Beguiled, page 12
He had meant the Western Isles, but she knew that. Drawing her out posed a challenge Edward relished. “ ’Twill take some maneuvering on my part to keep the swains from rioting outside Napier House.”
“I’m sure it’s Lottie’s doing. I was abroad for almost a year the last time.” Agnes swept off the garland of heather and rubbed her temples. “She must have located a new crop of eligibles—a litter of fresh pups, as Mary says. Lottie will have told them the particulars about my dowries.”
“You have more than one?”
“Aye, the duchess of Enderley endowed me with lands in France.”
She looked damsel-like in the simple clothing of medieval times, the fitted surcoat, her hair hanging to her hips, and a long, golden cord tied around her waist. But the mischief she’d worked on him with that green gown begged for retribution.
He propped an elbow on the table and rested his chin in his palm. “Sounds as if you’ll be popular.”
“I’ve acknowledged their gifts and politely discouraged their pursuit.”
He couldn’t recall the moment earlier today, but at some point during the removal of those stitches, he’d ceased thinking of her as his patient. It was just as well, considering both the ease with which she lifted the mug and the decidedly intimate turn his thoughts had taken. “If your suitors persist, I’ll be tempted to ask his grace of Ross for advice.”
“Do and he will descend on Glasgow to convey his advice personally.”
Edward had only wanted to tease her. The last complication he needed now was a visit from the most reformed rogue in the Highlands.
Agnes eased her legs over the bench. “I yield, my lord. You’ve tromped me roundly.”
Auntie Loo and Christopher still sat near the hearth. Slumping in the master’s chair and clutching her new whistle, Hannah valiantly fought sleep.
Edward began repositioning the pieces. “You’re a sporting loser.”
Bracing her arm on the table, she stood. “I learned that necessity early in life.”
Her golden hair fell around her in a gilded curtain, and the cord draping her hips dangled at an alluring spot. Edward wasn’t ready to end the evening; too many questions about her remained unanswered. “Did your father teach you?”
“ ’Twas my sister Sarah. She has lost only once in her life.”
He wanted to ask what scent she’d worn tonight. Instead, he indicated the chessmen. “I think you lost apurpose to me.”
Over her shoulder, she said, “Tell him, Auntie Loo. I’m dreadful at board games.”
The Oriental woman rose and put away her unfinished basket. She wore a sunny yellow overdress, and her thick black hair was plaited in a single braid that hung to her knees. “Lady Lottie proclaims her older sister an embarrassment in the parlor.”
“Didn’t I say so?” Agnes threaded the garland over her wrist and twirled it. “I’m also a sour note in the music room.”
Edward noticed that she used her right wrist with no small amount of dexterity. Her swift recovery baffled him. “Your arm doesn’t hurt?”
Quietly, she said, “Not enough to require doctoring again.”
It was a sly reference to the intimate moments between them earlier in the day. “I heard no complaints from you at the time. Rather you confessed the need to purr.”
“I’m not purring now. I’ve recovered from that ailment, too.” Before he could comment, she said, “Good night, Auntie. I’ll take the children up to bed.”
The Oriental woman moved toward the stairs.
Hannah straightened in the chair. “No.”
Edward braced himself for the battle to come. Hannah should have been asleep an hour ago, but the meal had been slow to cook and the cook slower to serve. A formal tour of the tower had taken more time.
In complete disobedience, his daughter banged her heels on the chair and shook her head. Christopher, bless him, put away his unfinished basket and headed up the new wooden stairs. He hadn’t even balked at sharing the upper floor with his sister.
“May I help Hannah with her decision, my lord?” Agnes said.
He felt a prick of conscience but ignored it. Hannah knew few adults, and nannies had dried too many of her tears. Attention from Agnes MacKenzie could only help the lass.
“Hannah.” He stared at his daughter until her eyes met his. “Do you promise to behave?”
Pouting like the last of the forlorn, she gripped the chair arms and stared at her toes. Lady Agnes knelt before her and whispered something to the girl. Even from across the room, he could smell that enticing fragrance.
“Truly?” Hannah’s eyes grew large, and a smile blossomed on her face.
The change was pure magic to Edward.
Patting the girl’s leg, Agnes rose and returned to the chessboard. “Good night, my lord.”
“What did you tell her?” Edward asked.
Smiling, she toyed with the rope at her waist. “That you would buy her a pony.”
“A pony!” piped Hannah, bucking in the chair.
He almost choked on the wine. The great pony debate had been raging since the day Hannah learned to say the word. “You didn’t promise her that?” he whispered harshly. “She cannot even play hopping stones without losing her balance.”
“Oh, ye of little faith,” Agnes chided. “There are conditions. She must continue to go to bed without a fret, or she cannot select the pony herself. I explained that we couldn’t ask the stableman to bring a herd of animals here.”
If she couldn’t pick it out, the pony wouldn’t get bought. “That’s devious.”
“Remember, there were four of us, each trying to outdo the others. Be it making mischief or hugging Papa good night, we all wanted to be first.”
The amber light from the old lamps bathed her in a golden glow. His fingers tingled with the need to explore the texture of her hair, to bury his face in it and languish in that heavenly smell. But there was more to discover about this Highland lass than the extent of her feelings for him. “Where were you in the MacKenzie pack?”
She tried for modesty and succeeded in radiance. “At the vanguard.”
The air between them grew heavy with apprehension, and he felt as if she were on the verge of leaning toward him. But she had not moved.
Hoping to change that, he said, “The same way you plunge into a pond?”
She had a clever sally for him, he knew; the excitement of it glittered in her eyes. An instant later the look was gone. With the garland draping her wrist, she walked her fingers across the chessboard. “Most often, Papa was a step ahead of us.”
He wanted to see that expression again and hear what she’d truly wanted to say. “At what age were you when you chose your first pony?”
She glanced at Hannah. “Five, but I earned the money to buy it for myself. Good night—”
She hesitated but didn’t look at him. “By standing guard over the stable lantern.”
What was her hurry? “Your father let you sleep in the stable?”
“Nay, I watched the lamp for two hours every afternoon. Twasn’t even aflame at the time, but I was too short to see that high.”
An excellent way to teach a child discipline and responsibility and give a parent a reprieve. Edward couldn’t imagine life in the MacKenzie family; Hannah and Christopher were challenge enough for him. “The more I know about your father, the more I like him.”
“Should you truly wish to see him at his best, ask him how Mary fares. Good night again, my lord.”
Edward knew finality when he heard it. “I’ll bank the fire.” He put his tankard on the table, extinguished the lamp, and went to the hearth.
She glided away, her slippers swish-swishing on the new stairs. Overhead the old chandelier cast a wavering circle of shadows on the stone ceiling. Earlier, while awaiting the meal, Edward had allowed Christopher and Hannah to light one taper each before the wheel was again hoisted into the air. The candles were spent. The tower quiet.
The kite, fashioned from the pages of yesterday’s Glasgow Courant, rested on the cabinet below one of the four arrow slits in the outer wall of the tower. Sharpened axes and a broadsword were mounted high on the wall, out of the reach of the children, same as the new crossbows perched above the low door.
His children were safe in this old fortress. The magistrate offered small hope of locating the bowman, but with the help of his beguiling houseguest and her man Trimble, Edward would find the assassin.
Edward gave the coals a final tamp, replaced the fire iron, then moved to the door. Even as he grasped the handle, he changed his mind. Work waited in his laboratory, but he hadn’t the attention for it tonight. He knew he couldn’t sleep; so he sat in the chair that Hannah had vacated. Silence descended, save the faint ticking of a clock from the chamber upstairs. Seated comfortably outside the pool of firelight, Edward let his thoughts wander.
Tomorrow they’d visit Saint Vincent’s Church and hopefully glean the whereabouts of the mysterious Mrs. Borrowfield. After a visit to the mill, Edward and Agnes would take a late supper with William Arkwright, the mayor of Glasgow. Edward smiled, thinking of the lively conversation he’d shared with Agnes earlier in the day. As her host and a man of lesser rank than her father, he was obligated to escort her. Convention aside, he’d make certain that her hand rested on his arm when they were called into dinner.
A shape passed before the hearth. Edward froze. He recognized the slender figure wearing breeches, her hair hastily gathered at the nape of her neck, a weapon in her hand. In her passage down the stairs she hadn’t made a sound. During an earlier climb to visit the upper levels, the new wood had creaked and groaned beneath Edward’s weight.
How could anyone be so light on their feet?
She stopped, stepped back, and faced him. “I thought you had retired, my lord.”
He sat in the shadows. She stood between him and the light. She couldn’t have seen him, and he’d made no sound, but she’d known he was here.
Necessity played no part in her excursion; the upstairs garderobe functioned efficiently, there was food aplenty in the larder behind him. A barrel of water stood near the door. She certainly didn’t need a sword.
“Where are you going?”
She moved toward him. Light glinted on steel as she tried to hide the weapon behind her. “The guard is absent from his post atop the new wing.”
Edward went to the nearest arrow slit and looked across the courtyard. The sentry was drinking from the fountain. The arrow slits in the walls of the chamber above faced east, offering a view of the river Clyde. She couldn’t see the courtyard from her vantage point.
Edward wanted to rail at her, but he’d done so before with disastrous results. But when he thought about the weapon she carried, gentle words failed him. “So you were going in search of the guard? And if you say you intended to walk about anyway, because you are stiff from sitting at the gaming table, I will take great umbrage at it.”
“Shush! You’ll wake the household. Do you wish to accompany me?”
In two strides he stood beside her. “What if the assassin did get past the guards and you had come upon him? Do you think your foreign fighting skills would have prevailed?”
“I thought to hold him off until help arrived, which I would be screaming for.”
The attempt at humor was too weak. She was hiding something. “That blade is useless against a crossbow, Agnes.”
“I also have a dagger, my lord, and my aim is excellent.”
She wouldn’t distract him with false formality. “The guard stands his post.”
As quickly as it had come, the fight left her. “Humor me, Lord Edward?”
Something in her tone made him agree. Motioning toward the door, he followed her into the hall and closed the door behind him. Absolute darkness and silence surrounded them. Even without light, he could find his way in Napier House. To the left lay the entrance of the passage to his laboratory. Straight ahead, with a brief veer to the right, was the corridor to the new wing.
He touched her shoulder. “I’ll lead the way.”
She slipped her hand under his and drew his arm down. “How did you find me in this pitch?”
Had twenty proper excuses come to mind, he couldn’t have voiced one. “ ’Tis the fragrance in your hair.”
“Truly?” She sniffed. “I cannot smell it over those cloying roses.”
What made him think and say such bold things to her? He didn’t know. Her hand felt perfect nestled in his. He gave a little squeeze, which she returned. It was then he realized that he held her right hand, and her grip proved that she was past being on the mend.
The tinny sound of a bell pierced the silence.
“That’s the alarm in your study!” she said.
Edward moved and almost sent her careening into one of the suits of armor. Steadying her, he put her behind him and ran down the hall. She kept pace, and when they reached the juncture in the formal parlor, she darted left and tried to move ahead. Now in a race, they sped through the corridor. Edward glanced out the glass doors leading to the courtyard. He was moving too fast to see if the windows in his study were open. Moments ago in the tower, he’d looked through an arrow slit and spied the guard at the fountain. Nothing had seemed amiss in the new wing.
Something was amiss now.
They hurried past the music room and the library. Slowing enough to clutch the door handle, Edward burst into the room, Agnes fast on his heels. As if they’d made a plan of action, Edward moved to the left and dropped down; she moved to the right.
The newly mullioned windows stood open, the draperies gently billowing into the room. A patch of wavering moonlight spilled onto the floor.
His chest heaving, Edward strained to see into the shadowy corners of the room.
“He’s gone,” she said on a ragged breath.
“You cannot know that.”
Shouts came from the roof. She sprang to her feet. Edward hurried to the window and called to the guard, “Is anyone about?”
The sentry moved to the edge of the roof and scanned the courtyard.
“Stand away from the window, Edward,” Lady Agnes said. “You’re an easy target.”
Again Edward dropped down. He hadn’t thought to bring a weapon but the woman behind him had.
Flint struck steel. Turning he saw her lifting a lighted taper. She stood before the firescreen. She wasn’t in the least winded, and her hand was incredibly steady on the candlestick.
“Sweet Saint Ninian,” she murmured.
When Edward realized what she was looking at, he understood why she’d cursed. Rolled inside the small MacKenzie plaid was a dove, another of the wicked quarrels skewering the bird to the Napier shield.
“There!” came a shout from outside. “He goes by the stables!”
Outrage boiled inside Edward. “Give me that sword, and find a way back to the tower,” he said.
“Nay.” Agnes could feel his anger, and it fed the fire that smoldered inside her.
“The sword!” In stance and determination he radiated fury.
The weapon grew heavy in her hand. His eyes widened, and she could feel him willing her to yield.
She tossed him the blade. “Find him!”
In a swipe of his hand, he snatched the sword from the air. “Stay out of harm’s way, Agnes MacKenzie.”
Mired in feelings she could not explain, she drew the dagger from her boot. “I’ll be with the children.” More needed to be said, but there was so little time. “If you get yourself killed, Edward Napier, I will take great umbrage at it.”
With a quick nod, he gathered up his long tunic and bounded into the courtyard.
A drum of apprehension beat in her breast. “Fortune and God go with you,” she whispered.
The candle flame wavered, then winked out. Smoke from the smoldering wick worried her nose. She pinched the tiny ember and dropped the candlestick. Blinking back fear, she hurried from the room and moved dow
Come out, she silently begged. Show your blackened soul so I can send it to hell.
Blinded by the thought, she raced around a turn, the first in the square horseshoe shape of the corridor. As an image of the route formed in her mind, she ignored the possibility that the bowman could be behind her.
The parlor lay ahead, and to the right, the old wing. She slowed, then stopped to peer into the moonlit room. No evil presence lurked here. The dread she’d felt earlier, at the end of the last chess game, was gone. But at what cost to the occupants of this house? Did the earl of Cathcart now lie dying in the courtyard?
She moved into the old wing, picking her way through a legion of armor. At last she felt the curvature of the tower wall. Her fingers touched the handle. Gripping it, she flung open the door.
An eerie sound alerted her. “Auntie!” she cried and crumpled to the floor. In a whoosh, movement rent the air above her. When death did not come, Agnes looked behind the door. There stood her friend, an arm’s length away, her face pure white, her hands gripping a Pe-tung backsword, its blade sharper than a razor.
Auntie Loo closed her eyes and let the priceless weapon fall. White copper clattered to the stone floor.
Agnes went weak with relief. Had she not recognized the sound and ducked, her head would be rolling across the floor. A chill swept through her, and dampness flooded her brow.
Auntie Loo murmured, “Oh, Father of Time, I heard no warning.”
The blame lay squarely with Agnes. She’d been distracted by thoughts of Edward Napier. Concern for the children had fallen behind her feelings for him. Even her awareness of Auntie Loo had fled.
Her attraction to a man had caused her to fail a second time. She fought the urge to cry. “I gave you no signal, Loo.”
As if she had not murmured the prayer, Auntie Loo calmly picked up the ancient weapon. “Death’s door is closed to you, Golden One.”
by Arnette Lamb / Romance have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes