Border lord, p.22

Border Lord, page 22


Border Lord

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  "Yes, well… They certainly haven't paid for it yet. Everyone has forgotten the Glencoe massacre." Her voice wavered and she sucked in a breath of air.

  "Not I." Duncan gave up the fight, turned her around, and pulled her into his arms. Her cheek fit perfectly in the crook of his shoulder. He stroked her back, thinking that without his high-heeled boots, they were of a complimentary height. "I'm so dreadfully sorry for what was taken from you."

  Her quiet breathing, coming in the choppy cadence that spoke of soul-deep hurt, almost brought Duncan to his knees. He thought of the ways he comforted Malcolm when the lad grew melancholy. "What would your mother say about you being so sad, so secretive, Miriam?" he queried softly. "Please share that day with me."

  In a voice devoid of feeling, she said, "It was very cold in the glen that winter. Papa had taken me to the cottages in town. Six score Campbell soldiers were quartered there. Two of them gave me biscuits and taught me to play at dice. I was four years old. They thought I was older."

  "They came when it was still dark. Nanny was with me."

  She grew taut as a bow string. Duncan rubbed the caps of her shoulders.

  "I was hiding under the bed, but I saw them beat Nanny with a club. I didn't know it at the time, but my mother was already dead. The door opened. Papa stood there, his nightcap on crooked, his sword in his hand. There was blood all over the front of his favorite robe. He killed those two soldiers, then called to me."

  "I wiggled out. He picked me up and hugged me. I felt his sticky blood soaking my nightgown. He shook me. 'Run, Poppin,' he said. 'Run and hide and remember.' "

  "I remember hiding in a peat bin, but I don't know how I got there. They found me the next day. It was the soldier who'd given me a biscuit and told me I'd break a great laird's heart someday. He must've thought I was hurt or dying—because of the bloodstains. I don't know what he thought. But he put me in a cart with the bodies of my mother and father."

  Duncan's heart clenched like a fist in his chest and his throat grew so tight he couldn't have spoken, even if his life had depended on it. He squeezed his eyes shut and willed her to go on.

  "The grave digger pried my hands from my mother's hair," she said, detached. "A church woman bathed and fed me. Sometime later—" She shook her head. Her shoulders quivered. "Days, maybe weeks, I'm not sure of how long. Anne sent Alexis to get me."

  Devastated by her story, Duncan suddenly knew a hatred that made his trouble with Baron Sinclair seem like a petty quarrel. Choked with emotion, he said, "Bless Saint Ninian, you're a brave lass, Miriam MacDonald. Hell's too good for the Glenlyon Campbells."

  Then a subtle change occurred in her pearing, and while he couldn't precisely name it, he sensed she was fighting her demons. There it was—one, long, deep, steadying breath. "I've never told anyone."

  A very special kind of pride infused Duncan. "I know you haven't. Thank you for choosing me." He rocked her from side to side and touched his lips to her temple and lower. "Your mother would be proud of you, you know. Your father's sitting on high boasting over the accomplishments of his lassie."

  Against his cheek, he felt her smile. Good Lord, he thought, no warrior possessed more strength than the slender woman in his arms. He wanted that strength, for himself, for Malcolm, for all the people of Kildalton, forever. He wanted children from her, a flame-haired son he would name Alastair, to honor her father and keep his memory alive.

  At the prospect of loving her, his body came stirringly to life. Heat spiraled through him, settling in his loins. Sweat popped out on his brow. His spectacles began to fog. The spectacles. The bletherin spectacles!

  Frustration seared him. He couldn't make love to her now, not as the earl. Not after the story she'd told him. She might have given her virginity to him and poured out her soul, but she hadn't lost her wits. He could fool her with disguises, but he couldn't fool her in lovemaking. He wasn't that much of an actor. Or a scoundrel.

  When the lenses cleared, he pulled back and guided her to the chair. Ignoring the vacant look in her eyes, he offered her the mug. She drank, drawing his gaze to the slender column of her throat and the steady pulse of life beating there.

  Feeling the utter buffoon, he searched for something to say—anything to put them on even ground. Nothing came to mind, so he watched her cradle the mug in her hands, watched her throat work. He swallowed, too, and looked up to find her studying him.

  "What are you thinking?" He blurted the thought he couldn't disregard.

  The clock ticked away precious moments he craved to reclaim. She lowered the mug and wiped her mouth with her forefinger. "I'm thinking that I'm a very foolish woman who should keep her wretched stories to herself. My apologies."

  He wanted to kiss away her second thoughts and tell her the truth. He wanted to know how she managed to compose herself so completely. "I'm thinking you've been doing that too long," he ventured.

  She stared into the mug. "Doing what? Apologizing or feeling sorry for myself? Or lamenting the fact that the Glenlyons went scot-free? An interesting term, no?"

  Her bitterness gave him pause. At length he said, "Maybe you should forget all of those things, Miriam. Holding a grudge is destructive to the soul."

  Like a curtain, her icy shield fell back into place. "Maybe we should change the subject."

  Before he could argue the point, she rose from her chair, her legs gracefully unfolding, the leather breeches creased in the most interesting of places. He watched her walk to the bookcase.

  As if she were doing nothing more than searching for a text, she scanned the titles before her. "There is one more thing, Duncan."

  He hated that offhand tone, for it always boded ill. Answering in kind, he said, "Oh? What's that?"

  She tipped a leather-bound volume forward and examined the gilt edges of the pages. " 'Tis the matter of the baron's claim to Malcolm."

  Duncan's blood turned to fire. He picked up the tankard and drank deeply, hoping to douse the flames. How dare she fall into his arms one moment and accept his comfort, then in the next moment, try to rip his life apart? He wasn't sure which he hated more, himself for loving her, or life for treating her so cruelly. "Maybe we should change the subject again. Custody of my son is not open to discussion."

  "You can't ignore it. Do you refute the codicil to her Will wherein Roxanne gives her stepfather the right to foster the boy?"

  Her insensitivity chilled him. "The boy?" he said mockingly. "As in—the embroidery frames? The trunks of clothes? Malcolm is not an object or a commodity. And Roxanne wrote the codicil to bring peace to the Borders."

  Her keen gaze bored into him. "Fostering is a common practice throughout England."

  But this is Scotland, he almost shouted, echoing his father's favorite excuse for doing whatever villainy he pleased. The memory yanked Duncan back into himself. Be reasonable, he told himself, you're nothing like the Grand Reiver. Miriam wouldn't win on this point, and she might make him pay in other areas of the negotiations. Surely she felt vulnerable now.

  In his most rational tone, he said, "Discounting the law, which gives me the right to govern all of my property, offspring rudely grouped with chickens and table linens, can you honestly see Malcolm living in that mess the baron calls a household?"

  She quirked her mouth as if to say he had a point. "Well, thank you for your cooperation and the chess—and everything. If you'll excuse me." She headed for the door.

  Shocked that she would just leave, he said, "That's it?"

  She stopped. "No, there is one more thing." Glancing over her shoulder, a thick red braid against her cheek, an odd gleam in her eyes, she said, "The duchess of Perth was correct. There's something very different about you, Duncan. I'll find out what it is."


  Later that day, standing at the window in her chamber, Miriam watched the shadow of the stair tower creep across the yard toward the castle wall. Just as the day was coming to a close, her time in Scotland was coming to an end. She hadn't expected t
o regret leaving the land of her birth. But she hadn't expected to find the Lancelot of her dreams, either.

  Over the scratching of Saladin's quill and the occasional hiss of the peat fire, she heard Verbatim gnawing on a bone.

  Fading sunlight splashed the western sky, transforming a bank of clouds into a treasure chest of amber, garnet, and amethyst. Oh, Scotland, she thought, I remember you as a bleak, loathsome place.

  Thinking of that day twenty years ago, she saw once more a silent, haunted child huddled in a rickety cart between the mutilated bodies of her mother and father. The old pain, heartbreaking and bone-deep, seared Miriam. She bit her lip and began the drill that always chased her demons away. But recalling her accomplishments and counting her blessings couldn't banish her melancholy. She knew why. Earlier today the earl of Kildalton had enticed her into dredging up her painful past.

  In a moment of weakness she'd come close to jeopardizing her career and her future. Thank God she hadn't cried out her frustration, for once the tears had begun, they would have flowed unchecked. Yet even now, the comfort of his embrace reached out to her, urging her to tell him the tale. A crushing weight had robbed her of breath. Duncan Kerr had extended the hand of friendship. He'd showed her his most precious childhood treasure, the chess set. He'd seemed different today. Yet so familiar.

  She remembered vividly the moment solace had become yearning. When his lips had touched her temple and his arms had held her fast, her feelings had taken a decidedly passionate turn. Only one man had held her so. And she'd never considered telling her lover about her past. Why, then, had she told the earl? Because she desired him, too? She couldn't want both men; logic and her own morals told her the folly in that.

  Still, the incongruity plagued her.

  The gentle, bumbling earl had blundered into her heart as easily as the mysterious, domineering Border Lord had stormed her defenses. One offered passion and ecstasy, the other peace and understanding. In his attempt to soothe her, Duncan had spoken of her mother. It was the kindest gesture imaginable, and one Miriam would never forget.

  A draft sailed through the room and stirred the open drapes. She shivered and rubbed her arms to chase away the chill. Verbatim whined.

  Turning, she saw the dog leap to her feet and race across the room. Tail wagging like a flag, the hound poked her keen black nose into the wardrobe.

  Saladin looked up. "What's Verbatim doing?"

  The dog lifted a front paw. "I keep her leash in there. She's anticipating her evening walk," said Miriam. "Which she won't get until we're done. Where were we?"

  Saladin's jet black eyes grew large. "You forgot?"

  Surprised, too, she said, "Yes, it seems I have."

  "But you never forget your place." He rolled his eyes. "Or anything else."

  She'd forgotten more than her place in the correspondence; she'd disregarded her principles and befriended a man who would hate her when she told him the queen would most likely enforce the wishes of his late wife. Unless Miriam could work a miracle, he must surrender his child to his enemy.

  She should have told him today, but indecision and her own melancholy had stopped her. He would learn the bad news soon enough, for she felt honor bound to prepare him. "Where were we, Saladin?"

  Reading from the page, the scribe said, "A new magistrate, less open to bribery and better suited to the rigorous life here, will better serve the cause of peace in the Borders."

  She'd forgotten diplomacy, too. "The last sentence is too blunt." She waited for him to ink the quill. "Change it to read… I'm sure Your Majesty will see the wisdom in dispatching, at your convenience, a new magistrate who is well-versed in local customs. Such a man will better… Go on from there, Saladin."

  Like a double column of soldiers on parade, the problems and solutions of the Borders marched across Miriam's mind. She began to enumerate each of them out loud.

  The quill scratched.

  The dog whined.

  Miriam ignored both, her attention straying from her dictation to the castle yard and the night shadows that swallowed up the light of day. She had the most bizarre compulsion to race toward the sun and follow it until there were no more nights.

  You spend your days running from your nights.

  Your mother would be proud of you, you know.

  A philosopher. A good Samaritan.

  "What's next, my lady?"

  A moral and ethical dilemma. She had slept with a rakehell and now she longed for an earl, all in the space of one day.

  The urge to run rose like a hunger in Miriam. Whirling, she began to pace. She had the oddest sensation that someone was watching her, seeing inside her soul.

  Verbatim remained by the wardrobe. From his spot at the vanity, Saladin looked up. His curious gaze flitted from the dog to Miriam. Alexis was in the next room packing for her journey to London.

  Verbatim barked.

  Miriam stumbled on a thick rug bearing the Kerr sun.

  "My lady!" Saladin dropped the quill and shot to his feet.

  "I'm fine." She held up her hand to stay him. "Let's get on with the letter. And you!" She pointed at the dog. "Get down and be quiet!"

  In a heap of gangly legs, the dog crumpled to the floor, her cowed expression a comical farce because her alert black eyes kept straying to the wardrobe and the leash.

  Wiping her thoughts clean of spoiled dogs, lusty lovers, and earls who were not what they seemed, Miriam cleared her throat. "On the matter of the disposition of the late countess's dowry…" She waited for Saladin to take up his quill.

  But he shuffled through the papers. "Do you wish to change the wording, my lady?"

  "Aye, if I could," she said, impatience once again gnawing at her concentration. "I'd name Roxanne princess of Wales. Then Parliament could settle her damned estate."

  Saladin scanned a page, his forehead so furrowed his widow's peak almost met his eyebrows. "But you said Malcolm would retain title of the land—" He laughed and slapped his turban. "You were jesting again."

  She'd also lost her place again. Vowing to keep her mind on business, she snatched at the theme of her report. "Yes, I was, and in very poor taste. Let's move on to the concessions."

  In her no-nonsense diplomat's voice, she said, "The earl of Kildalton has generously offered the baron Sinclair fishing rights to the river Tyne one week out of each month. A precise schedule will be drawn up and approved at a later date. Both gentlemen…"

  Hiding in the cool passageway beyond the wardrobe, Duncan gasped. Generously offered! What in the name of Scone Abbey did she think she was doing? For years the baron had fished at will on the Tyne. He considered it his right. Duncan would be damned before he'd forget the bastard's poaching, and if that deceitful redhead thought he'd step aside and let the injustice continue, she could put that clever mind to work thinking again. Christ, she was the most unfair, double-talking diplomat to ever set foot in Scotland. She was also the only woman he'd ever loved.

  "Verbatim!" she shouted, startling Duncan. "If you don't get your nose out of that wardrobe, I'll chain you in the kennel with those scraggly beasts from Aire."

  Duncan stood stock-still. Peering between the gowns, he could see her clearly. She stood over the dog, her fiery-hued braid dangling over shoulder, her eyes blazing annoyance. A cold sweat beaded his brow. If she looked up, she'd see the open panel behind the row of dresses. If he tried to close it, she'd hear. He could dash away, but she'd still know someone had been spying on her.

  The dog whined. Miriam patted the animal's head, then slammed the wardrobe door. A blessed pool of darkness fell over Duncan.

  "Be patient, girl," she said, her voice muffled. "If I don't finish my report to the queen and stop these men from squabbling, we'll be doing our walking in the tundra."

  Squabbling? How dare she reduce a problem that threatened to rip the fabric of his life to the pastime of frustrated fishwives? Disgusted, he folded his arms over his chest, clamped his jaw shut, and quietly tapped his foot.

/>   "For a time they'll pout like jilted spinsters," she went on in that condescending voice, "but in the end they'll clasp hands and fall all over each other to make retributions."

  Duncan grasped the irony, and almost laughed out loud, for he was pouting. Still, he couldn't help but scoff at her optimism.

  "Saladin, strike the sentence beginning… Both gentlemen," she said, sounding weary. Moving away from the wardrobe, she continued, "Just say… Both men are fair and desire peace. The baron can't afford to feed or secure the futures of his enormous family. The duchess of Perth has graciously offered to sponsor three of the baron's natural daughters. His four eldest sons have all reached their majority with little to show for the passage. Military commissions would benefit these men, but the baron hasn't the wherewithal to supply them. If benefactors could be found, the baron's obligations would be reduced by half. I await Your Majesty's counsel on the matter."

  "As for the earl of Kildalton…"

  Anticipation stole Duncan's breath.

  "The earl…?" prompted the scribe.

  "The earl is… I'm not sure anymore about the earl."

  "He's fair, my lady. Not so—so gawkish since he's learned to wield a sword."

  "You like him, do you?" she said with a hint of humor.

  "He's an infidel, but tries to better himself."

  At length she said, "Back to the report. The earl is a beleaguered man, who unjustly bears the brunt of his father's reputation for reiving."

  Some Scotsmen applauded Duncan for being gentler than Kenneth Kerr. Others smiled in acceptance of his peculiar approach to alleviating the problems in the Border. The English, on the other hand, shared the baron's low opinion of Duncan. But Miriam had seen the truth. He just hoped she didn't see too much of the truth.

  During the next hour, as he listened to her identify the problems and engineer the solutions, Duncan saw the wisdom in her methods. By arranging the futures of the baron's older sons and daughters, the household would be reduced to a manageable size. By allowing the baron fishing rights to the Tyne, Duncan wasn't giving up anything at all. But in the eyes of the queen, he would appear magnanimous. As it stood now, the baron fished the river when it suited him. Once the treaty was in effect, he'd be forced to govern his fishermen or stand answerable. But to whom?

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