Border lord, p.20

Border Lord, page 20

 

Border Lord
 



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  "We're starting anew, my lord," she said with the dignity of a queen.

  Duncan thought about her life as a diplomat, the slander she'd faced, the spoiled heads of state who probably treated her no better than a servant. He cringed to think she might group him with that selfish lot. He quaked at the thought of putting his fate and the future of all he held dear in her hands.

  Pledging caution, he smiled tentatively and gave her a salute with his mug. "To a new beginning?"

  She nodded and returned the salute. "What started the trouble between you and Sinclair?"

  Duncan stared at the empty scabbard above the fireplace. "None of the other mediators cared."

  "I do. There's more to peace than boundaries and legal writs. There are feelings—pride, revenge. There's the past and those who set the troubles in motion. I'm here to stop it. Help me, Duncan."

  The years rolled back, exposing Duncan to the pain of his childhood. "Do you remember when we talked about my father?"

  "Um hum." Kindness twinkled in her eyes. "The Grand Reiver who favored farthingales to carriages and scorned a lad who liked to scour ruins. Tell me more about him."

  How could she, with a few words, make him feel like pouring out his heart to her? I'm better than the others, she'd said last night. He was beginning to think it was true. But could he truly trust her when her future was also at stake? He didn't know.

  He told her a common fact. "As if it were his right, my father raided Birmingham lands—they were called that until the baron arrived. In an attempt to expand his kingdom, Kenneth Kerr drove out English farmers, then uprooted Kildalton tenants and forced them to settle the vacated lands. He separated families and violated betrothals. The seventh earl was a merciless, uncaring man."

  "Not at all like you," she said, a note of reassurance in her voice.

  She could have stroked his cheek, so comforting were her words. "After my father's death, I called on Birmingham and offered to return the land between here and Hadrian's Wall and move the tenants back to Kildalton. He was a fair fellow and more interested in his family and his coal concern in Newcastle than he was his Border lands."

  With her fingernail, she drew a line through the condensation on her tankard. "He refused your offer?"

  "Aye. He wanted peace, said let bygones be bygones. So we did. But I saved all my profits from those lands for Birmingham's two daughters."

  "They would be Adrienne and Roxanne."

  "Aye." Duncan had no intention of telling her that last summer he'd given the money to Charles as a dowry for Adrienne. The money had helped them start a new life in Barbados, the girl's only letter had said.

  "How long did the peace last?"

  Fond memories turned sour. Duncan drank deeply of the beer, but even his favorite brew couldn't wash away the bitterness. "Until a year after his death. Then Birmingham's widow married Sinclair. The raids began, and the first of your predecessors appeared."

  Unaffected, she said, "Who was the mediator and what happened?"

  Duncan had been so naive at the time. It had cost him dearly. "He was Avery Chilton-Wall."

  He expected surprise from her. She merely nodded. "What happened?"

  "Sinclair offered him a bribe. I offered him a greater sum. He took both and bought the post of magistrate."

  "I'll replace him with a fair man."

  Duncan studied her beautiful features, her luminous blue eyes, her sensuous lips, her glorious hair. What would it take to sway her? He didn't know. "Can you truly? Have you the power?"

  She held her thumb and forefinger an inch apart. "Last spring I came this close to having the constable of France removed. He thought it prudent to change his views on the placement of French troops."

  Fascinated, yet realistic, Duncan said, "You won't change Baron Sinclair."

  Challenge glittered in her eyes. "I changed you. What happened next?"

  "The baron brought in mercenaries—I described the leaders to you. Then the war began in earnest."

  "You told me earlier you never retaliated. Would you care to amend that statement?"

  He wondered when she'd bring up the Border Lord. "Aye. I hire a fellow named Ian."

  Her eyes drifted out of focus. She was remembering last night. So was he, and fondly.

  "He calls himself the Border Lord," she said, still staring at nothing.

  Duncan put his empty tankard on the table. "What does the baron say about him?"

  Suddenly alert, she filled the mug. "Here. I shan't tell you what he said. 'Twould only anger you, as your statement would him."

  He took the mug when he wanted to throw it across the room, throw her over a horse and disappear into his lair in Hadrian's Wall.

  "Drink up," she said. "You told me you were as thirsty as a smoked salmon."

  Was she trying to get him drunk? Yes, he decided. The Border Lord had told her the earl couldn't handle strong drink. Considering all the roles he'd played of late, a tipsy nobleman seemed easy.

  "What did you do while Ian was retrieving your property?" she asked, giving him that trumped-up smile.

  "I again went to Chilton-Wall for help. He said for a price he would intervene. So I started selling salt to the duke of Cromarty in order to pay off the magistrate."

  "Did the raids stop?"

  "No, but the killing did—for a time."

  She lifted her eyebrows. "What started it again?"

  "The baron had the bletherin gall to try to blackmail me. A Scot! 'Twas unthinkable."

  Interest smoothed out her features. What had he said that concerned her so? "Why are you looking at me like that?"

  She took a drink, then used a napkin to clean the moisture from the bottom and sides of the mug, and wipe a ring from the table. She took great care to fold the napkin. "'Twas nothing. Please go on."

  If her look meant nothing, then he was the Great Bruce come back to life. "Tell me."

  Her eyes met his and she studied him so closely he almost squirmed. "Very well," she said reluctantly. "I think, for all your clipped English speech, you're a Scotsman at heart, Duncan Kerr. Even though you try your best to hide it, you ken? You have changed—for the better."

  Her insight and quickness astounded him. Her smile and cordiality affected him in a more intimate and base way. If she only knew how much he was hiding, he'd be dungeon deep in the Tower of London. When he wanted to be eight inches deep in her.

  Remembering the half-witted earl he was trying to reform, Duncan said, "I won't be grouped with barbarians."

  She laughed again. "There's no chance of that, I promise you. I haven't seen a true barbarian since I visited the steppes of Russia. Tell me what happened next."

  Lulled by her cordiality, Duncan stared at the framed tapestry on a stand by the fireplace. He thought of the long hours of their lovemaking. Their closeness. The passionate Miriam clutching him, calling him a scoundrel for denying her the hasty release she craved. The surprised Miriam, proud of herself at making a jest. The sated Miriam, shy about discussing her pleasure and naively inquisitive about his.

  "Duncan? You were telling me about the baron's galling attempt to blackmail you. What happened after that?"

  Taking a deep breath, he dredged up the biggest mistake of his life.

  12

  With mixed feelings, Miriam watched him struggle to say the words that obviously pained him. She loved many aspects of her work. Prying into a person's sorrow was not one of them. But for all his declarations of innocence, the shy, charming earl could still lie, and very convincingly; any man trying to maintain control of his kingdom would. It was up to her to sift through his words and find chips of information with which to bargain.

  Softly she said, "A lasting peace may hang in the balance, Duncan. Please tell me what you did to solve the problems."

  He put a hand to his forehead as if to rake his hand through his hair. Just as his fingertips touched the wig, he stopped. Again she played a guessing game about the color of his hair. Brown, she decided, same as
his eyebrows.

  "I made an offer of marriage for Roxanne Birmingham."

  Miriam remembered the framed likeness of the countess of Kildalton that hung in the portrait gallery at Sinclair's. Captured for eternity with a maidenly smile and haunted brown eyes, the jet-haired beauty had looked infinitely lonely to Miriam. The earl seemed haunted, too, at the mention of his lost love. But Miriam had to know just how deeply the baron had offended Duncan Keir. Only when their pride had been salved could she engineer a peace that would satisfy them both.

  Compassion came naturally to Miriam; she'd learned early in life to say good-bye to those she loved. "Your countess was a beautiful woman. I'm so sorry she died."

  Brackets of anger framed the earl's mouth. "I wish the baron had shared your sentiments. He mourned the loss of her as countess of Kildalton—grieved over losing the title more than the passing of the woman."

  Miriam looked beyond his pain to decipher the essence of his meaning. "Are you saying the baron tricked you into offering for her in order to get your title?"

  "No." He shook his head sadly. "I made that folly on my own."

  Folly? According to the baron, his stepdaughter had wanted the match. He, however, had wanted her to marry a wealthy merchant who resided in London. The baron had bragged about using Duncan's first marriage contract for kindling. "What did the baron say? Did he refuse your first offer?"

  On a half-laugh, the earl said, "He tossed the contract into the fire, but I had a duplicate. Roxanne cried and locked herself in her room until he relented."

  So, on the matter of the contract, Duncan and Sinclair both told the same story. It was a small step, but a significant one, for it meant they could occasionally see things from the same perspective. "Roxanne loved you."

  He grew pensive. "I suppose. She'd known me all of her life. She was a shy, quiet lass who favored books and chess and country life." A sad and guilty sheen appeared in his eyes. "She wed me to escape a marriage to a London merchant the baron had arranged for her." In a barely audible murmur, he said, "No great passion blazed between us, but we were comfortable. We were friends."

  Miriam compared the two households, so different in ambience and style. The peaceful order of Kildalton contrasted with the noisy disarray of Sinclair. The word "friend" lingered in her mind. For a short time, Roxanne had been fortunate in her marriage. "I imagine you made her very happy."

  Fondness wreathed him. "She gave me Malcolm." He grinned, looking unexpectedly handsome. "Although at times I'm tempted to give him back."

  Miriam's heart ached. For five short years, she'd been the joy of her parents' life. But a Dutchman cum English king and a band of merciless Highlanders had stolen her family and all she'd held dear. Without even a reprimand, the Glenlyon Campbells had gone on their merry way. But not forever.

  Shelving those thoughts for later, she said, "He's a fine boy. Thanks to you, he knows more about the great men of England than most of the queen's ambassadors. Thank you for encouraging him to respect Saladin's religion."

  Like casting off a cloak, he threw off his melancholy. "There's a braw laddie. That Saladin almost ran me through with that wicked scimitar of his. Did he tell you about pinning me to the curtain wall?"

  A second truth. Miriam smiled. "He's made great progress in only a few years."

  "I don't understand."

  She did something she'd never even considered before meeting the earl of Kildalton; she told a stranger about that day at the slave market in Constantinople.

  Pale with shock and indignation, he crossed his legs and said, "You mean the man bidding against you would have… have unmanned them?"

  "Yes. They would've become eunuchs before you could've said, 'hand me a flippity-flop.'"

  "To think I defended the Muslims to Malcolm. I'll not make that mistake again."

  His misguided vehemence wouldn't do at all. "'Twasn't religion but custom that almost cost the twins their manhood."

  "Truly?" His brows shot up and his green eyes glittered with interest. "Do tell me more about the Byzantines. Malcolm wrote a glowing piece on Suleiman, you know. The Magnificent."

  As she drank from the mug, Miriam phrased a dissertation on the politics of King Ahmed III, but stopped short of speaking when she realized the earl had gotten her off the subject of his marriage agreement. Had he done it on purpose? She searched his pleasant features for a sign of subterfuge. She found a curious, handsome man. Surprised by the observation, she said, "'Twould bore you to tears." When he looked as if he would argue, she said, "Another time, then. But now we have the matter of Baron Sinclair's claims to discuss."

  "Claims?" he scoffed. "That brigand takes what he wants and burns what he can't carry. You must stop him."

  The baron's opinion of the earl had been patently similar. He claimed Duncan Kerr was a deceiving Scotsman cut of the same ruthless cloth as his father, the Grand Reiver. Avery Chilton-Wall had corroborated the statement. The duchess of Perth had deferred to her duke, who'd curled his lip and ranted about the despicable crimes of Kenneth Kerr. By turn, each man had cursed the seventh earl and condemned, by heredity, the eighth.

  Miriam discounted the magistrate's opinion and thought the duke spoke to hear himself talk, but the baron's comparison of the current earl of Kildalton to his cruel father troubled her. Duncan hadn't led those raids on Sinclair's land, Ian had. Yet as the Border Lord, her lover had been accused of nothing more than turning a cow's milk sour and stealing the affection of women prone to melancholy. If the earl was hiding a darker side, she'd be surprised and disappointed. Judging character was her strong point.

  In some aspects, the baron and the earl were alike. Both wanted peace, but their approaches to the problems were vastly, culturally different. One similarity lay in the fact that they both hired out their raiding, which she intended to stop. The other problems between them required all of her expertise.

  Expecting an outraged reaction, she said, "He wants you to return his stepdaughter's dowry." He wanted Malcolm, too, but Miriam wasn't ready to broach that appalling topic.

  The earl fell back in his chair, his hands dangling over the arms. "Now that would start a war a dozen Border Lords couldn't finish."

  Caught off guard at the mention of her lover, Miriam moved to set her mug on the table, but it slipped. Trying to catch it, she only succeeded in tumbling it. "Oh!" Pewter clattered against the hearth. The remaining drops of beer sizzled on the warm stone.

  "I've frightened you," he said. "Do forgive me. But I told you about Ian. He's no ghost."

  She grabbed the fallen tankard and put it on the table. You hurt my feelings, she wanted to say. You laughed at me. You called me fanciful. She'd come here to help him, and he'd made a fool of her. She'd been treated with disrespect before. Then, as now, she must put aside her personal feelings and get on with the job.

  She took a deep breath and thought about her reward. "You didn't frighten me, and I agree with you."

  His interested gaze held her immobile. "Do you know him well, Miriam?"

  She tried to stop herself from blushing. She failed.

  He grinned.

  Annoyed at herself for equivocating and piqued by his amusement, Miriam picked up the thread of the conversation. "We were speaking of the dowry."

  "Roxanne willed her land, which lies between here and Hadrian's Wall, to Malcolm. She, too, wanted peace. Everyone does. Except the baron."

  Years of practice had taught Miriam to ignore bickering insults and find the solid, legal facts on which to build a compromise. "Have you her wishes in writing and properly witnessed?"

  He leveled her a look that said, What do you take me for, a niddering poltroon who favors brook trout to women? But he said, "Of course. I have the other copy of the marriage contract, too."

  Through the jumble her thoughts had become, real success beckoned. "May I see the papers, please?"

  He grasped the chair arms, sprang to his feet, and went to the desk, all traces of a limp gone. Pulling a key
from his breeches pocket, he unlocked a drawer. Paper rattled. When he returned, he handed her two rolled documents, aged and beribboned.

  Her palms grew damp as she unfurled one of the yellowed parchments. Adorned with official seals and illuminated by an overly fanciful scribe who favored primroses and broad-leaf ivy to the more traditional cinquefoils and Celtic knots, the marriage agreement confirmed her dowry: the land from Hadrian's Wall north to Kildalton. Reading the other parchment brought a thickness to Miriam's throat. In her own swirling hand, the late countess of Kildalton had indeed bequeathed the disputed land and her pearl necklace to Malcolm. Her clothing, embroidery frames, and bride's chest she had passed on to her younger sister, Adrienne.

  Miriam dropped the documents in her lap where they again curled into rolls. A pearl necklace. The simplicity of a dying mother's one personal gift to her infant son made Miriam want to cry.

  "Well?" said the earl, impatience making him look very much like the portrait of the Grand Reiver that hung in the keeping room. When, she wondered, had she stopped seeing him as the bumbling earl? The answer banished her pity. She'd begun seeing the earl as a man the instant he'd begun to behave like a kind and decent fellow instead of a niddering poltroon who favored brook trout to women.

  "What's wrong, Miriam?"

  "Nothing," she rushed to say. "These are quite in order. It was very clever and generous of you to ask only for the land your father took as Roxanne's dowry. You made amends for your father's crimes when you could have asked for more."

  He stared at the smoldering coals in the hearth, giving her an unobstructed view of his elegant profile. He seemed so at home in the room filled with books, heavy furniture, and Kerr memorabilia.

  "I wanted an end to the dispute," he said at last.

  Casually, she said, "Where is Adrienne?"

  He turned so fast he almost slung the spectacles off his nose. "Uh… I wish I could tell you. Unlike her sister, Adrienne was ever headstrong. I couldn't possibly hazard a guess about where the lass has gotten herself to."

  Disappointed, Miriam strummed her fingers on the arm of the chair. He was lying. "According to her personal maid and the baron, Adrienne considered you her brother. Both say she spent weeks here after the death of your wife. She came here often until the time of her disappearance."

 
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