Unlacing the Lady in Waiting, page 2
He turned away from her and ran a shaking hand over his head. Helen also trembled, and had to fight back the tears that prickled at her eyes. What a foolish, foolish girl she was!
He swept his cloak from the ground where it had fallen, but he didn’t look at her. She was glad of that. If she saw his beautiful green eyes, she might do something even more foolish. Like run into his arms, cling to his strong body and beg him to take her away from the nightmare her life had become. Ask him to let her feel not alone for just a little while longer.
“Who are you?” he said hoarsely.
Helen just shook her head. The rain fell in earnest now, soaking her hair and the fine gown. She spun around and ran, disappearing into the maze before he could look at her again.
But she knew she did not run from him. She ran from herself—and what he had awakened within her.
“I canna believe you ruined your new gown!” Helen’s maid Mairie fussed as she pushed the last of the pearl-headed pins into Helen’s upswept hair.
Helen sat numbly under Mairie’s ministrations. She hardly knew what the servants did to her, or heard the noise of the party floating up from the grand hall below. She didn’t see the chamber around her, the room that had been hers all her life and which she would soon leave forever. She couldn’t hear the rain that lashed at the window.
She could only see him, feel his mouth on her lips and her breast, smell the scent of him that seemed to linger on her skin.
Would that one kiss haunt her forever?
She twisted away from Mairie, suddenly weary of the fussing. “It is of no matter. This gown is perfectly fine.”
Mairie smoothed the blue figured silk over Helen’s shoulders. “But ‘tis an old one! You’ve already worn it.”
“I doubt a McKerrigan would notice if I showed up in sackcloth,” Helen said. She pushed away the thought that one man in the McKerrigan party had assuredly noticed what she wore.
And had then taken it off her.
She almost giggled aloud at the thought, at the memory of how good, how safe, the man had made her feel for too brief a time.
“Lady Helen,” a footman called from the corridor. “Lord Frasier wishes for you to come to the great hall.”
It was time.
Helen quickly glanced in the small looking glass on the paneled wall. The wild, red-cheeked creature who had stumbled into the house a few hours ago with tangled hair and kiss-dark lips was gone. She was Lord Frasier’s obedient – or almost obedient – daughter again, doing her duty. Her hair was pinned atop her head, her face pale and composed, her blue gown modest and rich.
She wore the pearl earrings that had once been her mother’s. Lady Frasier had died when Helen was too young to remember her, but she missed her now. She could use a mother’s counsel. She had had no friend in her father’s house since her mother died, no one to know her or understand her.
She was alone. She attached her feather fan to the silver girdle at her waist and followed the footman down the cold stone stairs. The mythical creatures in the tapestries that lined the walls seemed to watch her progress with malevolent eyes.
She held her head high and made her expression as blank and cool as she could. She had long practice at it; if no one could know what she was thinking they couldn’t hurt her. And a Frasier was easily a match for any McKerrigan.
As she drew closer to the great hall the noise grew louder, a clatter of conversation and laughter. She clasped her hands together at her waist and kept walking.
If she could just keep placing one foot in front of the other, this would soon be over. But when she stopped just outside the closed doors to shut her eyes and compose herself, in the darkness she saw a pair of green eyes staring down at her with intense hunger. A hunger that stirred deep in her own heart.
Helen’s eyes flew open. This was surely no way to compose herself! Her hands trembled, and she folded them together even tighter, until she felt her nails dig into her skin.
She took a deep breath and nodded at the footman to open the doors.
“Lady Helen Frasier,” her father’s majordomo announced. The cacophony of the room grew silent, and every head turned to stare as she stepped into the crowded hall.
Helen tried to look straight ahead at nothing as she moved past the banks of people who cleared a path for her. She noticed a fire in the huge grate, the tapestries on the walls, the sparkle of her father’s plate and priceless glass piled on the sideboards. The crowd was only a blur to her, a shifting pattern of satins and pearls. She could smell the pungent smoke, the blend of perfumes and wine and roasted meats, but she felt as if she walked in a dream. Her whole life felt like a dream, except for the one moment of reality with the stranger in the maze.
Her father stood on a dais at the far end of the room, in front of a long, damask-draped table and several fine cushioned chairs. His mistress, Margaret, stood with him, draped in pearls and rubies, and he smiled behind his bushy auburn beard, but she could tell that smile was false. As false as her own cold mask.
She saw a flicker of anger in his eyes as he noticed she wore an older gown, but then he turned away to the man who stood with him.
“May I present my daughter?” he said in his hearty, jovial voice. It was a tone he never used with Helen. “Is she not as lovely as the troubadours say?”
“Indeed,” someone answered.
Helen slowly focused on the speaker. He was as tall as her father and displayed the same ego. But where her father was soft from life at the Court of Marie of Guise, Queen Mary’s mother and regent, the other man was hard and cold as the stony Highland mountains. His thick gray hair fell back from his lean, weathered face, and she saw he wore all black except for a purple-and-yellow McKerrigan plaid over his shoulder.
Helen slowly took her father’s hand and stepped up to the dais. Only then did she see the figure who stood behind the older man. Tall, dark, silent amid all the stares and whispers—and watching her with burning green eyes.
“You,” she whispered before she could stop herself. It was her garden lover! She had known he would be somewhere amid the crowd, somewhere she couldn’t see if she stared straight ahead and could pretend he wasn’t there.
But he was here, mere feet from her. And she felt her cold mask slipping, melted away by the sizzling heat of his stare. She felt the raw rush of joy at seeing him again.
The older man stepped forward, dragging her attention away from those eyes. He took her freezing hand in his and bowed over it. He was as careful and polite as any Lowland Court aristocrat, but she couldn’t quit shaking.
“Lady Helen,” he said. “May I present my son, James McKerrigan?”
He drew her to the one man she did not want to face, the one man who…
Nay! Helen shook her head, feeling as if she had suddenly dived deep into a freezing loch. No sound, no breath could reach her. He wasn’t. He couldn’t be.
Or maybe he could? Hope rushed through her, even as she knew she would be disappointed.
But her hand was put into his, and his hard, strong fingers closed tightly over hers and he raised it to his lips. Unlike his father, he didn’t merely bow over them. He pressed a hard kiss to her knuckles, and then shockingly she felt the rough, wet heat of his tongue on her bare skin.
She tried to pull away, but he held on to her. Over their joined hands he watched her as a hawk watched its quarry—predatory and patient. And like an entranced, helpless rabbit, she couldn’t turn away. Didn’t want to turn away.
“Lady Helen, so delightful to meet you for the first time,” he said, in that deep, smooth-rough voice that held her so beguiled in the garden.
The garden! A sudden flash of temper dashed away her fascination and the dreamlike feeling vanished. Only hours ago he, her betrothed, was kissing another woman in the garden. More than kissing. Her body remembered that all too well.
Rational thought—the fact that she too had been kissing and fondling a stranger—pushed at her, but her sudden uncertaint
She pulled hard on her hand and finally snatched it away from him. As she turned her back on him, she caught a glimpse of his infuriating smug smile, his arched brow. He looked as if he knew what she was thinking, and relished the challenge of it.
Well, she would never be some man’s challenge. Least of all James McKerrigan’s. No matter how much she wanted him, how happy she was to see him again. To know he could be hers, if only she could be so lucky…
Off the coast of Scotland, August 1561
There it was, after three years. Home.
Except Scotland no longer felt like home. Helen wasn’t sure it or anyplace else would ever feel like home again. She hadn’t had a home since her one moment of hope had been snatched away from her.
She leaned against the polished rail of the Queen Mary’s galley and stared out at the freezing gray waters of the Firth of Forth. Nearby, closer every moment, was the port of Leith, but she could only catch glimpses of the coast through the dense fog. What would happen when they landed? Where would she go, what would she do?
She had put off such thoughts during the all-too-fleeting five-day journey from France, as all her time was required tending to the queen. Mary Stuart was only eighteen, widowed for not quite a year, and torn away from the only home she had ever known to come to a strange land she was meant to rule. Helen and the queen’s beloved “four Maries,” ladies-in-waiting all named Mary, who had been with her since childhood, spent all their time playing cards and singing to the sad queen.
But Helen couldn’t put if off much longer, for Scotland lay before her. Her father had died while she was in France. She was alone. Again.
Unbidden, a memory of green eyes rose in her mind, the impression of a hard touch on her skin, the softness of cropped black hair under her fingers.
“Nay,” she said aloud, pushing that memory away as she had so many times in the past three years. She was well rid of James McKerrigan. She had thought that then, and it was even truer now. Or at least she had tried to make herself think that, when he was torn away from her after only a moment of hope.
Helen drew the heavy folds of her black cloak closer and stared at the water, oblivious to the bustle on the decks around her. She should go below and help the queen finish preparing to land, but she couldn’t tear herself away just yet. She needed one glimpse of land.
She remembered the day they left France, how Queen Mary had stood sobbing by this same rail until that shore could be seen no longer. “Adieu, France,” she had whispered, over and over.
Helen felt the same. She had learned so much in France, about the world and about herself. When the summons came from Queen Mary, offering Helen a place among her ladies, her father seized the chance to break the betrothal with the McKerrigans and instead curry favor with the Queen herself. Helen was not given a choice, but going to Paris seemed an escape from James McKerrigan and what he roused within her. She had been disappointed in hope once too often.
And the glittering, sophisticated French Court was all she could have dreamed. The gowns and jewels, the parties and masques, the glorious châteaus—all so different from Scotland, so splendid and sparkling. So hidden and deceptive, but she learned the codes soon enough. She liked the beautiful, merry, vivacious queen and her circle.
She also liked the handsome, dark-eyed Frenchmen, so adept at flirting and flattery. None of them stirred her like James McKerrigan had, and they were safe and unthreatening once she learned to handle them properly. They never made her hope for anything different than what she had.
She knew she never could have dealt with a man like James at all. He would never flatter, only grab her in his arms and lower that talented mouth to hers….
Z’wounds! Helen spun away from the rail and paced the deck, her black skirts sweeping the smooth wood under her French satin shoes. One day, one cursed day years ago, she had spent with the man. And she had remembered him every day since. Why would he not leave her alone?
She would just have to find another husband in Edinburgh. Or maybe one of Queen Mary’s French escorts would marry Helen and carry her back to Paris, where she would never have to think of James McKerrigan again. Surely it was only being so close to Scotland that stirred him within her all over again.
“Helen,” she heard someone call. She turned to see Mary Beaton, one of the queen’s four Maries, standing behind her. She too wore black, as they were all in mourning for the queen’s husband, the French king, and the jet trim gleamed in the murky light.
“Her Grace is looking for you,” Mary said. “It’s almost time to land.”
Helen nodded and followed Mary to the queen’s cabin. It was almost time to face real life again….
James McKerrigan focused his spyglass on the water far below the bluff where he waited with his men. His horse shifted restlessly beneath him but he never moved. His attention never wavered from his goal.
The thick morning fog still lingered, but it had cleared enough to offer tantalizing glimpses of the spectacle below. Queen Mary’s convoy of four great ships had arrived in the harbor of Leith, the colors of Scotland and France whipping from the masts. The vessels’ cannons boomed, and a crowd had gathered along the banks to welcome their long-gone queen home.
As James watched, the gangplank was lowered and Queen Mary, escorted by her French Guise uncles, made her way ashore in Scotland for the first time in thirteen years. She was extraordinarily tall, towering over most of the men around her, and she walked with the great dignity of a queen in her black gown and veiled cap.
The crowd gasped at the sight of her, as if awed, before they broke into cheers as she greeted the party sent from Edinburgh to meet her.
Except for James. He trained his glass on the people who proceeded behind her from the ship. They all seemed like a flock of glossy crows in their black clothes, and it was hard to tell one from another. They clustered behind Queen Mary, the wind catching at their cloaks and veils, casting haughty glances at the scene around them.
But James knew what he was looking for and he quickly found it. Found her.
She stood at the edge of a cluster of ladies, dressed in black like the others. But she wore only a small satin cap and no veil, so the watery gray light caught on her auburn hair. She held her cloak at her throat and looked around her. There was none of the proud disdain of the queen’s French attendants. She looked nervous. Unsure.
Not at all like the confident, flirtatious girl who had once jumped into his arms in the garden maze.
Good, he thought with grim satisfaction. She should be nervous. He had been waiting a long time for this moment, the moment he would take his revenge and claim his promised bride. She had abandoned him at the first opportunity, running off to France, leaving his family humiliated and him without his intended bride. The woman he had wanted so much.
“Is she there?” his cousin Ian asked.
James slowly lowered the glass. From that distance, Helen Frasier was only a part of the dark knot of people, but he could still see her face, that uncertain smile on her lips. Still see her hair, that dark red silk that had once brushed so enticingly against his skin. The woman he had wanted more than any other, who had been torn away from him
Aye—he would enjoy their reunion a great deal. She had escaped him once, fleeing over the sea to France and leaving his family humiliated by the Frasiers. It was time to even the score.
“Aye,” he answered. “She is there.”
He glanced at her one more time, watching her curtsy gracefully to Queen Mary’s half brother before he tugged at his horse’s reins and raced away down the bluff. His men followed in a thunder of hoofbeats.
“Come, we must pay our respects to the queen,” James shouted with a grim laugh. And he had to claim his bride, the woman who should have been his three long years ago.
Helen struggled not to yawn. She bit the inside of
Then there was the banquet, with platter after platter of richly sauced dishes and ewers of the wine Queen Mary brought from France. Now they sat through the ceremony of the queen greeting her Scottish courtiers as the night grew longer and longer around them.
Helen tried to focus on the chamber, on the glittering gold plate, the fine tapestries, the well-dressed courtiers. She tried to focus on the tall figure of the beautiful queen, who sat on a raised dais at the end of the room. Queen Mary did not seem to tire at all, or lose a moment of interest. Her golden-brown eyes were bright, her greetings enthusiastic as she charmed everyone around her. The sadness of the voyage seemed to have left her as she did her duty.
Helen surreptitiously itched at one stockinged leg with the opposite foot under her black satin skirt and tried not to fidget. She was accustomed to Court ceremonies. Everything in France was very formal, no point of etiquette ignored. But tonight she felt so oddly restless.
“Is there anyone else?” Queen Mary asked her brother, who had been regent since her mother’s death and who had welcomed her back to her own palace. The queen’s voice was soft, but Helen sat near and could hear her. She prayed the answer was nay.
“Only one, Your Grace,” he answered. “The Laird McKerrigan.”
McKerrigan! The sound of that name snapped Helen from her tiredness, and every sense went alert. She sat up straighter on her stool and glanced around frantically.
Was he here, right now? Could he see her? Did he—did he remember? Did he ever think of her as she did him, far too often?
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