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His Lady of Castlemora(10)

By:Joanna Fulford



'I will get more.'

'How? You do not wield the kind of influence that would gain you an estate.'

His jaw tightened. 'I'll find a way.'

'That might take years, if you ever succeed. I cannot waste my life waiting on the event.'

'Would it be a waste then, Beatrice?' He paused. 'We would be together.'

'To live in the hedgerows?'

'Hardly that. I can support you in comfort.'

'But you cannot give me position.'

'Does that matter so much?'

'Of course it matters. My father is rich and powerful, the laird of fair estates. Should not my husband be the same?'

'I cannot blame you for wanting it,' he replied.

'Well then.'

'I thought... I hoped that your feelings for me were strong enough to offset that.'

Beatrice smiled coldly. 'You rate yourself too high, my lord, if you  presume to think so. I am not so negligent of the duty I owe to my  family and my name as to throw myself away on a mere nobody.'

Stung now, he was goaded into retort. 'The Thanes of Heslingfield are not nobodies. They come from a proud and ancient line.'

'But where are they now? They have no power, no influence. They are nothing.'

Brian pushed the memory aside. He'd been a fool and paid the price for  it. The na?ve and idealistic lover was long gone and in his place was a  grown man who knew the world he lived in. This offer was an opportunity,  one he'd little thought to have. It would provide a foundation on which  much might be built-in time.

'We have an agreement then,' he said.

Graham smiled and held out his hand. 'You'll not regret it.'

Ban clasped the offered hand and hoped the words were true.





Chapter Five


Isabelle stared at her father in stunned disbelief, uncertain that she'd heard him correctly. 'A secret betrothal?'

'That's right.'

'A betrothal which will give him the rights of a husband?'

'Correct.'

Disbelief was slowly displaced by outrage. Did the Sassenach thane  really imagine she would agree to this? The very fact that he had  suggested it showed the kind of regard in which he held her, in which he  had always held her.

'You can't mean it.'

'I was never more serious in my life.'

His expression supported the words, a circumstance that created the first stirrings of alarm.

'Marriage is one thing; this is quite another.'

'It is unusual, I'll admit, but it is not unknown.'

'This is little better than prostitution.'

'It is no such thing. Nor would I have agreed to it if I thought so.'  Her father paused. 'In essence betrothal is little different from  marriage. The only variation here is that it will not be made public  until you are with child.'                       
       
           



       

The visualisation of what that entailed fanned her rage to red heat. How  Lord Ban must have delighted in creating this little scheme. That her  father should actually sanction the plan must have afforded the very  greatest amusement. How much his lordship must be enjoying the thought  of her reaction.

'I am not a brood mare to be covered by a Glengarron stallion!'

'It is a wife's duty to bear children and you have not done so.'

'That wasn't my fault alone.'

'I have given you the benefit of the doubt thus far, but now it's up to you to prove yourself worthy of my faith.'

'I'd gladly prove it, but not in this covert, underhanded manner.'

'You are a widow with no children and no dowry to speak of. God's blood,  do I have to spell it out?' He glared at her. 'You have one chance now  and this is it, unless you'd prefer the cloister.' Seeing that she  remained silent he nodded. 'I didn't think so.'

She closed her eyes, trying not to give way to rising panic. Her father  had spoken no more than the truth about her circumstances and her lack  of religious vocation. She realised too that there was no way out of  this: much as she wanted to reject this proposition a refusal to comply  would leave the way open for Murdo. All he'd have to do would be to ask  for her hand and it would be granted. She was under no illusions about  what would happen then.

She licked dry lips. 'When is this betrothal to take place?'

'I have decided upon Thursday next.'

Her heart leapt towards her throat. Thursday was only two days away. 'That's too soon.'

'Soon or no, it's your betrothal day.'

'This haste is indecent.'

Her father's gaze grew steely. 'Your opinion is irrelevant. You'll do as  you're told. The betrothal will take place in my private chamber. I  shall invite Lord Ban there, ostensibly to discuss business. It will be a  simple matter for you to join us unnoticed. Everyone else will be about  their work and it will be quiet enough for our purposes. It won't take  long.'

He was right: it wouldn't take long to join her hand with Lord Ban's and  to speak the vows that would make her his. How easily a woman was  disposed of. She'd had no say last time either, although then there had  been a public wedding followed by lavish feasting and then the bedding  ceremony, held amid ribald jests and laughter. How hollow that laughter  had proved to be.

She shivered inwardly, recalling all the nights spent in Alistair Neil's  bed; nights she had come to dread. Your late husband couldn't get a  cock stand. Murdo's mocking voice echoed in her head. The words were not  entirely accurate though. Alistair had, occasionally, achieved an  erection but it carried a price. She swallowed hard, seeing it all in  her mind's eye, her husband standing by the bed, slowly removing his  belt, wrapping the buckle end around his fist...

'Take off your shift.'

'Please, my lord...'

'I said take it off.'

Trembling she complied. When she was naked he nodded.

'Lie down as I have instructed you.'

Reluctantly she obeyed, knowing what was coming and knowing it would be  far worse if she tried to resist. She gasped as the belt descended  across her buttocks leaving a fiery welt, her hands clawing the  coverlet. At first pride kept her silent but she had quickly learned the  folly of that. Since it was her cries that excited him he would  continue to beat her until she did scream. When she cried out he flung  down the belt and joined her, pinning her down, his knee forcing her  legs apart. Then he took her from behind. It hurt, but her cries pleased  him and, mercifully, that part of the procedure never lasted long, a  minute or two at most before the small, probing member was withdrawn.  Then he rolled off her, panting and sated. She shut her eyes, praying  silently that this time she would conceive and that somehow his thin and  watery seed might take root in her womb...

Isabelle had heard it said that sometimes women found pleasure in the  act of intercourse but she couldn't imagine how, even if the man were  not violent. Alistair had dreamed up many ways of achieving his purpose,  almost all of them painful, but he took good care that the marks he  left on her didn't show. Even if he had not, no one in that household  would have questioned his behaviour. Nor would the law: it was a  husband's right to chastise his wife if he chose. It was his right to do  anything he liked, and her duty to submit.                       
       
           



       

'Are you listening to me?'

Her father's voice pulled her up abruptly. 'Yes, my lord, I'm listening.'

'It won't take long. When it's done you'll consummate the betrothal.'

Isabelle paled. 'I will not; that is not until we've got to know each other a little better.'

'Damn it, you're no blushing virgin now and this is no time for airs and  graces. The union     will be consummated immediately and you will give  yourself to Lord Ban whenever it pleases him thereafter. Is that clear?'

She swallowed her rage. 'Very clear.'

'I hope so.'

'And just how is this arrangement to remain secret?' she demanded. 'I would not be the subject of servants' gossip.'

'There are ways and you will find them. I imagine Lord Ban will not lack invention there.'

'I am quite sure he won't.'

The sarcastic tone wasn't lost on her father. He raised an eyebrow.  'You'd do well to curb your acid tongue, my lass. No man wants a  harridan for a mate.'

She lowered her gaze, quelling the urge to argue. Her father's temper  was close to the edge already. If she pushed him any further he might  bring the betrothal nearer still or add some further humiliating  conditions to the arrangement.

'I beg your pardon. It's just that this has happened so quickly; it wasn't what I expected and it has left me unprepared.'

He looked a little mollified. 'Ah, well, I suppose it has, but you must get used to the idea.'

'Yes, Father.'

'The sooner you are with child the sooner you can live openly as husband  and wife and take your rightful place in society. Remember that.'

She nodded mutely, not knowing which was worse: having to submit to the  will of a stranger or, possibly, failing to conceive. All the old doubts  revived. If it became evident that she was barren then she would be  quietly put aside. The arrangements attending this betrothal were  precisely to allow for that. She would be made to enter a nunnery; to  remain there for the rest of her life, conveniently forgotten. Lord Ban  would return to Glengarron and seek another wife. Either way he would  emerge the winner having risked nothing. Her nails dug into her palms as  impotent anger mingled with equally impotent resentment. In a man's  world the only option for a woman was obedience.

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