“Send me the blacksmith,” Balen ordered, surveying the disaster that had been the curtain wall gate. When the smith arrived, he told him, “I need you to build me an iron portcullis that will serve as an outer gate.”
The man listened to his specifications and nodded enthusiastically. “I’ll get to work right away, sir!” he promised. “I have all the materials I need.”
“You men,” he said, addressing the Falconworth men at arms, “go outside the curtain wall to the forest to chop down and bring back several large trees to construct an inner gate.” He sent another retinue of men to bring stone and mud. He needed to make the entrance impregnable and what it really needed was a gatehouse, complete with stone towers for defense. The last group of men he set to work tearing down a small portion of the curtain wall near the gate, to make room for the first tower.
“By our lady, what are you doing?” Lady Camilla demanded, interrupting their work.
He turned slowly and surveyed her where she stood, one hip cocked, lower jaw jutting forward. He was oddly aroused by the sight of her angry, and felt torn by a desire to either push her up against the wall and kiss her or spank that ungrateful attitude right out of her. Of course, he did neither. “I am making room for the defense tower.” He mustered patience.
She blinked at him. “Well, sir,” she said, looking at the growing hole. “I should think you might ask permission before you set about destroying property here.”
“Permission?” he asked, dumbfounded. “You think I require permission to fortify your nonexistent defenses? Did I need ask your permission yesterday when I saved your arses from your sacking neighbors?”
Lady Camilla recoiled at his use of the word ‘arses’ and huffed, her eyes flashing. “You,” she spluttered, “you are the crudest, most arrogant, and least chivalrous knight I have ever known!”
“Is that so?”
Lady Camilla’s people drew close and flanked her as if they thought she were in danger. That irritated him, too. What kind of savage did they think he was?
The elderly priest hurried over. “Sir Balen, we are not ungrateful for the efforts you are making here,” he soothed.
It seemed rather bold of him to contradict Lady Camilla, but she accepted his interference. When he shot her a pointed look, she appeared slightly chastened.
He narrowed his eyes at the priest—surely they were not lovers. A flash of jealousy tore through him before he assured himself that was ridiculous.
“Indeed,” Lady Camilla said through gritted teeth. “Father Bernard is right; we are grateful for your assistance.” It appeared to cost her to say so.
He nodded coolly and turned his back on her, returning to work without another word. He heard an angry sniff before the sounds of her departure. After a moment of studied nonchalance, he sighed and shook his head. A sane man would just leave. She wasn’t compensating him for this and his troop was expected up north for a mercenary job. But if he left, he’d never see the enigmatic lady again. Not to mention, he’d be leaving her defenseless, which was unconscionable. Nay, he must stay until her hired knight arrived—’twas the only noble thing to do.
He sat at the head of the table again at dinner to purposely irk his hostess. He loved watching the way the color rose in her cheeks and her eyes flashed. His ploy worked. She stopped mid-stride when she caught sight of him and then she marched over to the table and sat down, giving him a hard look. His balls tightened. Good lord, what this woman could do to him!
She gave her sister an equally hard look. “Tola, it is not necessary for you to entertain Sir Balen during the meals.”
The girl blushed.
She turned her hard gaze back to him. “My sister is barely of marrying age, and is not to be courted by you or your men,” she said primly.
Though he had no interest in the young girl, being told he was not good enough for her annoyed him. He scowled. “I was not courting, nor were my men. We are far too busy trying to reconstruct your defenses,” he reminded her.
She flushed and the soft pink on her cheeks made her eyes shine even more blue. “Well, please inform your squires—she is not interested.”
Tola opened her mouth to protest, but snapped it shut under her elder sister’s forbidding gaze.
He pushed his empty plate away and wiped his eating knife on his leggings, then stood without excusing himself or answering the lady’s directive.
By evening, his men had made a good start constructing the new wooden gate and they had begun laying stone and mud for the defense tower. When he arrived in the Great Hall for supper he found Lady Camilla sitting at the head of the table herself.
He couldn’t help but grin as he sauntered over and plopped onto the bench beside her. “Lady Camilla.”
“Sir Balen,” she said coolly.
Her wenches served a light meal of freshly baked bread and a salty cheese. She reached for the food as if she were the lord, but he beat her to it, serving her with a wicked smile. She pretended not to notice, but her blush made his cock stir in his leggings.
When they finished eating, he said casually, “I believe you owe me an apology.”
Her jaw dropped. “I could say the same of you!”
“It does seem to me that you’ve forgotten the position you’re in.”
“Exactly what position is that, Sir Balen?”
“You are sorely undefended, my lady,” he exclaimed with exasperation. “If I took my men out of here tonight, which I am willing to do, you’d be wide open to another invasion. If I were Lord Stonegate, I’d be watching for just that opportunity.”
He watched the muscles in her jaw tighten and her full lips grow thin. She didn’t answer.
“You have not offered me compensation, nor have I asked for it. I do not, however, think it is too much to expect your graciousness and an apology when I request it.”
“You request an apology?” The lady seemed dumbfounded. “I have an apology for you, then. Here’s your apology!” She flung her ale into his face, momentarily blinding him.
He roared and jumped to his feet, his eyes burning from the spirits, his hair and face dripping. He snatched the fleeing Lady Camilla around the waist and pulled her sharply against his body. Her soft bottom pressed against his thigh.
“Now that deserves a spanking,” he growled in a low voice in her ear. She lunged and strained against his hold and he jerked her back.
Her men at arms had stood, but so had his, so they were at an impasse.
“Stop fighting,” he commanded, still in a low tone only she could hear.
Miraculously, she obeyed.
In a normal tone, he said, “The lady and I have some business to discuss in my chamber.” He propelled her toward the stairs. Everyone in the great hall stood in shocked silence, taking in the scene.
Only her elderly knight moved to block the stairs, his sword drawn. “Unhand her,” he demanded.
Dear lord. He barely refrained from rolling his eyes heavenward. Well, he couldn’t blame the man for doing his duty. There was no way Balen would take arms against a man old enough to be his grandfather.
“Call him off,” he said in Camilla’s ear. “Don’t make me harm an old man.”
“It’s all right, Sir Thomas,” she said in a shaky voice. “Sir Balen is right, we have some business to discuss.”
“Nay, ‘tis not seemly to go into a man’s chambers, my lady,” Sir Thomas insisted, refusing to lower his sword.
“Her sister may accompany her to be sure her virtue is not questioned,” he said.
Tola hurried forward, her pretty face pinched with concern.
Sir Thomas spoke directly to his mistress. “He will not shed blood over this, Lady Camilla.”
“Won’t I?” he asked darkly. “I didn’t earn the name Savage Sword for nothing.”
Of course he wouldn’t shed blood over this, but he would have Lady Camilla over his knee, even if he had to do it in front of the entire hall.
“Nay, Sir Thomas, I shall not risk your blood over my… folly.”
Sir Thomas lowered the sword slowly. “If you do anything untoward with that lady—”
“I assure you, I will not,” he cut in and led Lady Camilla past her knight, who eyed him with suspicion.
Her entire body trembled, yet when she’d spoken, her voice had been clear and authoritative. He admired her pluck. He released her from his hold to allow her the dignity of walking up the stairs on her own, following behind in view of the part of her that would soon be the target of his palm.
She quaked as she walked up the stairs in front of Sir Balen. It was excruciating. All she could think about was the fact that he was facing her bottom, which he intended to chastise momentarily. She took the stairs as quickly as possible and waited for him at the door to his chamber.
“You may enter,” he said as if he were lord of the castle. Her castle.
She opened the door and stepped into his room, her gut clenched, palms sweaty. Sir Balen entered, followed by Tola. She did not wish for her sister to witness her spanking, but she wasn’t sure Sir Balen could be trusted. Of course, he had invited Tola’s presence, so surely it would be all right. Sir Balen shut the door and Tola took her place against it.
She couldn’t look at her sister, who she had a feeling was even more frightened than she. Camilla should not have put her in this position. She’d been a poor role model. She’d not acted like a lady and now her dignity was about to be stripped from her.
Sir Balen sat on the edge of the bed and patted his lap. She closed her eyes slowly and then opened them again, disappointed when she found he was still there, and he truly meant to punish her. His jaw was set and he wore a look of grim determination. The front of his hair was wet and his eyes were reddened from the ale that she should not have thrown.
It’s just a spanking. She worked to calm her breath.
He did not look particularly violent, which gave her some measure of relief, though this might be the most humiliating event of her life. To submit to this arrogant, self-important knight—to actually lie across his lap for his chastisement was unbearable. He was not her lord or master! At least she’d had the satisfaction of throwing her ale in his face in front of everyone. Though it hardly seemed worth this. The knot in her belly would not release and her breath came so quickly it made her chest heave.
“Mayhap I should have asked you first,” Sir Balen said.
She blinked at him. “Asked what?”
“For permission to tear down part of your curtain wall.”
Her eyes widened in surprise. She had not expected any concession from him and to receive it now was her undoing. Her shoulders sagged.
Damn him. Now her actions seemed so unjustified—she had been in the wrong, and they both knew it. His manners were lacking, but hers had been far worse. She should apologize, but the last bits of pride still kept her from it. She blinked back the tears that sprang to her eyes.
As if he did not want to see her cry, he reached for her. “Come,” he said sternly and pulled her across his lap, so that her torso rested on the bed and her waist folded over his thighs.
She turned her head away from him, humiliated. She waited for the first blow, but it did not fall. Instead, his hand brushed her calf. She realized with horror he intended to lift her skirts.
“Sir Balen!” she protested.
“You shall not have the protection of your skirts.”
The word “please” came to her lips but she bit it back.
I will not beg. I most certainly will not beg.
Tola was there to be sure nothing untoward happened. The cool air hit first her thighs, then her bottom. She squeezed her cheeks together defensively.
He gave her one sharp smack and then another. She jumped each time, the offensive blow shocking her more than it hurt. But after about twenty spanks, it began to really smart. A slow burn developed so now each time his palm struck her bare skin it burned like fire.
A tiny whimper escaped her mouth, despite her best efforts to keep a stiff upper lip. Another mewl. She bit into the quilt on his bed to keep from making further noise. She didn’t want him to know how much it hurt her, and she certainly would not give him the satisfaction of her tears.
At last he stopped spanking and pulled her to stand. His eyes roved across her face, probably not missing how much effort it took her to keep her composure.
“Are you happy now?” she spat at him so he would not see her lips trembling.
He shook his head and, to her dismay, pulled her back over his lap.
“No!” she cried, suddenly panicked.
He held her pinned over his firm thighs again and clamped one leg over hers to quiet her kicking. He gave her several sharp slaps, and then his weight shifted under her. She gasped. He was removing his sword belt.
“No,” she protested. She wriggled with all her might against his hold. Why couldn’t she learn to keep her sharp tongue in check? Her struggles only resulted in a hard, stinging blow. Pain and shock jolted through her body. It was not his belt—it felt too wide and hard. His sword scabbard. She jumped as it struck her again and again. Fresh pain bloomed and spread across her buttocks. Heat pooled between her legs, too, the steady paddling of leather across both cheeks jostling her private parts. Her sex moistened, as if for intercourse. Shame and confusion nearly brought on the tears she’d worked so hard to stave off.
“Please,” she heard herself say, though she’d promised herself she would not beg.
He continued to spank with the hard leather scabbard. “Please what?” he asked.
He did not answer, but resumed his task, bringing the horrid implement down on her raw bottom again and again.
It hurt. The strokes came too fast and hard for her to absorb. Even if she’d wanted to lie still and take it, her body jerked and struggled all on its own, swimming over his lap in an attempt to dodge his blows. It was impossible, though. He held her quite captive, her legs pinned, her bare bottom lifted and angled up for him to spank again and again.
A sob rose in her throat and she tightened to keep it in, thrashing against Sir Balen’s hold.
He merely spanked harder until she lost control. A cry escaped her lips, followed by wave after wave of sobs. She cried like a small child. Her tears wet the quilt where her face was pressed and she took a mouthful of it and bit down, trying to muffle her sounds. She realized, after a moment, that the spanking had stopped. Sir Balen must have replaced her skirts. His large palm lightly rubbed her burning, aching globes over the fabric.
Tired and defeated, she wept, lying limp over this handsome, unrefined stranger’s lap. He stroked up her back, lightly rubbing in a way that she found soothing despite her desire to hate the man.
Why was he comforting her? He was the same man who had just completely broken her. He helped her up and turned her so she sat on his lap, cradled in his arms. He pulled her head down against his chest, tucking it under his chin, and stroked her hair, her back, her arms. A fresh wave of sobs came crashing in and when she tried to stifle them, they turned into frantic hiccups.
“Shh… let it out. You’ll feel better if you just let go,” he soothed.
She gave herself over to him then, pressed against his body for strength, drawing from him everything he could offer. She cried for all of it: for the past four years of grit and determination holding Falconworth together, for the strain of rearing her younger sister, for her fears of letting her vassals down, for eight years’ grief of being married with no husband, with no hope of ever bearing children. He rocked her slightly, stroking and shushing until her sobs quieted and she started to feel sleepy.
“I’m sorry,” she said at last, not lifting her face to look at him.
“So am I,” he answered immediately, triggering yet another wave of sobs. This one was shorter in duration and of a lesser intensity and once again he rocked her through it.
“Am I forgiven?” She didn’t mean to ask it, the words just tumbled out. She needed to know whether this spanking cancelled her debt or if they’d still be at odds. At this point, she didn’t think she could handle the strain of even one more day of coexisting in this castle with stiffness between them.
“Of course you are. I would not punish you and hold a grudge. It’s easier this way,” he said, as if defending his decision to administer chastisement.
She didn’t speak the easier for whom? that rose to her lips. She’d been sharp-tongued enough with him, and look what it had earned her. Because apart from the throbbing of her backside, which she imagined would be too sore to sit upon the next day, she did feel relieved to have things settled between them. A weight had lifted from her shoulders—one she hadn’t realized she’d been carrying.
As if he understood, he said, “You have borne a huge responsibility managing Falconworth on your own,” he murmured. “I admire all that you have done. Your husband would be proud of you.”
Her husband. Her dead husband for whom she needed to find a swift replacement. The thought of Sir Balen taking her husband’s place set her heart to pounding again, though whether it was from fear or desire, she couldn’t be sure. She scrambled out of his strong arms and to her feet, wiping the tears from her face.
“Goodnight, Sir Balen,” she whispered, dropping a curtsy before turning quickly to the door. Tola stood against it, pale-faced and red-eyed, as if she, too, had cried during the spanking. She reached for her sister’s hand and squeezed it, pulling her through the doorway. As she closed the door behind them, she was struck by what she thought she saw on the handsome knight’s face.
It appeared to be longing.
Damn. He should not have mentioned her husband. His arms felt empty without her cradled in them. Nothing had seemed so right as the sensation of her soft body on his lap. Over his lap. He hadn’t enjoyed bringing her to tears, but turning her over his knee and baring her bottom for his chastisement had been a powerful experience—more than just arousing. Fulfilling—as if acting in the role of husband to her was something that had been missing his whole life.
Dear God, he wished she did not have a husband. Eight years the man had been gone; he was probably long dead, but word had not reached her yet. Poor, brave Lady Camilla—running Falconworth alone. She deserved so much more than this. He was certain those tears were not all for the spanking he’d given her. Nay, she was under tremendous stress and all her defenses had crumbled at once. If only he’d had her trust to have comforted her more.
Camilla’s younger sister didn’t speak until they both lay in her bed in the dark. Tola had her own chamber because the castle was large and the lords and ladies so few, but she often slept with Camilla when she wanted comfort. In this case, she supposed her sister thought to comfort her. “He’s a monster.”
She flinched, Tola’s words hurting as if they’d been spoken against her rather than him. Her emotions were a jumbled mess. She felt vulnerable and embarrassed, yet curiously aligned with the handsome knight now. Had he been a monster?
“Nay,” she said softly. “I daresay I deserved every minute of it.”
Tola rolled toward her and took her hand. “Did it hurt terribly?”
Her bottom gave a throb, but she knew most of the pain would likely be gone by morning. “It damaged my pride more than anything. Something that Father Bernard says I have too much of, anyway.”
“Father Bernard should not say such things.”
“Of course he should. Our spiritual life is his responsibility, and I should be aspiring to greater humility.”
Tola said nothing for a long time, and Camilla thought perhaps she’d fallen asleep. “It was nice the way he comforted you afterward.” She spoke tentatively, as if trying on the idea to see what Camilla thought.
It had been nice. So very nice. It had been so many long years since a man touched her, and she didn’t remember the bolts of lightning charging through her when William had wrapped his arms around her. Had he wrapped his arms around her much? She tried to recall the feel of him, or the smell, but nothing came to mind. Her senses still sang from Sir Balen’s masculine scent of leather, pine, and… well, man. The warmth of his embrace still lingered on her skin. The strength of his muscular arms around her and the hard bulge of his chest against her cheek hummed in her memory. William had not been a real man—not like Sir Balen. He had not been rugged and dangerous. He was not the sort to drag her from the great hall and turn her over his knee.
Of course he had not been the sort to raise her temper, either. She would not have thrown ale in his face because he was always mannerly and kind. And quite boring. And now long dead.
“He was not so very mean,” Tola concluded when she didn’t answer. “I mean, he did not seem to take pleasure in your discomfort and he did admit he was wrong.”
A stray tear burned in her eye, though she thought she’d cried them all away. She wasn’t even sure why it had appeared. It seemed to be for something else this time—not anger or humiliation or pain. It was more of a yearning. For what, she wasn’t sure. Something Sir Balen represented. But whatever it was, it terrified her, too. He was more man than she could ever handle. She knew that with certainty.
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