Maiden of inverness, p.11

Maiden of Inverness, page 11

 

Maiden of Inverness
 


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  Although she knew the answer, Meridene couldn’t help teasing the excited girl. “Has my husband perchance returned?”

  “Oh, aye.” Hands clasped, Ellen stared in dreamy fixation at the ceiling. “But someone else—someone truly enchanting—has come.”

  Budding with womanhood, the girl discovered at least one new passion every day. Meridene couldn’t help enjoying her company or teasing her. “Has the pope graced us with his presence?”

  Like a bird eager to build her first nest, Ellen darted about the room, her wavy blond hair bouncing as she went. “Oh, my lady, you are the very cleverest of women, and I am hopelessly speechless at his arrival. Should he cast eyes on me, I shall surely wither like a sickly English rose.”

  According to Serena, Ellen’s interest in the opposite sex had begun at May Day last. “Yesterday you swore the Leslie lad was all a woman could hope for in a devoted husband.”

  “My devotion was misplaced with Lord Leslie.” As if it were a matter of her salvation, Ellen said, “He doesn’t play a harp or sing ballads—or captain his own ship.”

  Meridene ducked her head to hide a smile. “Who is this newly arrived model of chivalry?”

  Sighing as if to swoon, Ellen hugged herself. “Randolph Macqueen.”

  Revas had spoken of him. “He’s Summerlad’s brother.”

  “Aye, and chieftain of all the Macqueens. When the elder brother, Drummond, fell prisoner to old King Edward, Randolph braved unspeakable perils to assume leadership of his clan.” Having emptied her lungs, she took a deep breath and kept going. “The woman he chooses will know much happiness and wifely bliss. Serena says that Macqueen men cherish their women as kings unto queens.”

  For the sake of her best and oldest friend, Meridene hoped that was true. “You’d like to wear his crown?”

  “Oh, my lady. He is the very noblest of minstrels, and handsome beyond words, and better with a sword than even the Holy Roman Emperor.” She sucked in a breath. “They say the countess of Buchan was so completely besotted with him, she took a short sword to his mistress and forced the woman naked into the street.” Her complexion blossomed red.

  “Then you had best conceal your interest, Ellen. You have only a dirk for weapon.”

  Youthful adoration turned to pure alarm. As quickly, the girl relaxed. “Revas will protect me from her evil clutches.”

  If his concern for Serena was any indication of his devotion, Revas would indeed take up his sword in defense of the handmaidens of Elginshire. He would win, too, if the priest’s assessment of his skill was to be believed.

  But what would he do when Meridene told him of her request for an annulment? She didn’t know, but postponing the inevitable seemed cowardly. Her cause was just, her reasons true.

  Eager to have it over and done, she capped the ink. “Ellen, please seek out Revas, and tell him I wish to see him alone and at his earliest convenience. And should he attempt to bring along Randolph Macqueen, I expect you to engage that man in conversation—without withering.”

  “Aye, my lady.” She skipped to the door, murmuring, “Good evening, Lord Randolph. Are you enjoying your stay? Shall I show you the mews?”

  The moment Ellen stepped into the hall, her girlish demeanor vanished. Her back went pike-straight and her strides were as smooth as those of a princess.

  Her own courage fleeting, Meridene couldn’t sit still. She must tell Revas about her visit to the priest, else Father Thomas had promised to do so himself. The Judas.

  She went livid at the thought of those men discussing her behind her back. Men exercised too much control over women, and asking her to sacrifice her life for Scotland was unfair. As a child she’d been isolated from the people because of her birthright. At eight years of age her estrangement had been complete.

  Father Thomas’s blunt rejection of her request had shocked her into challenging him. “What of the church’s obligation to keep confessions secret?” she had demanded.

  “You did not ask me to hear your confession. You insisted, without good cause, that I petition the pope to dissolve your marriage.”

  “Good cause?” she had argued. “I was eight years old and suffering the effects of my father’s poison. The priest even suggested a betrothal rather than marriage. King Edward compelled him.”

  “Greater concerns were at stake.”

  “Concerns greater than the life of a defenseless child?”

  “Aye, if she is the Maiden of Inverness.”

  Scorn ripped through her. “I will never, never wear the crown of rowans. You people have no right to ask it of me.”

  “All the better, then, that you surrender yourself to the care of Revas Macduff. He will protect and cherish you.”

  His loyalty should not have shocked her. Priests yielded to the will of kings and to men who aspired to rule. “In exchange for the sword of Chapling.”

  “It is your destiny, Lady Meridene.”

  A truly regrettable phrase, she thought. “And if my father again tries to rid himself of an unwanted daughter? Who will protect me then?”

  “Revas will, and if a better swordsman resides in Christendom, you’ll find him ruling the Holy Roman Empire. The sons of Macqueen, Leslie, Macpherson—all of the other skilled soldiers who follow him will take up your cause.” He spoke confidently, but the cool expression in his eyes told her he did not believe her father would be so bold.

  Clan pride. She knew it well.

  Too angry to speak, she had clutched the back of the pew until her fingers cramped. When she gathered her composure, she moved into the aisle. “You shame the robes you wear. How dare you put the concerns of the clans above the souls of those you are beholden to serve.”

  Unmoved, he had reasonably said, “They are often one and the same. Had you not been away so long, you would remember that. Much work awaits you here, and the people will reward your sacrifice with devout friendship.”

  Now, in the privacy of her solar, the memory of that meeting fired Meridene’s temper anew. She would tell Revas, but not for the reasons Father Thomas had insisted. She was unashamed to seek a destiny that opposed Scottish interests.

  She looked at the hour candle. Rings were carved into the wax at intervals, each to mark an hour’s burning time. It was after six. As she waited for Revas, she took comfort in the knowledge that Father Thomas was still occupied with Vespers.

  What would Revas say?

  When the knock came, Meridene put her letters in a trunk with Sim’s precious ransom. Then she went to the door.

  Leaning casually against the frame, he appeared at ease, and his eyes glowed with merriment. His hair was smoothed back and tied at the nape with a strip of leather. The style accentuated his high forehead and strong cheekbones. A stubble darkened his cheeks and circled his mouth, drawing attention to his lips.

  The memory of their soul-searing kiss jolted her.

  “You summoned me?”

  Was he, too, thinking of that moment in the chapel?

  “ ’Tis a bonny dress, Meridene. The yellow favors you well.”

  He was remembering, and she had the impression that he wanted to kiss her again. Annulment, she told herself, and the devil with romantic notions. She had business with him. “Come in.”

  She offered him wine. He held up a tankard. Why hadn’t she noticed it in his hand? Because she’d been too consumed with worry. As if to prove the point, her palms grew damp.

  “Ellen said you wished to see me alone.”

  Lord, she’d kept the girl’s company too often of late, for Meridene couldn’t carry an idea from one heartbeat to the next without a thought of Revas Macduff getting in the way.

  “Yes. I did want to speak with you.”

  “Good, for I have news as well.”

  A reprieve. “What is it?”

  He took a long drink from the tankard. “You first. I insist.”

  She went to the table and poured herself a cup of wine. Then she walked to the loom and examined the newest wo
rk. Her effort had been poor; she’d woven acorns on a rowan tree. The mistake was Revas’s fault.

  And she was flitting about like Ellen.

  “You’re limping, Meridene. Have you hurt yourself?”

  Her toe smarted every time she thought about his locked door. But she wasn’t about to explain the injury to him. “No.”

  “ ’Twould be best if I heard it from you.”

  At his stern tone, she started. “Heard what?” The words came out as a squeak.

  He chuckled. “Whatever it is you’re trying to hide. Secrets are poorly kept in Elginshire.”

  Except his twenty women. Even the handmaidens knew nothing of those tarnished souls. “What makes you think I keep a secret?”

  He joined her at the loom. “You’re being cordial to me. That’s an odd rowan tree.”

  She blocked his view of the tapestry. “The light was poor last night. Everyone here is always nice to you.”

  “They know me.”

  His self-importance knew no bounds, and he looked taller, broader, in his rugged hunting garb.

  “Have you blackened Sim’s name?”

  She took a swallow of the honeyed wine. “No.”

  “You’ve run off the Montfichets?”

  That made Meridene smile, and the guessing game relaxed her. “If Sibeal cannot force her husband to leave your service, how could I?”

  “Have you turned the handmaidens against each other?”

  On the ship she had threatened to wreck his household. He shouldn’t be so clever as to throw her words in her face. She shouldn’t like him for it, either. But she did. “No. Ellen, Lisabeth, and Serena are the most loyal of companions.”

  “Out with it then, Meridene.”

  Catching his gaze, she lifted her chin. “I went to see Father Thomas.”

  He raised his brows as if waiting for a revelation.

  “I asked for an annulment.”

  His gaze sharpened, but he did not move. “Our humble holy man refused.”

  “Humble? Have you spoken with him?”

  “Nay.”

  “Then how did you know he refused?”

  He gave her a smile she was coming to loathe and waved his mug toward the dressing room. “You haven’t packed your belongings.”

  She seethed with rage. “How dare you take me lightly.”

  Stopping at the bed, he leaned against one of the posts. “What did Father Thomas say?”

  His carefree reaction baffled her. “He told me that no one in the Highlands would aid me.”

  “ ’Tis better said that everyone in the Highlands seeks your happiness.”

  “So long as I find it here and with you.”

  He sighed and shook his head. “How do you know ’tis not here with me?”

  Her heart’s desire lay in the safety of England. “Because I could never be happy within a king’s mile of my father.”

  A muscle twitched in his jaw. Through gritted teeth, he said, “Your father wants no one in the Highlands to be happy.”

  “How delightful that you’ve found someone to despise. In that we are evenly met.”

  “He has sworn to destroy the Community of the Realm, rather than see me wear the Highland crown.”

  Bruised feelings made her say, “I do not care a blunted needle for clans, crowns, and garlands of rowans.”

  At her angry words, he dropped onto a chair and threw back his head. Arms dangling, eyes closed, he looked as if he’d expired from his own fury.

  Wondering why he acted so odd, she circled him. “If your bad humor has killed you, I am not aggrieved.”

  He smiled and his chest rocked with suppressed laughter.

  “Will you attend me?” she demanded.

  “Have I a last wish?”

  Baffled by his quick change in moods, she spat, “Only if it doesn’t involve me.”

  “Not at all,” he said much too expansively. “I should like you to call up those nibbling Maidens to welcome me into heaven. A man of eternal patience deserves a reward.”

  Realization dawned. “You’re drunk.”

  “Drunk. Hum.” He savored the word. “ ’Tis true I’ve had a full measure of Macqueen’s best ale. At first, I feared that your biting wit had wasted the effects.” Toasting her with the tankard, he said, “Thank the saints, the spirits have prevailed. I am impervious to your scorn.”

  Drunk. For days she’d thought him away providing meat for the table and contemplating their last embrace. He’d been making merry with one of those wretched Macqueens. “Get out.”

  He breathed deeply through his nose, his jaw again taut.

  “Shall I call the porter?”

  He began to drum his fingers.

  The wrath that had been simmering since her unsuccessful meeting with Father Thomas now came to a full boil. “Pity your purchased priest is occupied. I should think he’d make the perfect nursemaid. He tends your business well.”

  His hand curled into a fist.

  Relishing his loss of control, she pushed onward. “Perhaps one of your twenty women will carry you back to your cave.”

  In the blink of an eye, his smile returned.

  Her better judgment fled. “You admit to keeping those women?”

  “Would you believe me if I said I did not?”

  “Would you give them up if I asked?”

  “Ah.” He studied her over the rim of the tankard. “Once again, we have the pleasure of facing a quandary.”

  “Your favorite pastime.”

  “My second favorite.” He gave her the full power of his smile. “You are my first.”

  Ignoring the voice of reason, she said, “I’m certain those women want you. That kiss in the chapel meant nothing to me.”

  Like the lion that was his symbol, he sprang from the chair and pinned her against the wall. “Then why mention that kiss? You were interested, Meridene, and your passion came not from obligation. You like me, and it frightens you.”

  “I loathe you, and it delights me.”

  He leaned into her, pressing his chest against hers.

  “What are you doing?”

  “Guess.”

  “Past crushing me against the wall, I haven’t a notion.”

  His chest jerked with laughter. “You’ve a fire in you, Meridene, and I like it well. But know you this, my jealous wife, I am resolved to our marriage.”

  “Jealous?” She fought the force of his will. “You want me only for the sword.”

  His expression softened, and his gaze grew hungry, exploring her face and neck. “I am also resolved to having you lie naked beside me. I will discover if your breasts are as lovely as I imagine. Then I will suckle them, and when I’ve had my fill, I will taste and nibble your other sweet places. You will rejoice in our marriage bed.”

  Vivid pictures rose in her mind. “I doubt you’ll find the time, and I will not yield.”

  His grin turned wicked and he held the tankard to her mouth. “Everyone yields to Macqueen’s brew. Would you care for a taste?”

  He wore good humor like a cloak. She had concessions to gain. “Thank you, no. Since you are so resolved to keeping me, am I to have any money of my own?”

  “Am I to know what it’s for?”

  “Messengers to deliver my letters. I’ve written to Sister Margaret and others.”

  “Sister Margaret knows where you are.”

  “Drummond told her.”

  Suddenly exhausted, he rested his forehead against the wall, his cheek almost touching hers. He smelled of the forest, of woodsmoke, of a long ride in the sunshine.

  “Randolph will take your letter to Sister Margaret. He leaves tomorrow for his brother Drummond’s estate.”

  “I’ve also written to the pope.”

  “ ’Twill gain you naught. Moray has twice challenged the church to reinstate your betrothal to him. Twice was he denied. Our vows stand.”

  At her father’s command, Meridene had been promised at birth to the man who was now the e
arl of Moray. Their betrothal had been formalized on her fifth birthday. “The pope has not heard my plea.”

  “Very well. If you will do something for me, I will send your message to the pope.”

  Now that he had conceded, she stood firm. “I will agree to nothing that involves Clan Chapling or the sword.”

  “So you’ve said. But will you try to enjoy yourself for as long as you are here?”

  His ploy was as clear as rainwater. He thought to seduce her into staying. ’Twill be enjoyable, seeing you yield to the lure of the Highlands. He’d said that shortly after kidnapping her.

  “Have I your word?”

  She’d mastered the art of feigning happiness at an early age, and she rather liked the idea of making friends of her handmaidens. After she returned to England, she hoped they would speak well of their mentor. “I swear.”

  “ ’Tis a bargain we’ve struck. Do you go back on it, I will punish you.”

  “You’ve already promised to beat me and toss me in your dungeon. I am suitably frightened of your wrath.”

  “And fearful of all else,” he murmured.

  He thought her a coward. Her first instinct was to prove him wrong, but he was too close, and a confrontation favored him. She hadn’t the small advantage of flight, not with his shoulders blocking her view and his warmth seeping through her clothes.

  “Unless,” he went on, “you can find the courage to seal our bargain with a kiss.”

  Would the kiss be as stirring as before? Surely not. “It’s your custom.”

  “The Macgillivrays avoid bargains.”

  Her family were strangers. She knew more about Ellen and Serena than she remembered of her own kin. “I am not like them.”

  “I’ve always said ’twas so.”

  Calmness spread through her, and she had the strangest desire to thank him. She had given her word to put aside her reservations.

  “Too late,” he murmured, and put his mouth on hers.

  Her back instinctively bowed, and his hand curled effortlessly to support her waist. As easily as needle slips into thread, they settled into the intimacy. A sense of belonging engulfed her, and her mind flew back to a girl and a boy who had faced an enemy king.

 
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