Maiden of inverness, p.12

Maiden of Inverness, page 12

 

Maiden of Inverness
 


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  The vision alarmed her. She broke the kiss. “I’m certain you’ll want to return to your drunken friends now.”

  He studied her for so long, she thought he would refuse to leave. Still watching her, he pushed away from the wall. “Give me your letters.”

  Before he could change his mind, she fetched the messages and handed them to him. “You swear you’ll have them delivered?”

  “I swear on my honor as chieftain of Clan Macduff.” He walked to the door.

  She remembered that he’d also wanted to talk to her. “What did you wish to tell me?”

  Over his shoulder, he said, “Ana and John Sutherland have gone missing.”

  Revas closed the door behind him. Like a plunge in the ocean, that kiss had cleared his head of the effects of Macqueen’s brew. Regrettably sober, he made his way to his chamber, his body tense with desire, his mind spinning with her confession and his own lie. He’d send a messenger to the pope, but he’d give young Leslie instructions to go by way of a tour of his family’s French estates. By the time the emissary delivered Meridene’s letter, she’d be too busy suckling their third or fourth child to think of dissolving her marriage.

  Revas couldn’t forget the feel of her lips and the gift of her surrender. Although short-lived now, her yielding moments were on the rise. For the hundredth time he remembered kneeling beside her in the church and feeling her watching him, answering his immediate prayer. The kiss had stunned him, for in that brief moment of intimacy she had lowered the barrier to her heart and given him a glimpse of the enchanting woman within.

  She wanted to love him; he could feel her need, but the cruelties of the past were too fresh in her mind. His plan to woo her was simple enough. Now she’d given her word to put aside her intolerance. It was a place to start, and if that last kiss was a sign, his vanguard was on the move. He’d succeeded in uniting the Highland clans, save one. The very jewel in the Macgillivray treasure belonged to him. And she kissed like a woman eager to solve a puzzle.

  Fired by determination, he called for a hot bath, then took the steps in a run. He found Sheriff Brodie waiting for him outside the locked door to his chamber.

  “The lass tried to open it at least a dozen times while you were away,” Brodie said.

  Revas couldn’t help grinning. “She did?”

  Brodie couldn’t hide his concern. “Oh, Revas. What sins have you committed to reap her for penance?”

  “Not my sins. Probably the sins of Hacon, her namesake’s husband.”

  “God also gave him a spirited woman.”

  Taking the key from his sporran, Revas opened the door and motioned Brodie in before him. “Yet he lavished stubbornness on my wife.” And gave her a mouth to adore.

  “Aye.” The sheriff knelt before the hearth and kindled a fire. “When she discovered she could not open your door, she kicked it so hard, she limps still.”

  Revas had noticed her discomfort. He also understood why she had not shared the details of the injury. Stubbornness. On the edge of a dilemma. He knew the exercise well.

  “I heard gossip that ill has befallen the Sutherlands.”

  Revas grew weary, for his life moved from one obstacle to the next. But he took heart, for great reward awaited him on every front. “Pray Cutberth isn’t behind their disappearance.”

  “Let the Sutherlands fight that battle. You have a greater challenge here.”

  “Peace in the Highlands is my challenge. If the unified clans cannot defend their Sutherland brethren, then we have defeated our purpose in uniting.”

  “But everyone knows Cutberth’s quarrel is with you.”

  “Then let’s hope the Sutherlands boarded the wrong ship.”

  “What happened to them?”

  “After leaving Elgin, they made port in Cromarty. John and Ana went ashore.”

  “And did not return.”

  “Aye. The tale came from a sailor out of Nairn, who swore that Macgillivrays were seen in Cromarty.”

  “King Robert will get wind of it.”

  “Aye, and if Bruce wants to rule all of Scotland fairly, he’d better learn to dirty his hands in Highland affairs.”

  “He expects you to manage Cutberth.”

  Revas yanked off his pouch and threw it on the desk. “Then our king must think again. He once rode with Cutberth against me.” Revas held up his hand to put a halt to the discussion. “Enough of Cutberth. The sound of his name fair sours my stomach. Yet a thought of his daughter warms my wicked heart.”

  Brodie howled with laughter.

  Feeling jovial again, Revas pointed to Meridene’s letters. “My wife has written to the pope asking him to dissolve our marriage.”

  “Others have tried and failed.”

  “True. Does young Leslie still crave a visit to his French relations?”

  “Aye, his cousin is to be betrothed soon to one of Burgundy’s lads.”

  Ignoring a stab of guilt, Revas said, “He has leave to stay until his cousin births her first child. At which time, he’s to deliver Meridene’s letter to the pope.”

  “Leslie’s cousin is but five or six years old.”

  “Then Leslie’s stay will be an extended one, and the message tardy.”

  Brodie whistled. “I’d not care to be in your boots when she learns the truth.”

  “My boots will rest beneath her bed by the time she receives a denial of her request from the church.”

  A knock on the door brought Sim and a trail of servants carrying buckets of steaming water. Handing Revas a small chest, the steward said, “The Maiden’s flower pennies.”

  According to the Covenant, the original flower pennies, as they had been called, were golden coins. But misfortune had turned them to wood, and they were henceforth given as tokens of affection and rewards to children. During the lean years, the pennies had been used as currency.

  Revas raised the lid of the box. Larger than the silver coins minted by Edward I, these wooden pennies would mark the return of the Maiden of Inverness.

  Would Meridene accept and distribute them with good grace? Lord, he hoped so.

  When the servants left, Revas stripped off his clothes and settled into the tub. Brodie lounged in a chair and examined the wooden coins.

  The water leeched Revas of his woes. “What comings and goings while I was away?” he asked.

  “The stonemason took his leave. A wheelwright from Aberdeen arrived last night. Says he’s looking to settle here.”

  “Has he a wife and children?”

  “Nay, but he has fine tools, and the blacksmith thought him skilled.”

  Revas welcomed families into Elginshire. Unattached tradesmen and landless adventurers always brought trouble. “See he doesn’t spend too much of his time in the alehouse.”

  “I’ll put the Grant lad to watching for him there.”

  Scooping up a handful of the pine-scented soap he favored, Revas lathered his hair and torso. “What of commerce?”

  Brodie returned the flower pennies to the box and closed the lid. “Gordon’s factor came to purchase salt. Maclean declares that the lambing is nigh. Father Thomas returned this afternoon. Lady Meridene went to see him. I fear their meeting went poorly for our cleric. He twice misspoke at Vespers and shouted at the almoner.”

  Revas could imagine the loyal and blue-blooded Thomas chiding Meridene for her request. He could better envision her wrath. He’d tell Thomas that the matter was closed. More amiable subjects awaited. “The old hunting lodge is yours.”

  “My thanks. I’ve always wanted such a place.”

  “You’ve earned it, my friend. I’m building a new one in the last bend of Serpent Creek.”

  “ ’Tis a bonny spot. I wondered why you returned with so little game. I thought ’twas the company of Lord Randolph.”

  The idea of building a new lodge had come after a hotfoot ride through the forest. When exhaustion had eluded Revas, he spent the day felling trees in frustration. He wielded the axe in hopes of oblitera
ting thoughts of Meridene, that kiss, and the passionate consummation his body craved. Once begun, the construction of the lodge provided a needed diversion. The arrival of Randolph Macqueen had cut short the work.

  “I’m naming it Macduff’s Halt.”

  “Why?”

  Revas rinsed the soap from his hair, then began scrubbing the rest of his body. “ ’Tis where my patience ends.”

  “Your patience for the charms of a raven-haired maiden?”

  Her promise to look favorably on her new life bolstered Revas’s good humor. “Aye.”

  “Pray she never goes there.”

  “If she does, she’ll forfeit her innocence, for I vow, Brodie, I have only so many weapons against her.”

  “But the rewards will be great. Think of the sons she will give you.”

  “And the lassies.”

  “Have you told Gibby of the Maiden’s arrival?”

  Thoughts of his ten-year-old daughter made Revas smile. “Aye. When I mentioned that the wood-carver was making flower pennies, she pledged to earn the very first one.”

  Staring into the now-blazing fire, Brodie smiled fondly. “When will you tell Lady Meridene about Gibby?”

  Revas reached for a drying cloth and stepped from the tub. “Soon. My lady will be drawing the name of another handmaiden. I’ll invite Gibby to the ceremony.”

  “Pray she doesn’t put her name in the pot.”

  “Worry not. Gibby loves her grandparents well. She’ll not leave their tender care.” He sat before the fire and drew on his trunk hose. “Now. I’ve a perverse desire to see Randolph’s face when he sets eyes on my bride.”

  “If he wants to greet her properly, he’ll have to pry young Ellen off his arm.”

  “Tomorrow will find her smitten with some other lad.”

  “Will the morrow find Lady Meridene smitten with you?”

  Feeling lighthearted, Revas stretched. “I predict there will be smiles at table tonight.”

  The boast proved true. Almost. But the smiles were not of the kind he’d hoped for.

  CHAPTER

  7

  From the moment Meridene opened her door, she knew trouble was afoot. Scrubbed and groomed and garbed in black trunk hose and a short black tunic trimmed in gold braid, Revas Macduff looked like a man living his destiny. His head appeared naked for lack of a crown.

  In his hands he held a small chest. “For you. Something you never thought to see.”

  Was he giving her his mother’s jewels? No. His father had been a butcher and his mother left them for a fisherman. Meridene relaxed, for she could with good grace refuse any gift, save his family heirlooms.

  She took the chest. “Come in.”

  As was his habit, he went to the loom. “You look bonny in that dress.”

  Her surcoat was a perfect match to his tunic. The garments were cut of the same cloth; even the golden trimmings and belts were exactly alike. “Ellen told you that I had chosen this gown tonight.”

  “Aye.”

  Honesty did not excuse his maneuvering. “Then you sent her on an errand.”

  “ ’Twas you who told her to attend Randolph.”

  “Have you matched our entire wardrobes?”

  “Nay. I’d look foolish in pink silk.”

  The remark did not shock her; she was growing accustomed to his irreverent humor. “Then allow me to exchange this gown for the pink.”

  “Certainly.” He sat down in the chair, as if to watch.

  “You’re despicable.”

  “Nay. I’m hungry, and you haven’t opened your gift.”

  Had she hurt his feelings? Yes, if his disappointment was as earnest as his admission. Just hours ago he had allowed her to petition the church for an annulment. Now he connived to present them as man and wife. That or watch her disrobe.

  She’d look at his gift and decide if she could, in good faith, keep it. Then she’d send him ahead to table and don a different overdress.

  Expecting a scarf or a set of knives, she lifted the lid. Her animosity fled, for the chest was filled with wooden coins. They were called flower pennies and were the subject of a fairy tale. Her grandmother had had one of the trinkets, and it was so old, the edges were worn smooth and the wood darkened with age.

  A fond image danced on the edge of her memory. She’d been five years old and fretful after the long journey to Sweetheart Abbey and the endless ceremony betrothing her to Moray’s heir. John Balliol, the king of Scotland at the time, had been in attendance. Her maternal grandmother, who lived in that faraway place, had also been there. After giving Meridene the ancient penny, Grandmama told her a story of a beloved wife who had been captured by the enemy. As ransom, the husband forfeited all of the gold in his kingdom. But the moment the evil villain touched the coins, they turned to wood.

  The story had cheered Meridene then. It confused her now. How had Revas known of the tale? The Covenant? Yes. Her instincts told her that the ransomed wife had been one of the Maidens of Inverness, another fact her mother had omitted.

  “You read about the flower pennies in the Covenant,” she said.

  “Aye, and your handmaidens argued over what you would do when you opened the chest. Serena said you would cry.” He peered at her dry eyes. “Good. I worried that the pennies would distress you. Most Scottish things do.”

  “With good cause.”

  “I cannot dispute that.”

  “Yet you seek to change it.”

  “So I’ve said. Lisabeth, however, predicted that you would count them twice. Why would she say that?”

  Meridene was trying to teach the girl to cipher. “Because she cannot correctly sum three and four, and she refuses to learn.”

  He folded his arms over his chest, revealing the war bracelets. Against his elegant black clothing, the manly symbols appeared harmless ornaments. But, as Meridene was coming to realize, Revas Macduff was anything but harmless.

  “Care you to guess what Ellen said?” he asked.

  She had agreed to enjoy herself while here in Scotland. He had made promises, too, but he wasn’t bound to keep them. Bother it. His honor or lack of it was his own affair. Happiness was hers. “Did Ellen dance around the room?”

  “Nay. ’Twas much more dramatic. In the words of our most fervent romantic, you will fall swooning at my feet, and to revive you, I must anoint your wrists and a spot just here—” he touched his neck below his ear “—with lavender water. Then I’m to take up the harp and sing your melancholy away to the depths of gloom.”

  He made it sound both preposterous and possible at once. Yet beneath the contradiction, his affection for the girl shone clear. Meridene replied in the only way she could. “It befits her nature to think up such a thing.”

  “She also predicted that a touch of your hand would turn the flower pennies back to gold.”

  He knew the details of the story. Or had he embellished the legend? To learn the answer, she must ask him, thereby admitting she had not been allowed to read the Covenant, or she could bide her time, gain access to the book, and glean the truth.

  Be cheerful, she told herself. “A valuable skill in a wife, turning wood to gold.”

  “Aye. Especially if we lived in a forest.”

  His good humor reached out to her. “How would we keep warm?”

  He opened his mouth, but decided against saying whatever was on his tongue. A moment later, he said, “A point well made. Dear Ellen will need your patience and guidance more than Lisabeth and Serena.”

  He allowed Meridene to think he’d let her return to England, but he acted as if she had no intention of leaving. The assumption shouldn’t have surprised her, for she was coming to learn that stalwart perfectly suited her husband’s methods.

  Resolve described hers. “Passing out a few keepsakes to deserving children and advising Ellen does not mean that I wish to be your wife.”

  “Nay.” His gaze was steady, his mood suddenly serious. “And refusing both the gift and the custom renders
you petty beyond salvation.”

  He excelled at drawing her into intimate discussions. Theirs was a pretend marriage made by an English king whose purpose had died with him. Revas had discovered a different use for those vows, and for the second time, Meridene Macgillivray found herself a pawn in Scottish politics. But giving flower pennies to Serena, Lisabeth, and Ellen was a small concession.

  Meridene closed the lid on the chest. “To which one shall I give the first penny?”

  “To me, of course. ’Twas my idea.”

  He shouldn’t make her laugh. She shouldn’t enjoy their verbal jousts or his company.

  He pointed to his boots. “Unless you’d like to try Ellen’s method of gratitude.”

  The challenge in his eyes begged for a clever reply, for he suggested she fall at his feet. Applauding herself, she said, “Do you sing?”

  “Do you swoon?”

  Lord, he was clever. “Not with any grace.”

  “Then we are, as you often say, well met.”

  The room grew warm and close, and Meridene had the oddest feeling of comfort, of familiarity. At that moment, she felt as if she’d known Revas Macduff all of her life. In some ways, she was forced to admit, she had, for when she recalled the most important events, Revas had been there.

  His appreciative gaze settled on her unbound hair. “You do that gown justice and more.”

  She held out the skirt of her surcoat. “Allow me to change in private.”

  “You cannot unlace that garment and don another without assistance. At this moment, I am your only choice of handmaiden. Since you refused my offer of aid, you are done up for the night, Meridene.”

  “But I look like I belong to you.”

  Rather than crow with self-importance, he frowned and shook his head. “I doubt anyone will notice me. They’ll all be admiring you.”

  He’d been conniving, a trait at which he excelled. “All? Who have you invited?”

  Standing, he offered her his hand. “Just the lads and a few pretty lassies. And if Randolph Macqueen plays the gallant, I’ll rescue you.”

  As it happened, Randolph Macqueen played both friend and fiend. Darkly handsome, with a smile that would enchant a city of women, Summerlad’s brother sat at the far end of the high table. Lisabeth and Ellen hung on his every word.

 
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