It is nothing—”
“Nothing? I stitched this embroidery myself.” She fussed with the sleeves.
“Which is untouched.”
The page finally had the opportunity to speak. “I am most sorry, my lord. She turned—”
“It’s not my fault,” she snapped.
On the other side of the hall, Geoffrey sighed. “Isn’t she magnificent when she’s cross. Look at those glowing cheeks. They’ve two sweet dimples in them.”
Gervais said nothing. Matilda was not winning her father over, although he failed to admonish her for wrongly blaming the page. She stomped across the hall toward the door leading to the guest chambers. Gervais rose and followed her out.
The spiral stairwell was quiet, and she turned to face him. “Are you stalking me, sir?”
Gervais leaned against the stone wall and crossed his ankles. His finely stitched tunic parted at the knees to reveal his hose and calf-skin boots. “Perhaps.”
She blushed. “I need to change my gown.”
“You made quite a fuss, didn’t you, about it? Was that necessary?”
“Was doing his job. Yours is to respect those about you, including those that serve you.”
“How dare you.” She gripped her skirts, ready to climb higher.
“I do, as it happens. I’ve something of a reputation for risk taking, although usually on the battlefield. Sir Geoffrey thinks you’re a catch, he’s prepared to chase after you, but not it seems when you misbehave. I, on the other hand, am not so easily overawed by haughty manners.”
She paused. “What do you mean?”
“I would, if you were mine to command, take you upstairs, toss you over my bended knee, and spank your bare behind until you wailed and cried. Then, while I dined, you would kneel on a stool before me, your naked arse on display, until I was satisfied you were remorseful.” He pictured the scene, then quickly dismissed it. He must not tempt himself with unlikely events.
Her cheeks turned crimson. “You… you—”
“Yes, I understand. I know what I am.” He grinned, enjoying the sight of her flushed cheeks betraying her. “Given your nature, I suspect you might spend some time both over my knees and on that stool before you understood the reason for the punishment. As it is, your father will do naught to tame you. Which is a pity. I think you can be taught to be a good wife, given the right motivation. Sir Geoffrey, handsome, youthful, and keen, would quickly find you a handful, and bore you, I fear. Think upon that when he comes to woo you.”
Her hands were shaking, her eyes vivid with rage. “And you, sir, would you court me?”
“I?” He laughed. “Not as Geoffrey might. He will fulfil his needs, but never yours. Sadly, he has not the wit to realise that will be your fate, if you choose him.”
“You’re very sure of yourself,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest.
“Life has shown me much. I’ve travelled far and wide, throughout Europe, the Levant, even to the coast of Africa. I have witnessed many ways to win a woman’s heart, many kinds of marriages. Many methods to please.” He decided he’d given her sufficient bait. For now.
He backed away, humming to himself. Why was he teasing her? Did he really intend to take a wife? He’d lovers, a few who’d lingered longer than others, but generally, he preferred to keep his own company. It was a challenge, always, to find someone of the fairer sex who would understand what he desired. What he needed.
Tilda huffed, and with pouted lips, allowed her maid to lift the soiled gown over her head. She smoothed down the linen shift that she wore beneath it.
“No, not that one. That one.” She pointed at her preferred replacement gown.
Sara, a doe-eyed creature, who had long ago learnt it was best to speak little and agree with her mistress without protest, gathered up the fustian gown and dropped it over Tilda’s outstretched arms and head. The girl laced the back methodically.
Tilda needed the girl’s eyes and ears for another purpose. “Do you know Lord Gervais Baliol?”
The girl’s fingers stilled. “Yes, my lady.”
“He insulted me downstairs. As handsome as he is, although roughly finished, I find it hard to believe any noble woman would express an interest in him. He is uncouth.” She straightened her back, allowing Sara to draw the laces tighter. “I assume he doesn’t lack for admirers.”
“We servants, you mean, my lady? Why, he treats us with respect and courtesy, but as far as I know, he has never laid a hand upon any of us. What other way can we admire him?” Sara stepped back and picked up the heart-shaped headdress Tilda had been wearing downstairs.
Tilda caught the girl’s smile out of the corner of her eye. “Oh, you know what I mean. Since he’s without a wife, I assume he does not care for the fairer sex.”
“Possibly,” the girl mused. “He keeps his distance. I hear he has travelled to many exotic places and therefore…” Sara sucked her crimson cheeks in.
“He will not find a Norman maiden to his liking.”
Whatever did the girl mean by that? A woman was a woman, and surely a Norman one was the best to be found, better than a Flemish one, or Greek, or wherever he’d journeyed. “I don’t care. He won’t come near me, not as long as my father has his eye on Geoffrey.”
“Sir Geoffrey has a new wolfhound, I hear.” Sara fixed the headdress, pinning it in place, and ensuring the veil hung neatly down her back.
“See, this is what makes him appealing. A good huntsman always has the best hounds.” Tilda adjusted her girdle and pinched her cheeks until they warmed to her touch. “Now I’m ready to return downstairs. Let us see who notices me first: Sir Geoffrey or that rogue, Lord Baliol.”
It came as a surprise to her that upon entering the great hall, she failed to locate either man. However, three other potential suitors charged to her side, offering her a dance, or wine, or a plucked rose. She smiled and glanced over to the dais where her father sat with the highest-ranking nobles; she hoped to impress him with her gaggle of suitors. Except he was missing, too. Her shoulders sagged. Her father preferred sleep to the company of young men and women and was unlikely to stir until morning.
The older drunken men fell asleep and the dogs joined them. Eventually, the ladies retreated to their chambers and only the earl was left with his favourites. They would talk into the night about affairs of state and other such important matters. Tilda, tired of gossip and knock-kneed boys, decided to retire. But first, she needed a breath of fresh air. The hall stank of smoke, stale beer, and dirty rushes.
Outside, in the small courtyard, the only one favoured by a few trees and a boxed herb garden for the kitchens, she discovered she wasn’t alone. A young boy, perhaps no more than six or seven was huddled in the corner weeping. She crossed over to him. It was the earl’s youngest son, Edgar.
She almost turned on her heel with the intention of fetching the boy’s nursemaid, but the pitiful crying gripped her. She knelt by the boy’s side. “Edgar, what’s wrong?”
He sniffled. “I had a bad dream. Father says that if I cry, I’m a weakling.” He wiped his snotty nose on his shirt. The boy was shivering; how long had he been hiding out here?
“We all have nightmares, Edgar. I suspect your father is trying to help you learn to ignore them. What was in your dream that scared you?”
“Then, you must pretend you are Saint George. I’ll take you back to your bed. I suggest you imagine you are George with the finest armour on and about to slay the dragon. Then you can rescue the damsel; this will make your father very happy.” She took the boy’s hand and raised him to his feet.
“Please don’t tell him!”
She patted his arm. “It will be our secret. I shall not say a word. In the morning, you can tell him what a brave knight you are and how you slew a fiery dragon in your sleep.”
The boy beamed at her.
“Edgar! There you are.” A woman hurried across the courtyard and snatched the boy out of Tilda’s hand. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”
Tilda glared at the elderly nursemaid. “He’s quite safe. I’ve been keeping him company.”
“He should be in bed, my lady, not out here catching his death.” She tugged on Edgar’s arm. As the pair hastened indoors, Edgar turned to look over his shoulder at Tilda. He smiled again and she answered it with one of hers. The boy in years to come would be a handsome devil.
She sighed. At least her father had never scolded her for having bad dreams, and neither had he ever called her a weakling.
From out of the shadows emerged a hooded man, clapping his hands together. “Bravo, my lady, I applaud your kindness and good matronly approach to handling the boy.”
Gervais Baliol threw back his hood and the moonlight lit up his sculptured face. The lines around his lips and nose were not harsh, but defining, and she could not help admiring how they suited his light eyes and thin mouth.
“I’m quite capable of being kind. Why wouldn’t I be?” She gathered up her skirts, keen to hasten a retreat.
Gervais held up his hand. “Forgive me. That was cruel of me. Of course you are kind to children. I just wish you’d show such behaviour to those who serve you. I find it hard to believe your father would be harsh to his servants.”
“He isn’t.” She bit her lip. “My mother… she’s demanding…”
“Your mother?” He moved to stand closer to Tilda, trapping her by the wall. “Where is your mother, is she not here?”
Tilda lowered her chin and hid her sad eyes. Her father would not like her speaking about her mother.
Gervais cocked his head to one side. “I see. I will say a prayer for her departed soul.”
“She’s not dead,” Tilda said swiftly. “She’s at home. She’s mad. There, now you know. My mother has lost her mind and is kept locked away.”
“How terrible for her and you. Can nothing be done?”
“The priest has sprinkled holy water on her and says she is damned. Her words make no sense, and she refuses to pray.” Tilda wiped away a tear. “I suppose she speaks rudely to those who watch over her because she is unable to look after herself.”
“Then, you should show her otherwise, eh?” Gervais stepped to one side. “I apologise. I’m keeping you from your bed.”
“I’m not tired.” She walked past him.
He chuckled. “I think otherwise. More sleep might calm your agitation.”
She spun on her heel. “I am not agitated.”
“No? Then listen to yourself, my lady. Listen hard, for you seem to be in a constant state of displeasure with everyone you meet. Why is that?”
She clenched her fists, then noting the tension rising into her shoulders, she unfurled her fingers and tried to relax. Was Gervais a magician? He seemed able to read her like an open book. She tried so hard to hide her feelings, knowing that they might portray her as weak. Women had the harder battle to win if they wanted to be taken seriously.
“I… I am not,” she said feebly.
Gervais bowed. “Then forgive me. I clearly am mistaken. The light is poor, the hour late, and I have caught you at a bad time. The kindness you showed the boy does you justice, my lady. I will take heart from that encounter.”
He turned away, but she managed to snatch at his cloak. “What do you mean? Take heart?”
Gervais halted. “I’ve decided to bed you, my dear. One way or the other, you shall be mine.”
Letting go of his cloak, she gasped at his audacity, and to her horror, just like when he described spanking her bottom, she felt a rush in her stomach, a flock of butterflies heading into the lowest part, where she knew a man might touch her if he dared, like the priest.
“Bed me?” she stammered. “There is only one way to… you can’t have me… I’m going to be Geoffrey’s.”
“That is what you might think.” He grasped her hand in his, raised it to his lips, and kissed not the back of it, but the tender part of her palm. “My lady.”
She stood stunned, her hand tingling. She was alone, for as quickly as he’d emerged from the darkness, he vanished again.
In her chamber, where her maid slept on the floor, she lay down without disturbing Sara, and curled into a ball on the straw mattress. The feeling would not abate. What had the man awoken in her? And why had she never felt this thing before with the gallant Geoffrey?
Gervais rose early with the other knights and lords, and together they formed a body of riders for a hunt. Deer was the prey, but Gervais was happy to shoot at rabbits and fowl, knowing that the servants needed food as much as the nobles. He hooked the coneys on his saddle, alongside a brace of pigeons.
Geoffrey was determined to down a stag. He harried the creature from one grove to another, firing off his arrows in all directions. It was a miracle he had not shot a fellow huntsman. Gervais kept to the rear and picked off the weaker creatures that strayed into his path. He preferred to hunt alone and not in an unruly pack.
The earl called an end to the hunt, but Geoffrey refused to follow. Left with only his squire, he continued to weave between the trees. Gervais held back and waited, knowing that eventually the knight would have to return to the castle. Somehow, he had an inkling that Geoffrey was trying too hard to impress a certain young lady. It would do no harm to see if he managed to fell a stag on his own.
A galloping horse nearly charged into Gervais and the steed reared up, sending the young squire tumbling onto the ground. The lad shook himself down and attempted to remount the angry horse.
Gervais held the reins, steadying the jittery horse. “Where’s your master?”
“I don’t know. His horse bolted and I can’t find him.” The boy, no more than fourteen or fifteen was red-faced and afraid. He took back the reins.
“Go back and fetch help. I’ll go look for him. Take these too.” He handed over his kill.
“My lord.” The squire cantered off toward the castle with the rabbits and pigeons bouncing on his saddle.
Gervais trotted into the darkest part of the forest. It reminded him of the one near his own castle. His sawyers felled the trees and fashioned timber planks. Gervais sold them to the ship makers, making him a tidy profit. Forests never scared him, no matter how dark and gloomy they might seem.
The path Geoffrey had followed was marked by destruction. The horse had trampled at the undergrowth, leaving a trail of debris. Geoffrey had no trouble following it. The horse, when he found it, was without a rider. He tied both sets of reins to a branch and continued on foot. Eventually, he stumbled upon Geoffrey, who lay with his arm outstretched and his leg twisted unnaturally beneath him. The prize wolfhound was licking the boy’s face and whining. Gervais knelt and checked Geoffrey’s pulse. Although deeply unconscious, the young man had a strong beat and steady breath. He’d probably landed hard and knocked himself out.
With Geoffrey unaware of pain, Gervais straightened the limb and used sticks for a splint. Aid administered, he laid his cloak over Geoffrey and waited. He whistled repeatedly to raise the alarm. An hour or so later, a search party arrived, and he allowed them to take charge of the maimed knight.
“It’s a good thing you stayed back, my lord,” one rescuer said. “Might have been out here for some time before we’d noticed he wasn’t back. His squire was in distress but able to tell us where he’d met you.”
“Good. I shall leave you to stretcher Sir Geoffrey back. I believe his leg is broken.”
“It seems so.”
Gervais smothered a grin. He had feared that he might have to compete with Sir Geoffrey for Matilda’s hand, now he had an advantage. Would she want to wait for the lad, or would she be prepared to take up Gervais’s offer once she knew of it?
He rode at a leisurely pace to the castle keep, retrieved his kill from the flustered squire, and ensured the kitchen staff knew what to do with the meat. He insisted it went to the stable lads, who were caring for the exhausted horses.
Later, while the huntsmen snored in chairs and their ladies stitched tapestries, he went in search of Lord Barre, who was awake, alone, and reading letters at a table. Gilbert Barre rose to his feet to greet a fellow baron.
“Lord Baliol. I must offer my thanks. Geoffrey has a broken lower leg, and is in some pain, but it could have been much worse if he’d been left undiscovered. Come and share a cup of wine with me.”
Gervais seated himself opposite Lord Barre. “I have a proposal for you, sir. One concerning your daughter, Matilda.”
Barre pursed his lips and frowned. “Matilda. She has an affection for Geoffrey, I believe.”
“I’ve no doubt that she does. He’s handsome, eager, and young. And reckless. As today has proved.”
Barre nodded, silently agreeing.
“With no disrespect to yourself, my lord, Matilda is equally high-spirited and careless. I might be mistaken.” Gervais raised an eyebrow. Again, Barre didn’t argue the opposite.
“She has some of her mother’s wildness. I have tried… I’m soft on her, I agree.”
“Do you believe Geoffrey will win her heart?” Gervais held Barre’s gaze and waited.
“I don’t know,” he said, after a lengthy pause. “He is from a good family. It is a marriage that should suit both of us.”
“An alliance of two great houses, I cannot dispute the appeal.” Gervais fingered the hilt of his dagger. So far, nothing he’d said had angered Lord Barre. “I fear though that Geoffrey might not contain her… wildness. She would bring dishonour to both of your houses if she were to embarrass him with her obtuse behaviour.”
Barre sighed and shook his head. “You’ve seen it for yourself then. I am at a loss. She is nothing like her brothers or sister. The incident in the convent… it is most unfortunate. I regret to say that I know not if she is intact; till now, she refuses to submit to examination, and I cannot bring myself to thrash the truth out of her.”
“That is awkward.” Gervais tapped his chin with his forefinger and clucked his tongue loudly. “This obviously might cause issues for Geoffrey’s honour. I must confess that I would not find it so unfortunate if she was not intact, as having travelled afar, I have a different view of the world. Geoffrey on the other hand…”
“I think him infatuated enough not to care,” Barre said hastily. “But his family will not like it. Yes, you’re a man who is greatly honoured for your soldiering, but I do not know if you would make a good husband.”
“I respect your honesty.” Gervais sipped on his wine. “Then maybe we need to resolve these issues quietly and find out some truths.”
“Oh? You have a suggestion?” Barre leaned his elbows on the table.
“Geoffrey will be out of action, bed bound for some weeks. Possibly months if he wishes to regain his athleticism. I do accept he has a strong physical appeal and a charming nature. I, myself, might seem colder and harder, so I wish to reassure you, my lord, that any wife of mine will be deeply cared for and want for nothing. I will not let any harm befall Matilda.”
“Good,” Barre said. “You want to marry her, I understand. What else? I can see you have something more than that in mind.”
“Marriage is a commitment. And I admit, I never thought of it as necessary. But an heir would be useful.” He drew the chair closer to the table and lowered his voice. “If Matilda and I were betrothed, and assumed to be married at a later time, we might spend some time together and for that duration, while young Geoffrey heals, I might discern the extent of her fall from grace, whether it needs addressing. It would save you the encumbrance of asking the nuns to conduct an examination.”
Barre drummed his fingers on the table. “Go on. I’m not adverse to the idea. And if she isn’t chaste?”
“Then she might need to learn to control her urges. A husband desires an obedient wife, yes? I shall return her humbler, for that is what I shall expect from her.”
The older man’s forehead wrinkled, and he frowned. “I fear that chaste behaviour is not in her nature. Even if she had not succeeded in tempting the priest to break his vows, I believe she tried, and the witness was quite confident of this. She is wanton, and I sadly have failed to teach her. If only her mother…” A sadness crept into his eyes. “Marion was steeped in piety. It is hard to understand why she was cruelly taken by the devil’s madness.”
Gervais lowered his head respectfully and gave Lord Barre a minute to collect his thoughts.
Barre cleared his throat. “You will take her to your home, test her, and then what?”
“I shall marry her or return her to you tamed. If she still wishes to marry Geoffrey, then that is her choice. I shall annul the betrothal, release her from the contract, and leave you in peace. I’m sure Geoffrey will continue to covet her and her dowry.” Gervais waited for a reaction.
“Ah, yes. Her dowry. I assume if she picks you, then you’ll take it.” Barre settled back in his seat and folded his arms across his chest. “Now we come to the rub of the matter.”
“Actually, my lord, you may keep the dowry. I have plenty to share with her.”
Barre’s eyes sparkled brightly. “And you would still take her?”
“What do you want, Lord Baliol, other than my daughter, which clearly is an attraction?”
“If, my lord, during our trial period, while I teach her and ensure she is suitable to marry, I beget her with child, I promise I will raise that child as my legitimate heir regardless if she marries me or not. The child’s origins will be kept secret if necessary, but I shall not shun your grandchild.”
“You intend to use my daughter for the purposes—”
“That might seem to be the callous purpose of my proposal, but the truth be told,” Gervais matched Barre’s angry gaze with a genuine expression of honesty, “I want to marry her. But she must lose her love of Geoffrey. I will be not an alternative. She must love me with her heart and soul, for only then can I meet her needs.”
The man’s ire softened into a gentle nod. “I understand. I believe you have integrity, and what you do is not only for your own necessity, but for Matilda too. She needs guidance.” He rose to his feet, and Gervais joined him. “Shake hands with me, sir. We have an agreement.”
“She’s my daughter, and like all women, must learn to trust their menfolk and kin. She will be informed that she will depart with yourself, with one maid for familiarity, and that, shall we say three months is sufficient for Geoffrey’s recovery, she is yours for the duration. The betrothal will be blessed by a priest, one whom I trust, and we shall sign our names to a document, stating that you require no dowry in the event the marriage is completed.”
“I wish to make it clear, sir. I shall not force myself upon your daughter. She might not come willing to my home, and if necessary, she might need to be taken under duress if her stubbornness will not weaken. However, I am a man who prefers the company of willing women, not frightened maidens.”
Barre scratched his chin. “Then what if for the duration, she refuses to comply with any of your requests to submit? Will this not make her stay unbearable for both of you?”
Gervais smiled. “I’ve spent sufficient time with your daughter to know that I don’t think she’ll tarry for long. I believe she will come to that conclusion swiftly. What I can’t determine is whether she will need me more than her young suitor. I can’t compete with Geoffrey’s gallant ways or lively charms. That is something we will both have to wait upon.”
“Then, sir, I wish you good luck. For I cannot deny I am relieved that you should take on my spoilt child, whom I have failed these last years. If I had a firmer hand… ah, but it is too late. I cannot bargain with her that way anymore. You must do what you can to tame her.”
The hint was there, and Gervais’s loins stirred in response. It appeared that Barre had unwittingly given Gervais permission to do exactly what he planned to do anyway. Discipline Matilda until she learnt to mend her ways, and then he hoped that kindness, of the sort he’d witnessed with Edgar, would win him over, perhaps even claim his heart and soul.