He dismounted. She didn’t move to meet him, or look him in the eye.
“Juliet, what are you doing so far from camp? Do you not realise the danger you are in?” He strode over the boulders that littered the riverside until he reached her side.
“I don’t care.” She spat the words out and tossed another pebble in the flow of the river.
“I do. I care very much that you left and ordered my men away. They should not have left you. From now on, one of them will be ordered to follow you regardless.” He propped his foot on a boulder. “Explain yourself.”
“No. And I don’t care to be followed, even by one man. What of my privacy?” She looked up at last and glared at him.
“Your privacy? Ha, I think, my lady, you forget that we are not in some fine castle with maids to wait upon you. This is a rough journey, and I shall do my best to make your comfortable, but we cannot risk your life for unnecessary pleasures. If you wish to bathe, then I shall allow your maid to keep you company, but one of my men will be within earshot in case of alarm.”
“Earshot! Do you think they won’t look? They are scum, your men; they told me what they do when they take prisoners, and how your great duke, my husband, takes his pleasure. He likes two or three in his bed at a time, is that not so?”
Stefan slowly removed his foot from the rock and stood up straight. “I see, you have been listening to gossip, like a laundry woman does. Of course prisoners are taken, it is the way of all wars, and as for the duke, he has had mistresses, it is his right, but now that he is married, he will be yours.”
“He… he maims, on the battlefield, cuts off arms and legs… and burns… and…” she stuttered, loose-tongued and without thinking.
“Do you hear what the other side do? No? I thought not. War is a terrible thing, Juliet, and men do what must be done. Times are cruel, barbaric, and that is why I must keep you safe. But instead, you disobey me and run away. This cannot be permitted.”
“Permitted?” She rose to her feet. “I am your duchess.”
“Jacop gave me strict orders, ones that he would have carried out himself if he had come with us, and I can assure you, he is not one for leniency. I have no patience for this stubbornness of yours. I want to know that I can trust you to do as you’re told.” He had never expected he might have to actually consider punishing her; the threats in the courtyard had been just that, words said to mollify her into obedience.
“Jacop isn’t here. I shan’t be told what to do. If I want to go for a walk alone, I shall.” She crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes into defiant slits.
He clenched, then unclenched his fists. She was putting him to the test, and there was no other option but to respond. He turned and walked away, back into the scrub that lined the sides of the river.
“Ha,” she yelled after him. “See, I knew you weren’t the man for the job. You can’t be a decent captain if you aren’t in control of your men. They were rude to me.”
Stefan ignored her. He unsheathed his dagger and cut down a branch of a larch tree, a nice straight one that was young and still flexible. He selected four others of equal length and thinness. He whittled off the leaves and twigs and bundled the sticks together. Marching out of the undergrowth, he returned to the river, where Juliet still sat, her lips pressed into a frown and her chin upraised in defiance.
The expression lasted only a few seconds when she saw what he carried. “No!”
“Yes,” he said calmly. He had to stay focused and in control, for a switch handled aggressively would do too much harm. He wished only to make her uncomfortable, and as for her behaviour, apologetic would be acceptable. “I’ll whip you over this boulder.”
He pointed at the smooth stone. During the winter months, the river was rampant and fast flowing, and now that it was summer, the water had receded, leaving behind the vast rocks.
“Whip me?” Her face was perfectly aghast. “I am a lady, a duchess.” The stutter had returned.
“As you said, I care not. And if I am rude, then so be it. I have a job to do, and you are making life difficult for me. It’s simply a matter of punishing you, and then we can start again. This is how you must learn, Juliet, and if I were your husband, I would do this. Now remove your gown, lift your skirts to your chin, and bend over the stone. It will feel cool, but I can assure you, by the time I have finished whipping your sweet behind, you’ll be plentifully warm.”
He couldn’t help grinning. It was too perfect to be true. He was always taken by the sight of two alabaster globes, neatly parted by the long furrow joined to the smiling creases of the thighs, and at that beautiful apex nestled the honey-dewed slit, gifted for a man such as he.
She shook her head.
He sighed. “I would rather not manhandle you, or call upon my men to hold you down. I am patient though, so I shall wait for you to oblige me.” He sat on a rock.
“Does it have to be that?” She pointed at the switch.
“Well, it would be unseemly for a man of my status, as you so gallantly put it, to touch you with my bare hands. I must therefore avail myself of a suitable implement.” The front of his breeches stretched, struggling to contain what was beneath the stitches. He had to keep his thoughts under control. As for the new duchess’s opinions, she was woefully ignorant of the noble house she had joined.
“How many?” She fiddled with the laces of her dress.
He pursed his lips. “I guess it depends on your apology.”
“My apology,” she said indignantly.