The border series, p.14

The Border Series, page 14

 

The Border Series
 



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  Miriam didn’t need a flawless memory to recall the earl’s manly parts. The tightening, curling sensations that coiled in her belly reminded her in a more vivid way. Worse, she was beginning to feel attracted to the gentle earl, a man who bore no resemblance to the charging, gallant knight of her dreams.

  The Border Lord.

  The realization both frightened and exhausted her. Without objectivity she might fail. That she couldn’t afford, because too much was at stake.

  Fighting off untimely fantasies, she eased inside the door, lighted the candle, and began mapping the corridors. Using the tunnel door where she’d entered and the tapestry-draped door near the lesser hall as points of reference, she cited each exit from the musty tunnel. This morning she’d hidden in an alcove and quaked with fear as the earl passed her. Now she knew that she’d been standing by the door to the stair tower. The earl had entered the tunnel from his study. She resisted the urge to search his room for evidence of his involvement in the raids on Sinclair’s land; she’d have time for that later.

  She’d also have time to explore the stair tower that spiraled into graying darkness. Using the same deductive skill that allowed her to look at the weavers sticks and picture the plaid the pattern would weave, Miriam diagrammed the dark passages. When she had fixed in her mind a picture of the warrenlike tunnels, she stepped out into the garden and locked the door.

  She found a hiding place in the shadows. She sat back against the wall, her knees drawn to her chest, the cloak pooling around her. She had yawned only twice when the Border Lord entered the garden.

  Her heart clamored in her breast and a slow heat brought dampness to her skin. Years ago in a Russian forest, she’d sat in an iron-barred wagon and watched a snow leopard stalk a reindeer. Danger had consumed her then; it fascinated her now.

  In unhurried, powerful strides, the Border Lord passed the fountain. His cape billowed, and he appeared a liquid shadow, moving past the urns and out of sight.

  The crunching of his boots on the gravel stopped. Silence, save the soothing sound of rushing water, fell over the night. Miriam’s pulse accelerated.

  “Bletherin wench!” he spat and kicked or pounded on the door. “She locked the door.”

  Confidence shaved the edge off her anxiety. She decided to observe him for a while. Cupping her hands over her mouth, she breathed deeply, the metallic smell of the ancient key still on her hands, the anticipation of the man filling her senses.

  What would he do?

  He paced like a caged animal. He cursed her in the language of her youth. He called her a meddling harlot with the common sense of a Cornishman and the stubbornness of a Highlander. He swore to wring her neck and teach her a lesson about meddling in his affairs.

  Let him try, she thought. She could handle him.

  Suddenly he stopped and seemed to stare straight through her. Then he marched to a bench near the fountain and plopped down, his elbows braced on his knees, his palms supporting his chin. Like a mask, his hat brim cast a curving shadow over his eyes and the bridge of his nose.

  “What to do,” he mused. “What to do.”

  The despair in his voice called across the few feet that separated them. She longed for the sunlight or even the flame of the half-burned candle in her pocket. She couldn’t risk detection, yet the unknown aspects of the dark stranger played havoc with her judgment. Why was he here? What shade of dark brown were his eyes?

  Despite the dim light she could tell he’d been blessed with appealing, manly features. Soft, insistent lips that had kissed away her maidenly objections were now pulled in tight anger. Broad shoulders and the strong arms that had caressed and sheltered her, were now slumped, weighted by some heavy burden. A burden she craved to lift.

  But unlike composing betrothals and divvying up shipping routes, eavesdropping on a man in such obvious misery suddenly seemed a dishonorable act.

  “You’ve brewed yourself a bonnie kettle of fish,” he said, the burr in his voice like a melancholy song. “If you canna get the wench from your mind, how in the name of Saint Columba, can you get her to see the truth? She isna different from the other silk-stockinged macaronis who footle into the Borders and swear they can strike a peace.” He chuckled without humor. “Except that she doesna ease her lust on the chambermaids or fatten her purse on Kildalton’s gold.

  “Why?” he beseeched the moon. “Why did you send us a kinswoman who rescues lost lassies and devils my nights? I canna decide what to do—strangle her or love her to death. God a’mercy, auld heart. We want the lass.”

  Stunned, Miriam swallowed to ease the tightness in her throat. He spoke with pained ambivalence and longing. Her heart ached with the need to comfort him and to believe him.

  Sighing, he slapped his thigh and smiled. “Bonny wrappings or no, she’ll decide in the baron’s favor. She canna help herself.” Glancing over his shoulder, he stared up at her window. “Nor can I.”

  He shot to his feet and retraced his steps. Bracing his hands on his waist, he tilted back his head and growled a wicked taunt up at her window. A moment later he snatched up a handful of pebbles and tossed them.

  Rocks tinkled against glass. Verbatim appeared at the window, her black nose framed between the velvet drapes.

  The Border Lord grabbed another handful of rocks. “Miriam,” he whispered urgently.

  A thrill coursed through her, and she hugged her knees to keep from leaping to her feet and answering his call. She had to know what he intended to do.

  “I’ll give her to the count of ten.” He resumed pacing. “If she doesna open the window and give me that bletherin key, I’ll make her sorry she stepped her dainty feet in the Borders.”

  Miriam’s high spirits sank like a stone. He didn’t want her. He wanted the key. But how did he know she’d taken it? The earl had told him. That possibility fostered a dozen more questions and twice as many suspicions. Just how close were those two men?

  “Stop dallying, you nosey beastie,” he called up to Verbatim, “and fetch the lass.” Again he showered the glass with pebbles. “One…”

  Verbatim dashed away from the window. The curtains fell back into place.

  “Two…” Silhouetted against the gray stone, the Border Lord looked an imposing figure. He radiated anger, impatience, and manliness that lured her like a miser to a gold mine.

  Verbatim came back to the window, her head cocked in question.

  “Rouse her, you overgrown lapdog.”

  Verbatim whined, her breath fogging the panes. Miriam fumed. Even if the Border Lord was acting out her romantic fantasy, he was doing it for the wrong reasons. How dare he say he wanted her one moment, then insult her the next? It was time to teach this despotic Scotsman a lesson in manners. Yet a part of her longed for a man strong enough to match her own will and honest enough to admit he desired her.

  She pushed back the hood of her cloak and prepared to reveal herself, but stopped, for the Border Lord began to scale the castle wall.

  Miriam’s breath lodged in her throat. How could so large a man find purchase in the smooth stone?

  In the pearly moonlight, his arms stretched over his head, he moved like a leopard climbing a tree. She almost called him back, for if he injured himself she’d feel responsible. On the other hand, he deserved to see where a fit of angry impatience would land him.

  His grunts of exertion echoed off the stone walls. Between breaths he continued to call her names and promise retribution.

  She got to her feet and tiptoed to the squat door in the garden wall, the fountain masking the sound of her steps. She had to make him think she was just entering the garden and had not overheard his dilemma. Let him believe she came running at his command.

  From her vantage point she saw him struggle, now about ten feet in the air, but at least another ten feet from the window. When he was an arm’s length from the ledge, he lost his footing. He plummeted like a wounded bird and landed on the ground with a grunt and a whoosh of air.

 
; Panic held her motionless. Never had she caused another person pain. What if he were paralyzed? Or dead?

  “Damn bloody female.”

  Relief swamped her.

  He struggled to his feet and reached again for a handhold. “I’ll turn her over my knee and whack that delectable bottom until she begs for mercy. She wilna sit for a week! Or poke her perky nose where it doesna belong.”

  Incensed, Miriam ground her teeth. Whack her, would he? Let the miserable cur try.

  His curses and insults continued as he slowly retraced his vertical path. His hand touched the ledge below the window.

  “Rouse yourself, my wee, meddlesome diplomat,” he said in a harsh whisper.

  Miriam said, “Impossible, for I’m wide awake.”

  “What?” He grunted. In a swirl of dark shadows and flailing arms and legs, he tumbled to the ground again. His torso lay between the box hedges, his booted feet exposed to the moonlight.

  Fear cut a path through her triumph. She rushed to him.

  A heap of cloth and lost dignity, he didn’t move. His hat had come off, and his hair lay like a black cap over his head. His face looked inordinately pale against his ebony clothing, the arching of his black eyebrows distinctive even in the dim light.

  She dropped to her knees and felt his throat for a pulse. The throb of life brought a slight relief, but the warmth of his skin, his distinctive male scent, and the stubble on his jaw stirred her in a different and feminine way.

  Leaning close, she turned her cheek to his face and felt the slow rush of his breath. His eyes opened.

  “You came to me, lassie,” he whispered. “I didna think you would.”

  Miffed, she said, “How can you speak such romance when you’re lying flat on your back? Are you hurt? Have you broken anything?”

  He slipped a hand around her neck and pulled her toward him. “Only my heart, Miriam,” he said, a fevered tremor in his voice. “’Twas your doing. Heal me.”

  The seductive words fanned the embers of her desire. But practicality had for too long been her soulmate. She drew back. “No. You lied to me about who you are.”

  “Ah, lassie. ’Twas but a wee stretch of the truth, and one you shouldna hold against me.”

  “You’re no swineherd. Who are you?”

  “I’m a man with few choices and fewer joys. Be my joy tonight.”

  Temptation dragged at her. He was the embodiment of her fantasies. He was a silver-tongued devil. “You want the key to the castle, not me.”

  “I’d hoped for both.”

  “If you want to go into the castle, why don’t you knock on the front door? And don’t concoct another lie about sow’s hair for the earl’s fishing flies.”

  “Because the housekeeper claims I’m her great-grandsire.”

  “Mrs. Elliott is much too practical for such nonsense. Tell me the truth.”

  He freed a strand of her hair and brought it to his nose. Inhaling, he said, “I’d rather talk about your hair. It smells like a summer garden. ’Tis a truth I’ll swear to.”

  Like the tide raking the beach, his tender words dragged at her will to resist. “I don’t trust you.”

  “Trust doesna come so quickly to people like you and me.

  “What do you mean?”

  He tugged gently on the lock of her hair, pulling her over him again. “You’re a fighter, Miriam MacDonald. You wilna stand by and let others wage your battles. The only battle you fight is with yourself. Over your desire for me. You’ll win, lassie. I trow you always do.”

  She hadn’t expected praise from this rogue. “You’re bold.”

  “Aye,” he said, the warmth of his lips teasingly close. “I’m fair smitten. Kiss me. I need you.”

  Lost and weak with yearning, she touched her mouth to his. Like a long awaited reunion with a cherished friend, the moment stretched out, the anticipation driving away reason and logic, leaving her with a longing so real her body strained to get closer, to get caught up again in the spell only he could weave.

  When his mouth slanted across hers and his tongue stabbed past her teeth, her eyes drifted shut and she gave herself up to his demanding mastery. Nimble fingers cradled her face and held her still while he performed a ravishing dance of advance and retreat. Keenly attuned to him, she felt his desperation, and ignoring the consequences, sought to feed his desire.

  “You taste like paradise,” he murmured, and drew her over him.

  Thrilled by his words and emboldened by the feel of his long body beneath hers, she admitted, “I want to taste you, too.”

  He half-chuckled, half-growled. “Doona expect resistance from me, love. I’m as agreeable as a Cameron on campaign.”

  She settled herself on top of him, legs tangled with legs, chest against breast. She moved slightly. Something stabbed her in the ribs. Sliding her hand between them, she searched his belt and encountered a hairbrush. How odd. Angling it toward the moon, she tried to examine it. “Why are you carrying this?”

  His hand closed over hers and slid the wooden handle from her palm. She felt the carving of a swan rising from a coronet. The badge of clan Lindsay. It was Betsy’s brush.

  Miriam had known he would avenge the crime, same as he had before. A part of her hated that she’d been right; another part of her applauded his deed.

  “Doona trouble yourself over it,” he said and pulled her close again. “’Tis nothing.”

  His evasive tone sparked her annoyance. She scooted an arm’s length away. Desire evaporated. Looking into the shadows, she tried, without success, to gauge his expression. “Nothing but Mrs. Lindsay’s hairbrush, which was stolen by the baron’s men. How did it end up in your breeches?”

  “I have far more interesting things in my breeches than a hairbrush.”

  “That’s preposterous. The hairbrush is a family heirloom. Where did you get it?”

  He sighed. “I found it near the Wall. I thought the earl would know who it belonged to. Then he could return it, benevolent laird that he is. He’s always concerned about getting possessions to their owners. He’s persnickety about the rights of his people.”

  “He’s a fine man. You shouldn’t belittle him.”

  “In truth, lass,” he said, his voice rife with exasperation, “belittling Duncan Kerr is the last thing on my mind.” Leaning up, he grasped her around the waist. “I’d rather make love to you.”

  She squirmed, but couldn’t free herself from his hold. “A pity, for you’ve broken the mood. Have you spoken to him about the brush?”

  He chuckled, the sound a seductive rumble in his throat. “If you make love half so well as you interrogate, we wilna stop all night.”

  At his seductive words, a shiver played over her skin.

  “Why do they say you’re a ghost who fulfills women’s fantasies?” she asked.

  He heaved a sigh, and with little effort, pulled her onto his chest. “I canna control what other people say.”

  “You’re very much a flesh and blood man.”

  He placed her hand over his chest. “Who should know that better than you, Miriam?”

  “You haven’t adequately answered me.”

  “I canna. Now tell the truth. You want to kiss me.”

  Heaven help her, she did. “I only want to kiss you. Nothing more.”

  Giving him her weight, she cupped his face in her palms. The manly drag of his unshaven jaw made her skin tingle to the tips of her fingers, the lobes of her ears. Following his lead, she tilted her head and began a slow, delicious feast of his mouth. He tasted of unrestrained lust, and he promised the sweet fulfillment of a thousand nights of maidenly dreams. She charted the curve of his lips, the slick, heated skin that beckoned her deeper into a banquet of sensual delights. With the slightest of entreaties, his tongue frolicked with hers, darting away and enticing her on a merry chase that ended in a swirling union so divine she stifled a moan of pleasure. She grew damp and demanding in places that cried out for relief, yet at the same time she begged for him
to stoke the fire.

  Then his hands slid from her face and rummaged through the bulk of her cloak until he found her arms, her waist, and her hips. Easing his legs apart, he cradled her there, his palms kneading, caressing, mapping her bottom, urging her closer to the stark evidence of his desire.

  The circling motion of his hands, sliding the soft wool of her dress against the sheer silk of her chemise, turned her body to liquid need.

  Pulling back, she opened her eyes and focused on his parted lips, now slick from their ardent kisses. Again, she wished for the light of day so she could learn his expressions, watch emotions play upon his features. Even as close as she was to him and as intimately as she felt she knew him, she would not be able to pick him out in a crowd.

  He smiled, revealing straight white teeth. “How’s that for a ghost?”

  “Well…”

  “You want more, don’t you?”

  “Tell me what to do,” she said.

  His hands stilled. The smile faded. An agonized groan passed his lips. “Doona tell me you’re a virgin, lass. Not now.”

  Hearty and strong, his manhood throbbed against her. She felt empty, desperate. A half-truth came to mind. “I’ve never been ravished in a garden ’neath the light of the moon.”

  His eyes narrowed. “There isna enough moonlight for an owl to forage, but I doona need the sun to tell me the truth.”

  Her confidence waned, but her body waxed. “Which is?”

  He lifted her off him. “You’re an innocent.”

  His rejection stung. Rising to her knees, she said, “Ha! I’d hardly call myself that.”

  He sat up and began rubbing his thighs, as if he had a cramp. “Have you stood naked before a man?” One of his hands caressed her breast. “Has he suckled you here?”

  Her nipples tingled. “You’ve no right to ask me that.”

  “I think,” he said thickly and slid his hand lower. “That no man has brought an ache to your belly and touched you—” His fingers wedged their way between her legs. “Here.”

 
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