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Thomas Howard, master of Castle Ayr, was having difficulty focusing his attention on his unusual—and very, very secret—guest at banquet, Robert deBruce. Sir Thomas's "problem" was the charms of the troubadour, Geoffrey, who deBruce had brought with him from Ireland. Geoffrey was playing his lute at Thomas's feet and looking up at the master of the castle from under long, thick blond eyelashes with dreamy and sultry looks.

Sir Thomas's guest, in turn, was having no trouble focusing his attention on the lovely Lady Madeline Howard.

Sir Thomas was the holder of an English stronghold in Scotland, and he was a lover of men. But above all else Sir Thomas was a political schemer, lest he would not be alive in the current poisonous political atmosphere in England and Scotland, let alone prosper as he had. Thus, he had plenty of space in the back of his brain to speculate on what Robert deBruce was doing here, at Ayr, at all—and what the English king, Edward I, Thomas's suzerain, really wanted Thomas to do with deBruce.

DeBruce was one of several claimants to the Scottish throne, a position Edward wanted for himself, and had been in exile, forced there by Edward's armed might, in Ireland for over a year. Now he was here, in Thomas's Scottish castle that Howard held for Edward, and Thomas could either entertain him and keep his visit comfortable and secret until he moved on, as the instructions Edward had sent him commanded on the surface, or Thomas could put him to the sword or bind him and send him straight off to Edward, which may have been the subliminal command he was being given by a king who did not want to have the responsibility for such an act on his own hands.

I must think, Thomas mused to himself. Edward had given him a riddle he would much rather not have had. Should he succor or slice? If he did not stop deBruce here, he and his entourage, including the young, blond troubadour at his feet—even now touching his foot and ankle—would be journeying on in the morning. As the charms of the troubadour became increasingly intoxicating, though, Thomas's interest in solving the riddle of DeBruce was waning.

The troubadour was accompanying Robert from his exile in Ireland as part of the entourage secretly en route to Stirling Castle to the east so that deBruce could wed Isabella of Mar in the manner of all those who were collecting tokens of legitimacy to the Scottish throne—doubly, in this case. Isabella was a descendent of King Donald III, through whom the current holder of the throne, John de Balliol, also traced his right to rule, which he had only done for three years, since 1292. The crown still lay uneasy on deBalliol's brow, however. The world was overrun with others with at least equal claim to the orb—including Robert the Bruce himself. Being married in Stirling castle, the legendary seat of the Scots, was a chit in the stakes for ascending the throne.

The troubadour, now playing his flute with one hand, had found flesh above Thomas's boot top and underneath his britches with the other hand. The feel of the young man's sensuous fingers on the flesh of Thomas's calf was a powerful distraction that had the man's juices boiling.

The issue was not only that if Thomas did nothing to stay Robert deBruce's progress toward Stirling Castle, deBruce would be gone in the morning, and beyond the reach of any underlying intent there had been in Edward's command, but also that this troubadour too would be gone and beyond the reach of Thomas's desires. Thomas was not accustomed to easily giving up any young man who made his juices boil. It was not an affair of any sort that Thomas sought with other men. He was more prone to using fully and casting aside.

"Do you like my playing, sire?" Geoffrey asked, looking up at the master of Castle Ayr with a look that he knew would arouse the man. The troubadour had received his instructions from his own master, Robert the Bruce, and he was finding those instructions far easier to complete than he had imagined he could. The Lady Madeline was a young, voluptuous beauty indeed. How, the troubadour had wondered, could any man, including her own husband, resist her? Obviously, Robert deBruce could not. But now that he saw the look of lust in the eyes Sir Thomas was directing at him, he understood perfectly why Sir Thomas might be neglecting her.

"I would love for you to play for me. And I would be just as happy playing you," Thomas answered.

"I have some very special songs I could play, sire, although they are much better played in private. I think I do some of my best playing in private."

"Then privacy we shall have," Thomas answered. The young man had been forward beyond his station and seemed to be high spirited. Thomas enjoyed nothing so much as breaking the spirit of such a young man.

* * * *

"I understand that the castle of Ayr has one of the loveliest gardens of the western coast of Scotland, M'Lady. Perhaps you would be kind enough to show it to me."

"But it is dark outside already, Lord Robert. And it would be unseemly for me to be walking alone with you even in the light of day. You are much too young and handsome. The situation would be too compromising and speculation would spread far and wide." Madeline Howard, mistress of the castle of Ayr, which was being held by her husband, Thomas, for Edward I of England, had, Robert the Bruce thought, thrown caution to the wind some hour earlier with the sultry looks she had been giving him at high table. That had amused him, as he had already put his own plans for Lady Madeline in train. His host's attraction to Geoffrey was fortuitous.

Now she was being bold beyond misunderstanding. "Well, we certainly couldn't have the speculation roaming far and wide without having had the enjoyment of its thrust, now could we?" he answered with his best mocking look.

Whether or not her flirting was because of the looks her half-drunk husband was giving to the troubadour Robert had brought with him was of no matter. Or, rather, it was of great matter to Robert. Madeline was a raving beauty and Thomas Howard was known to have a roving eye only for young, lithe men. Robert had virtually thrown his troubadour at Thomas to manage time alone with Madeline, and Thomas and the musician had already left the great hall, arm in arm.

Flush from his own daring, Robert knew he was taking a risk, but he was already well into that zone just by being here. It had been Edward's idea, upon hearing that Robert the Bruce was getting married, that he should do it in Stirling Castle. Edward took no end in the enjoyment of keeping the pretenders to the Scottish throne in a swirl. He knew full well that a Stirling Castle marriage would give Robert another chit in the Scottish succession struggle. That didn't mean, though, that he supported Robert's claim—and Robert well knew that. It meant more that Edward loved to play with the balance of the several claimants to the crown. Edward had signaled that Robert would be accommodated and not molested by the English if he made the trip. Just three years prior Edward had placed John de Balliol on the Scottish throne, but all knew that he had little affection for deBalliol and that he delighted in playing the other pretenders off against each other. It was Robert's turn to be "played" in this royal game of collecting crowns.

For Robert's part, marriage or no, and the intentions and vagaries of the English king aside that Robert knew he never could completely understand and control, a luscious neglected wife was well worth the risk when he was already so deeply steeped in that commodity. A man such as Robert, who ultimately would sire five legitimate children, and six acknowledged by-blows, was not reluctant to cast his seed wherever opportunity permitted.

"Perhaps there is somewhere else, then, that My Lady would wish me to escort her," Robert said as Madeline drew closer to where he stood near the door leading down into the castle gardens. "As it seems that your husband is not here to do the honors. Do you perhaps need an escort of safety to your chambers?"

Madeline gave him the appraising look—revealing that she very much liked what she saw—that Robert had hoped for. "I doubt there would be much safety for me in that trip, Sir Robert. The garden would be a safer choice by far. It would certainly be a more private one, as there are handmaidens aplenty underfoot in my chambers. One could quickly get lost in the garden at night," she repeated, with a saucy smile on her lips. "The hedges grow tall there, and there are many hidden places."

"That was exactly what I was counting on," Robert answered, holding out his hand, "finding and exploring hidden places. Shall we stroll, My Lady?"

"Well, perhaps the night air would do me good," she replied, putting her small, smooth hand in his strong, calloused one.

"I think I can do you very well indeed, my dear. It is obvious that your husband does not appreciate you well enough."

"My husband never touches me," the answer shot back, laced with venom.

"I promise not to make that mistake."

"You are very bold, My Lord."

"I have yet to disappoint by strongly taking the direct channel. Although, if there be a different channel you wish to be pursued, I would be your man for that too." He pleased himself so much at this turn of phrase—and that the answering tremble he felt in her hand—that he gave a low, self-pleased laugh.

He could hear the intake of Madeline's breath, and see the flash in her eyes. This one was fiery. He was doubly pleased and assured when she did not pull her hand away from his. He knew he would enjoy getting his cock inside her—and from his experiences in Ireland over the last year, he had no doubt that she would enjoy it too.

Only a short walk later, as they reached a secluded, boxwood-embraced bower in the garden, Madeline murmured. "I feel faint. Perhaps we should tarry a moment on this bench."

As she collapsed prettily on the bench, bringing the tall, muscular warrior down beside her with his torso bent over hers, he asked—in at least feigned concern, "Are you in distress, my lady? Is there anything I—?"

"I can hardly breathe. The laces on this bodice are too tight. I cannot bear it another . . . could you . . .?"

As he was suckling one of her breasts with his lips, deBruce ran a hand up her thigh underneath her dress. He gasped at what he found—or, rather, at what he didn't find.

Madeline gave a little laugh. "I have been thinking of you ever since I saw you ride into the courtyard, dear lord. You rode your horse so powerfully."

"I ride everything powerfully, Lady Madeline. And I made you a promise that you would know you were not neglected. Does a powerful ride frighten you?"

"Not in the . . . Oh, Ohhhh!" She gave a little cry as a bulbous cock head pushed between her nether lips and boldly struck home its invasion in depth. She hadn't detected him unlacing his breeches and maneuvering his cock in position. She had expected further bandying verbiage, some preliminary lip work, and being asked more directly for permission. He was a bold and brash man indeed.

And if she'd expected him to make slow progress, she was equally mistaken, as he thrust fully into the saddle and began a vigorous pistoning inside her, asking no further permission for anything he did with her, which was far more taxing than any other man had done.

Madeline's eyes opened wide, a gasp escaped her lips, and her breasts started to tremble. She'd had no idea what a horse of a man Robert deBruce was. Nor, twenty minutes later, had she imagined how long he could stay in the saddle, pumping hard. Nor that when he'd finished breeding her, he, as promised, sought a port in another channel before making a second assault on the main chance.

For his part, deBruce lifted a little prayer of thanksgiving for all of the neglected wives of the British Isles.

* * * *

Geoffrey, the troubadour, was bent over the foot of Thomas's bed in his chamber. He was moaning as much from the beating as from the fucking. His lute lay beside the bed, cracked, and its strings sprung. His eye was swollen, and with each passing second it was increasingly hard for him to open the eye. He was sure that at least one rib was cracked. Thomas was crouched above him, leveraging the thrusts of his pelvis on the balls of the feet planted in the covering of straw at the foot of the bed.

The lord of Ayr had a strong grip on the wrists of the arms Geoffrey was using to support his weight and to hold his slim, boyish and smooth torso suspended over the damask bed cloth. Such was his surprise and confusion that he was concerned that he not soil the lord's bed cloth.

He had been taken completely by surprise by Thomas's violence and, beyond that, he had no idea what a horse of a man Thomas Howard would be.

Geoffrey moaned in fright and pain, the cock's thrusts being harder and deeper than he'd ever experienced before, as Thomas released his wrists and, with hands bunched up in fists and pressing on the young man's shoulder blades, pushed the troubadour down flat on the bed. He punched Geoffrey in the middle of his back, being rewarded by a groan, and then his hands closed around the young man's throat.

Geoffrey gagged and thrashed under Sir Thomas, as the larger, more powerful man thrust and thrust and thrust.

A half hour later, Thomas was sitting in the shadowed corner of the chamber, nearly in a fetal position, and staring at the inert body laying on its belly on the bed when his manservant, Seth, entered the room.

Seth took in the scene in one sweep of the chamber with his eyes. He would have liked to say that he'd never seen this tableau before. But he couldn't say that. It was a rare occurrence, but Thomas was known for losing himself at the height of arousal. Seth had surmised what he would find here when he saw Thomas leading the young, blond musician into the chamber. The young man was entirely too handsome—and had been too familiar with the personages at the high table. Seth knew that Thomas was prone to punish such arrogant young men more than those who took fright of him in the choosing and using.

"DeBruce leaves in the morning," Thomas muttered without changing his position on the floor in the corner. "It must look like an accident. Someone took him up to the battlements because he wanted to see the view, or—"

"It will be taken care of, sire," Seth said, turning away from his master so that Thomas wouldn't see the grim little smile on his face. Seth was not smiling for what happened to the visiting troubadour. He was smiling because he knew what was happening in the garden when Thomas was taking his unbridled pleasure in this chamber.

There would be more work to be done tonight than Sir Thomas realized, though. The young man wasn't expired. Seth would have him carried away and taken into the village to the monks, who would work their miracles and mend him over time. The fall from the battlements story would likely hold deBruce for explanation, and deBruce being the man Sir Thomas wasn't, Seth and the monks could count on deBruce's largesse in caring for the youth until he could rejoin his master. Then it would be up to the musician to tell deBruce what had really laid him up—or not.

* * * *

"My Seth can help, My Lady. You do need some help it coaxing your husband to lie with you, don't you?"

The Lady Madeline looked up from her boudoir table sharply. She hadn't even realized that her handmaiden, Elizabeth, had slipped into the room.

She had been sitting at her mirror, fingering her swollen breasts and wishing that the rosy glow in her face wouldn't be too revealing.

She had known, really, that night. She had been ripe, and he had filled her with so much seed—repeatedly. He was such a horse of a man that she blushed and flushed and moved her hand to her lap even now in remembrance. He had been inside her such a short time—no, the time had not been short; it had only seemed short because she had not wanted him to withdraw. And he had been as powerful as he promised. He had thrust deep inside her, stabbing again and again and sucking hard on her nipples. Even after he had ejaculated, they had stayed there, in close embrace, both breathing hard. And stud stallion that he was, he had turned her then, hard for her again quickly, and had ridden her from behind, first in her nether channel as she gasped at how tightly he filled her there, and then again in the main one, one of his rough fingers rubbing hard on her pearl—until she too had bucked and cried out and flowed with him the second time.

She had tried to tell herself that it didn't happen—not from just that once, or, rather, from two, no three, spoutings. But she had known, really, from the very beginning, that his seed was strong and powerful.

"Help me?" she said, turning to her handmaiden. Elizabeth had said Seth could help—Seth, Elizabeth's husband and Thomas's manservant.

"You needn't say it, My Lady. But I hardly could miss it. I have two of my own."

"Oh," Madeline said. Her shoulders drooped and she cast her eyes down, conflicted, not knowing whether to be embarrassed or relieved that someone else knew. Someone other than Thomas.

Thomas would know it was not his. That was why she had fooled herself from the beginning into it not being what it was. They had not lain together for some time.

"We can manage it. With my Seth's help."

"I hardly know how that can be," Madeline answered in a low voice. "I have considered going into the village and—"

"Shush, My Lady. Don't say it. The lord will want to have it, especially if it is a son. He just must be made to think that it is his."

"I can't see how he would."

"He drinks, My Lady. And he cannot always control himself or fully remember the night before when he does. And Seth has been to the village and has something that will make him more confused in his drinking. Just the one time. That's all you need. For him to know he has sowed his seed."

"I can't see how it would work."

"It would work, because it must work, My Lady. You know how he is when he is angry. And it would not just be you who felt his wrath. The whole castle would rock at his anger. It must work. And it can work, with Seth's help. All you need be is coquettish at the evening banquet. Make him to understand that you want to lie with him. You might even say that it is time that he had an heir. Seth says that has been on Sir Thomas's mind. He will understand his duty and that he wants an heir. Then it's just a matter of breaking down his resistance. Seth can help him with that with drink and the potion."

"But I am some time along already," Lady Madeline answered.

"Not as far as all that. And babies have been known to be born early. And Seth has thought of that too. He can work on the lord—bring into small conversation of how I went away to the nuns for my lying in and how that is the proper English way. The lord has no idea what is proper and what isn't in mothering. Coming from Seth, he will believe it."

"Perhaps we can try," Lady Madeline answered.

"We must do more than try, My Lady. We must succeed." The young woman was fully aware of Sir Thomas's violent nature. Her man, Seth, had had to clean up many of the results of the man's lack of control. If this plan didn't work, there would be hell to pay and no telling how far the effects of the master's brutality would extend.

* * * *

What a waste of good man flesh, Madeline thought, as she gripped her husband's buttocks to hold him against her. He thrust his pelvis once, twice, three times and released his seed inside her. Then he collapsed on top of her, buried his face in the bed clothes above her shoulder, and drooled his drunken saliva into the silken material. He had always had one of the thickest cocks she'd ever had inside her. It had just been more than a year since his increasing dalliance with young men had ceased making him hard for her.