Border lord, p.12

Border Lord, page 12


Border Lord

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  "Indeed," said Duncan as he focused on the open carriage and the woman holding the reins. Her unbound hair shone like a nimbus of fire, the yard-long tendrils licking the breeze.

  Envy and misgivings descended on Duncan. Instead of waiting in safety like a brow-beaten goodwife, he should have led the rescue party. As laird, he had a duty to the citizens of Kildalton. As a man, he wanted to command the soldiers and instill pride in the horde of smiling people. But fate had denied him these things.

  "What's wrong, Papa?" Malcolm's worried expression tore at Duncan's heart. "Are you angry?"

  "Nay, son." The noise in the castle yard grew deafening. Duncan almost yelled, "I couldna be happier." Unless, he added to himself, the baron was within striking distance of his fists. Sinclair would rue the day he'd allowed his henchmen to endanger a child from Kildalton. "Mary Elizabeth looks very brave, don't you think?"

  Malcolm screwed up his face. "She's just a bairn. Besides, lassies are mewling and troublesome, and they grow up to be tart-tongued wenches. They get scared and run away. They can't be brave." Puffing out his chest, he added, "Not like lads."

  "Who told you that?"

  "I thought it for myself."

  "I think," Duncan said firmly, "you've been doing too much thinking for yourself lately. You've also been listening to the soldiers."

  The boy's gaze darted guiltily from the carriage to the soldiers lining the wall.

  "Lassies can be just as brave as lads," Duncan said.

  The boy's chin puckered with stubbornness.

  "Malcolm… ?"

  "Llewelyn. I want down."

  "I want down," Duncan mocked the whiny tone. "Now who's acting like a bairn?"

  He stiffened. "I'm not a bairn."

  "Then be reasonable. If I put you down, you wilna be able to see. Look there." Duncan pointed to the carriage. In complete command, Miriam drew back on the reins and slowed the team to a walk. Betsy Lindsay waved to the crowd. Between the women sat the toddler Mary Elizabeth, her eyes drooping with fatigue, her cheeks smudged with dirt. "Don't you think Lady Miriam was brave to go after Mary Elizabeth?"

  Grudgingly, the boy said, "Yes, but Angus went with her. I wanted to go, but he said Baron Sin's reivers would love to get their filthy paws on me."

  Parental responsibility weighted Duncan's shoulders. "Angus told you the right thing. But you're evading the subject. Lady Miriam didna run away, did she?"

  "No. Saladin said they rode horses all the way from London." His face brightened. "Can we ride horses all the way to London someday?"

  "Aye, and all the bonnie ladies at court will kiss your forehead and pinch your perky cheeks."

  His hand flew to his face. "I won't let them. I won't show 'em my lady crackers, either," he said, as serious as a butcher on slaughtering day.

  Duncan sighed. His son's disrespect and vulgar language had gone on long enough. "Son," he began ominously.

  "Look," Malcolm squealed, leaning into the embrasure.

  Over the boy's head, Duncan saw Miriam guide the horses beneath the portcullis and drive them to the stables. The castlefolk swarmed the carriage. The lathered horses reared. Angus stormed through the throng, shoving the spectators aside. He grasped the harness to hold the team steady, then waved the crowd back.

  A cool breeze ruffled Duncan's hair, reminding him that he'd left the wig in his study. Suddenly he felt exposed.

  Miriam stood and scanned the crowd. Malcolm stuck his arm through the arrow slit and yelled her name.

  Duncan leaned back, out of her line of vision. He had to return to his study before she came looking for him. He pulled Malcolm back and set the boy on his feet. "Come along, son."

  "No." Malcolm crossed his arms, his face a picture of defiance. "You can't make me."

  Anger ripped through Duncan. He took the boy by the arm. "You seem to be forgetting one vital piece of information, my foul-mouthed friend."

  "I ain't your friend. I'm your son."

  "You'll bletherin well start acting like it." He turned Malcolm around and pointed him toward the stairs. "Walk!"

  They retraced their steps. In the hall outside his study, Duncan yelled for Mrs. Elliott. When the housekeeper appeared, he said, "Should Lady Miriam ask to see me, tell her I'm at a crucial moment in the wrapping of my flippity-flops. I canna be disturbed."

  A sly grin blossomed on her face. "Aye, my lord."

  Duncan ushered Malcolm into the study, then indicated the chairs by the hearth. "Sit down, son."

  "No. You tie your auld flippity-flops. I want to go out in the courtyard with everyone else."

  "That's unfortunate. Sit."



  Like a scolded pup retreating to the corner, Malcolm shuffled slowly across the room and wiggled into the farthest chair. Duncan took the other.

  "Where is your essay on Llewelyn Fawr?" he said.

  Malcolm began fanning his legs. "I dunno."

  Duncan counted silently to ten. "You didna write it, did you?"

  "No. I had to watch the duel," he said, as if the activity were a matter of life or death.

  "You know the rules. You'll either write it before you go to bed or answer to your own name for a week."

  Mouth open, the boy shot out of the chair. "A week! No. I won't do it. You can't make me."

  His control hanging by a thread, Duncan yelled, "Sit down!"

  Malcolm plopped into the chair, a sullen expression making him look very much like his mother. The resemblance cooled Duncan's anger. If he were to succeed at being both mother and father to Malcolm, he had to keep a level head. Didn't a motherless boy deserve a bit of indulgence? No, not at the expense of good character.

  Calmly, Duncan said, "You seem to have forgotten who gives the orders around here. You've become disrespectful, rude, and vulgar. You've taken advantage of my disguise. Gainsay me again, son, and I'll forbid you your game of names altogether."

  The boy swallowed loudly and lifted his head. Great tears pooled in his eyes. "I'm sorry, sir."

  Duncan's heart constricted, and he almost ended the reprimand. But that would be doing Malcolm a disservice, for the lad must learn to respect others.

  Duncan held up a finger. "No more mentioning your lady crackers in the presence of females."

  With the back of his hand, Malcolm brushed aside his tears. "Nay, sir. Never again. I promise."

  Duncan held up another finger. "No more sassing me— even when I'm in disguise."

  Malcolm sniffed. "I won't, sir."

  "No more snakes nailed to the door of the women's privy."

  Mouth open, the boy said, "Who told you?"

  "Never mind that. Your word, please."

  Swallowing loudly, Malcolm said, "I promise."

  "No more newts in my sporran."

  A gamin smile brightened Malcolm's eyes and teased the corners of his mouth. "If I had a baby brother, I wouldn't have to play with newts."

  Duncan's dream of marrying again and siring a large family had died long ago. But Malcolm needn't know that. "If you had a baby brother, you'd have to share all of your toys."

  "I would, Papa." Eagerly he sketched a cross over his heart. "I'd give him every last boat and soldier."

  Tenderness welled up in Duncan. "I'll do what I can, lad. Please fetch me my wig and spectacles. Lady Miriam wilna wait all night to see me."

  Malcolm bounded from the chair and did as he was told. Duncan put on the wig, then held out his hand for the spectacles.

  "May I put them on for you?" Malcolm asked.

  "Be my guest, just doona be pinching my nose."

  Using great care, the boy placed the spectacles on the bridge of Duncan's nose. Standing back and squinting to see if the glasses were straight, Malcolm said, "I know a secret about Lady Miriam."

  With great interest, Duncan leaned forward. "What's that?"

  Pride puffed out Malcolm's chest. "Saladin and Salvador swear she fences even better than Lady Alexis. She has leather pants,
too. Can I have leather pants?"

  Duncan pictured her long legs encased in flesh-tight doeskin. "We'll visit the tanner."

  Malcolm's smile wilted. "You'll be busy with those foosty feathers and hooks. Or taking her somewhere. You always are."

  Since Miriam's arrival, Duncan had spent little time with his son. Regrets besieged him. "Do you know why?"

  "So the queen will think you're a braw man."

  "Aye." Duncan laid his hand on Malcolm's head. "I love you, son."

  Malcolm smiled, endearingly sweet. "I love you, too, Papa. And I promise to write my essay."

  The tenderest kind of affection infused Duncan. "I know you will. How do I look?"

  "Funny. The wig is crooked." He reached up to right it.

  Seizing the boy's vulnerable position, Duncan tickled him. Malcolm squealed and tried to dart away, but Duncan followed, thrumming his fingers on the boy's ribs. They tumbled to the floor, and scuffled like children, rubbing the paint off Malcolm's legs and rucking Duncan's kilt up around his waist.

  He almost lost the wig, and when he reached up to secure it, Malcolm plopped on top of him. "I'm the tickler now," the boy declared, and dug his fingers into Duncan's ribs.

  Flat on his back, the spectacles askew, Duncan bent his knees and bucked, trying halfheartedly to bounce Malcolm off. He grunted with exaggerated effort. "Aye, you're a braw laddie."

  Skinny knees straddling Duncan, Malcolm said, "Dost thou yield to Llewelyn Fawr, the High King of Wales?"

  Feigning fright, Duncan pleaded, "I yield, your kingship. I yield."

  Just then the door opened, and Lady Miriam strolled inside. "My lord, didn't you hear my knock—" Mouth open, she stopped. Her gaze traveled up Duncan's bare legs to his fully exposed manly parts. A lovely shade of crimson blossomed on her cheeks. She gasped. "Excuse me." Then she whirled and fled the room.

  Mortified, Miriam raced down the hall toward the keeping room. Just outside the door she stopped, her heart pounding, her senses reeling.

  Sweet Saint Margaret, beneath his kilt he wore… nothing. She had seen marble statues of nude men and admired the sculptor's work. She'd seen Italian frescoes and Moorish mosaics, blatant in their depictions of the human form. But seeing a classic rendering in pale stone or tiny chips of tile and viewing a man in hot living flesh were different experiences altogether. Lord, the statues seemed innocent, benign by comparison. The earl, in his natural state, was a powerful sight to behold. Even the Lancelot of her dreams hadn't been so well made.

  Could she ever look at Duncan Kerr in the same way? As an ordinary man? He'd made her feel anything but an ordinary woman.

  Had he been naked all day, even when he'd found her at the weaver's and escorted her to the swineherd's? The probability made her shiver. She cast out the disturbing thought and became aware of noises in the room beyond. The twins and Alexis were in there.

  Pressing her hands to her flaming cheeks, Miriam focused her thoughts on Baron Sinclair's latest raid on a Kildalton farm and the tricky task of confronting the earl about his cowardice. Secure in the safe topic, she strolled into the keeping room.

  Saladin, his head swathed in a turban, and Salvador, wearing Alexis's Highland bonnet with a Stewart crest badge, sat on a rug in a corner with an exhausted Verbatim. Alexis, garbed in a fashionable gown of garnet-hued velvet, sat on one of the two straight-back benches that flanked the massive stone hearth.

  On the mantel sat a pair of hundred-eyes lanterns with thick tallow candles. The ancient lamps cast a spray of dotted light on the gilt-framed painting of Kenneth Kerr which soared to the beamed ceiling. A kettle of bayberries simmered over the fire, the steam perfuming the air with the fresh holiday scent.

  "What's wrong?" Alexis peered up from the book she was reading.

  Miriam's vulnerability returned in full force. She walked to a side table that held a brace of candles and a dish of dried rosemary. "Why should anything be wrong?"

  "You looked… well, for a moment you looked disoriented. Did you see the earl?"

  In perfect detail Miriam remembered just how much of him she'd seen. A penis. Good Lord, she'd seen his penis, and she'd stared in awe at the fleshy, weighty sacks beneath.

  The muscles in her abdomen tightened. Taking a handful of the dried herbs, she crushed them between her damp palms. "Yes, I saw him. He and Malcolm were tussling on the floor."

  "The earl?" Alexis tossed the book aside and came to stand by Miriam. "That's odd. I've never seen him take an interest in the boy."

  The need to defend him rose sharply in Miriam. "So? Most parents can't be bothered with their children. I was glad to see them laughing and tickling each other, same as any country gent and his lad."

  Alexis glanced at the twins, who were picking burrs from the still-sleeping sleuthhound. "'Tis odd," she said, "how different he and the boy are. But I'm sure you've noticed that Malcolm is boisterous and bold, while the earl is quiet and passive."

  "They seemed very much alike a few moments ago. But I hardly know Malcolm." The boy could shed a new light on the father. But the idea of using the lad to gain information pricked Miriam's conscience.

  "After your daring rescue of that child tonight, I'll wager the boy will dog your heels for days. He's woefully in need of a hero to worship. A heroine might do."

  Miriam pictured Malcolm giggling with delight in the company of his unexpectedly playful father. "We should have taken him along on the adventure. There was no danger at all."

  Just above a whisper, Alexis said, "What did you learn from the swineherd?"

  "That the man I met in the garden is supposed to be a ghost."

  "Truly? Do you think he is a ghost?"

  Miriam remembered his seductive words and hot kisses. She related the romantic tales of the Border Lord's appearances. "According to one and all, the earl included, the man was hanged by the English a century ago."

  Alexis tapped her teeth with a fingernail and gazed thoughtfully at Kenneth Kerr. "What do you make of it?"

  Again Miriam sifted through the possibilities, but the conclusion always remained the same. "I think someone has taken on the identity of this folk hero. Why would he visit Kildalton Castle at night unless his purpose were a nefarious one?"

  "What did the swineherd say?"

  "He said the Border Lord pops up whenever there's trouble."

  Alexis scoffed. "Then where was he when little Mary Elizabeth and her family needed him?"

  The inconsistency nagged at Miriam's logical mind. "He obviously picks his battles. Or maybe he only rides at night because of his disguise."

  "Do you think the earl knows who he is?"

  "Logic tells me yes."

  "Well, then," said Alexis as if she were ordering a meal, "you'll just have to use that dangerously clever mind of yours and persuade him to tell you."

  She wasn't sure she could face the earl just yet. She needed time to banish the image of that thick penis sprouting from his muscular loins. "I may have better luck seeking out the Border Lord on my own. Now that I have the key to the tunnel door, I intend to lie in wait for him tonight."

  "What makes you think he'll come?"

  Herb dust clung to Miriam's damp palms. She rubbed at it until her sore fingertip began to throb. "The swineherd said he always appears after a raid by the baron."

  "You're so clever, Miriam. But you must be careful." Alexis looked again at the hound. "Verbatim won't be any help to you. She's fair toil-worn."

  Miriam recalled the dog's tireless searching and that instant of relief when the animal had barked, signaling she'd located her quarry. Betsy's heartfelt declarations of gratitude and the cheers from the crowd still filled Miriam with joy.

  Alexis hugged her. "You looked like Boadicea in her chariot driving that carriage. I cried when I saw you come through the gates."

  Fighting off a wave of melancholy, Miriam hugged her back. "It felt good to see that little girl in her mother's arms again."

  "Of course it did. You always do th
e right thing, Miriam. You always have."

  The familiar praise warmed Miriam. "Let's just hope the Border Lord makes an appearance tonight, since I seem to be riding a high wave of luck."

  The sound of Malcolm's laughter echoed down the hall.

  "Come," Alexis whispered, pulling Miriam to the hearth.

  "This painting," she said, louder, "is of Lord Duncan's father. They're very different don't you think?"

  Just as Miriam was about to agree, Malcolm bounded into the room. A moment later the earl shuffled in, a large book under his arm, a curled white feather in his wig.

  Her gaze strayed to his kilt, now modestly concealing his manly parts. The first thought that popped into her mind was an inappropriate question: Didn't he get cold in the winter?

  "I'm awfully sorry to have kept you waiting, Lady Miriam," he said, setting the book on the mantel and warming himself by the fire. "I must admit, though, with my spectacles askew, I didn't know who had come in the room. It could have been the queen herself. Malcolm told me 'twas you."

  "I'm sorry to have disturbed you." She rose and joined him, her eyes straying to his magnificent badger sporran. She knew what lay behind it. "I should have knocked louder."

  With a self-deprecating smile, he said, "I confess that we're regular ruffians on occasion, Malcolm and me. Surely you've learned that we have no locked doors in this castle. 'Tis a part of Scottish hospitality, you know."

  From the corner, she heard Malcolm and the twins cooing over Verbatim. "Your hospitality is exemplary, my lord."

  "Mine?" He dropped his chin and busied his hands with adjusting the spectacles. "I simply told Mrs. Elliott to refuse you nothing." He glanced at Alexis. "Good evening, my lady."

  Glancing up from the book, she said, "My lord. How are the flippity-flops?"

  "So kind of you to ask." Chuckling and rubbing his hands together, he said, "They're ready for a fat salmon. However, I'm thinking I might just try one out in my favorite trout stream."

  Miriam studied his strong hands. The healing blisters appeared as smooth pink circles on his broad palms. They were strong hands, made for wielding a sword instead of cleaning feathers, yet perfect for tickling a boy into giggles and stroking a woman's flesh.

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