Maiden of Inverness, page 22
His friendly tone demanded a like reply. “Yes, and thank you.”
He leaned against a tree, his shoulders so broad, they blocked out the trunk. “I must confess that I doubted your riding skills. I was wrong. You handle a horse very well.”
No wonder the people of Elginshire sought his counsel; his easy manner and friendly smile could melt the coldest heart. But not hers, not when she was a prisoner. Not when her jailer received her father’s messenger and kept it to himself.
She’d lost her innocence to him, but she would keep her pride. And if he attempted to seduce her again, she’d fall back on her duties as chaperon for Summerlad and Serena. “There is much about me that you do not know.”
Banked passion smoldered in his eyes. With hands equally suited to wielding a broadsword or rousing her passion, he cupped her face. When his lips were only a breath away, he whispered, “I treasure knowing even your most trivial thought.”
The urge to fall into his arms nudged at her determination to get to the truth, but she’d come too far to retreat. “What message did my father send?”
Alarm sharpened his features. “Your father’s messenger?”
Did he think her a lackwit? She’d spied the rider through the closing gates. “I’ve seen the livery before.”
His jaw grew taut. “You said you wanted nothing to do with Scottish politics. Have you changed your mind?”
“He’s my father.”
He moved his hands to her shoulders. “The message does not concern Meridene Macgillivray. ’Tis the business of the Maiden of Inverness.”
“How convenient for you. When it suits your purposes you claim I cannot be one without the other. Now that you wish to exclude me, the matter is none of my affair.”
“ ’Twill become your affair when you face the truth that is in your heart.”
The canopy of fragrant pine boughs closed in on her. “What truth?”
He picked up a cone and plucked at the seeds. “You scorn tradition, yet you perform the Maiden’s duties with a skill to rival Catherine.”
The Maiden who revived the legacy of Chapling and Inverness after a century of obscurity. Her mate had been the best swordsman of his day, same as Revas. “I perform ceremonies and school handmaidens.”
“ ’Tis the duty of nobility, Meridene. I did not ask for so much responsibility. I was happy to be a butcher’s son.” He crushed the pinecone. “You and the tradition that bred you have made my destiny. When other lads were stealing kisses, I was learning to read.”
“Was Gibby’s mother your teacher?” Meridene flinched at her own cruelty. “I’m sorry.”
“Mary was older than me.” His expression softened. “And yes, she was a teacher of sorts.”
She felt ashamed, but couldn’t contain her curiosity. “Did you love her?”
He looked past her. “I cared for her, but you needn’t feel jealousy.”
Curse him for reading her thoughts. To bedevil him, she thought up a lie and created an imaginary suitor. “Then you needn’t envy the marshal of Scarborough his affection for me.”
“Oh, but I do envy the Englishman. Pray he never crosses my path, for you belong to me, Meridene.” He tossed aside the remains of the pinecone and pulled her against his chest. “God has ordained it so. ’Tis true we were both young for the ceremony, but time has eased our way. That and the glorious consummation of our vows.”
The air smelled crisp with the flush of spring, and the cadence of his voice lulled her into baring her soul. “If my father comes, I will not be the cause of a siege of Auldcairn Castle.”
“Will you be the cause of a siege of Scarborough Abbey by your English marshal?”
He referred to her thought-up beau. “You know the answer to that.”
He turned her around so that her back pressed against his chest. With a sweep of his hand he indicated the field of white lilies. “Behold this land. You’ve a kingdom at your feet, love. Many men covet you, but you belong to me.” Turning her again, he wrapped her in his arms. “I would sooner pledge my sword to the Saracens as let you go.”
Even as he bathed her neck in kisses, she found fault with his declaration. “You think of me as your property.”
“Mine to hold.” His lips moved to hers. “Mine to admire, and I am yours to enjoy.”
The first kiss made a mockery of the word, and the loneliness of the last few days vanished like bees at sunset. A sliver of resistance remained. “What message did my father send?”
His lips were damp from the kiss, his gaze clouded with reticence. “He sent word to the Maiden of Inverness.” His eyes met hers. “Are you that woman?”
A denial popped into her mind, but it was a scant echo of her usual reply. “I am his daughter. Did you respond in my stead?”
He sighed and stared into the distance. “Do you not envy the trust Summerlad and Serena share? I fair covet their happiness.”
Knowing she would return to the subject of her father’s message, she allowed Revas the diversion and turned to spy the young couple. Summerlad paced the field. Serena laughed.
“What are they doing?” Meridene asked.
“He’s marking off the dimensions of the castle he intends to build for her. ’Tis his second favorite activity when in her company.”
When Serena gestured a protest, Meridene said, “She disagrees with his design?”
“When last I heard them discuss their home, she vowed to live with him in the meanest croft, were that the extent of his holdings. She calls his plans ambitious.”
At the sweetness of the sentiment, Meridene felt tears sting her eyes. “She’s smitten with him.”
Revas kneaded her shoulders. “ ’Twas not always so.”
“What changed her mind?”
“She came to know the gentle soul that lies beneath the warrior.”
Weakness spread through Meridene. “Do not expect me to think he learned it from you. You’re no lambkin, Revas Macduff, and you do not heed the advice of women.”
Close to her ear, he said, “Did I not take up bow and arrow to settle my dispute with Father Thomas?”
“Aye, you did.”
“Because I swear on my soul, yours was the better way.”
“You flatter me only to seek your own end.”
“The line is narrow ’tween flattery and gratitude. I was very angry, and you spoke the truth about Thomas. Do you blame me for heeding your good counsel?”
“And if I counsel you on the merits of returning me to England?”
“I would call you clever, then speak of other things.”
He watched the young lovers for so long, Meridene thought he would not answer. At length he said, “I would turn the conversation to Gibby. Does she please you?”
His honesty disarmed her. “Yes. She’s eager, but I think she misses gathering plants and making dyes.”
“Would you care to don an old dress and go a-foraging with us?”
She tried to summon the old enmity, but failed. “You accompany her?”
“Since the day she first uttered the word ‘berry.’ She used to stand atop my shoulders to strip the rowans bare. For dowry, I’ve given her the forest at Elder’s Bow.”
At the patriarchal duty his admission implied, she thought of her own sire. “What message did my father send?”
“Though it distresses me mightily, I cannot say.”
He wouldn’t say, was more the cause. “And if I proclaim myself Maiden of Inverness?”
“You would have to demand the sword.”
“Sorcha did not claim it. She commissioned a new blade. I could do the same.”
“Her sire fell in battle and that weapon was lost. Sorcha acquired the very one your father wears.”
“What if I duplicate the thing? Why cannot you both be king of the Highlands?”
“For the same reason there can be only one king of Scotland.”
“You’re trying to trick me,” she said.
“Nay, Meridene.” Taking her hand, he guided her to a crumbling stone wall. “I’m trying to love and befriend you.”
She shivered, but whether from the cool of the shade from or desire, she did not know.
He adored her mouth, nibbling at first, then tasting. Knowing their intimacy had limits, Meridene indulged herself.
At length, he drew back, deep in thought, his breathing labored. “Do you like this place?”
He hadn’t intended to discuss the landscape; of that, she had no doubt. Studying him closely, she said, “What was this structure?”
With the flat of his hand, he grazed the ancient stones. “ ’Twas a settlement, a dwelling of those who came before us. ’Tis primitive, but an improvement over a cave. We’ve come far since these people laid claim to the land. Someday I hope to pave the road to Elgin’s End and line it with merchants—perhaps even an inn.”
The pride in his voice drew her, and she understood that his ambitions did not end with the sword of Chapling and the crown of the Highlands.
“What makes you smile?” he asked.
“You’re ambitious. You would make a Londontown of this place.”
“Aye. Commerce begets prosperity.”
His confidence revealed an interesting truth: He aspired to greatness. “You will not seduce me again, will you?”
To her surprise, he laughed. “You cannot hope to lay all the blame on me for the loss of your innocence. You wanted me, yet you questioned my motives. You encouraged me, and in the next breath, you accused me of wanting you merely for political gain.”
“I stand by my accusation, Revas.”
He picked at the dead vines that covered the old wall. She knew what he was thinking. He had erred in succumbing to desire. He would not do so again. She should have been happy at the knowledge. Instead she felt bound to challenge him.
“Will you deny that you covet the Highland crown?”
He turned and their gazes met. She drew in a sharp breath at the anguish he did not or could not conceal. Like comfort to suffering, she was drawn to him. “Revas—”
“Nay.” Looking away, he pretended great interest in the ruins. “You said there was much about you that I did not know. I would have you remedy that. Tell me where you rode and about your English mount.”
He spoke of her life in England as if it were as much a thing of the past as the civilization that once inhabited these ruins. Somehow she couldn’t summon the will to argue. “The mare’s name is Argent.”
“A gift from the marshal?”
“You thought him up because of Gibby’s mother.”
He’d seen through her ploy. If he expected an admission from her, he’d go wanting until a Scot sat on the throne of England. “What of your twenty kept women?”
Humor flashed in his eyes. “Shall I teach you swordplay to fend off my score of lemans?”
“They are welcome to you, and with my blessings.”
“Once, you wanted to cut out my heart and feed it to the eels. Today you would cast me off like a worn glove.”
It seemed an age ago that she’d cursed him with so much emotion. Her feelings for him now were softer—loving, and dangerous. “Becoming fish bait is not your destiny.”
On a half laugh, he said, “Thanks to you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Only that being the chandler’s son suddenly has its appeal.”
“Because then you wouldn’t have been forced to wed me.”
In neither expression nor movement did he reveal what was in his heart, but she suspected he was sorry he’d married her.
She pressed on. “You said you favored the bachelor’s life.”
“I was sorely vexed at you.” He sighed and added, “Every man wants an heir.”
She hadn’t thought of that. “You have Gibby.”
“She should have siblings.”
Brothers to fight clan wars. Sisters to barter like cattle or banish to a foreign land. Never. “We should see what Serena and Summerlad are about.”
He hesitated, then took her elbow. At the edge of the ruin he stopped and held her back. “Shush.”
A fat badger waddled across the forest floor, one of her young in her mouth.
Quietly Revas said, “She moves her nest. Be very still or she may forsake the others.”
As Meridene watched the animal disappear into the brush, she thought of her own mother and the pain of separation. But the ache didn’t come. Somewhere along the way, Meridene had made peace with the mother who bore her, then abandoned her. A new criticism surfaced, and with it came scorn for a woman who, as the Maiden of Inverness, shunned her duties and refused to pass on the legacy to her daughter.
It wasn’t that Meridene wanted to wear the crown of rowans. She had disdained the office for too long. But for the first time, she wondered if her rejection was of her own doing. Never had her mother spoken proudly of the legacy; such had been Meridene’s schooling and preparation of her destiny.
Revas’s hand tightened on her arm. Meridene cast off the disturbing doubts and saw the badger retrace her path. The animal moved toward the spot where their mounts were hobbled.
Leaning up, Meridene whispered behind her hand, “Will the horses frighten her?”
Revas drew her back into the shelter of the ruin. “ ’Tis only man who threatens her.”
“We could rescue the little ones.”
“If necessary, but ’tis best to leave mothering to mothers.”
Hurt clogged Meridene’s throat. She looked away.
“Except where you are concerned,” he said softly, and drew her against him. “Do you remember the last words I spoke to you before the old king took you away?”
She felt like a charitable cause, a waif in need of comfort. She’d have none of it. “Repeating a lad’s vow changes nothing.”
“I swore I would come for you. Upon the souls of all my kinsmen, I pledged to help you fulfill your destiny.”
In a matter of weeks he’d changed her opinion of the day that had altered her life. With gentle words and unflagging determination, he’d turned a time of bitterness into a fond memory.
Then he kissed her in the fashion she favored, unrestrained, intense, yet heartachingly tender. She was drawn to his warmth and to the contentment that awaited her.
A soft breeze wafted across her skin, cooling the heat that blazed between them. The forest grew quiet, and if yearning were a sound, it thrived in the beating of her heart and the singing of hot blood through her veins.
Unleashed, his need spoke to her in the language of intimacy, urging her to take the last step and put her soul into his keeping. Caught up in the lure of his persuasion, she ignored the voice of her conscience and yielded her heart.
On an agonized sound, he said, “We should not.”
Rather than dash her ambitions, his denial spurred her to change his mind. With hands now familiar with his form, she caressed his trim waist, then moved to the hard ridge of his desire.
A manly groan set off an answering sigh of surrender. Splaying his fingers, he kneaded her buttocks, and his mouth took hers in a devilishly deep kiss. Cool air touched her ankles, her knees, her thighs, and although she did not understand how, she knew he would love her here, where they stood.
As eager as he, she reached inside his hose, and when her hands closed over him, she felt her knees tremble with weakness. Then he was lifting her, setting her legs astride his hips, and she knew what he would do.
Her senses spinning with anticipation, she pushed his tunic up and his hose down, and in the next breath, he made them one.
Relief, as pure as heavenly light, spread through her, but it was only the beginning. His back against an ancient wall, his legs planted firmly in the soft ground, he thrust deeper, setting a rhythm that both primed her need and made kindling of her desire. He took her too close to the edge of rapture, and fearing a quick end, she broke the kiss. “Slowly, Revas.”
A blessedly sweet kiss followed, which led to a near bone-crushing hug. “By my oath,” he said, “I had not intended to do more than hold your hand.”
On the heels of their mind-jarring loving, the anguished confession made her smile. “Shall I shoulder the blame for corrupting you?”
Wincing, he lowered her to the ground and righted his clothing. She did the same, never taking her eyes from his worried frown. “What troubles you, Revas?”
“What if you conceive the next Maiden?”
Euphoria lingered, keeping her misgivings at bay. “If I conceive, it will surely be a lad.”
“How do you know?”
It was common for women to speak among themselves of their birthing experience. Conversing with a man on the subject of creation unsettled her. A silly notion, she was forced to admit, considering the intimacy they had shared.
“Don’t be shy. Share your thoughts with me.”
Oddly comfortable, she said, “Because my mother had three sons before me. As did her mother and grandmother. The Maidens always bear their sons first.”
He brushed leaves off his shoulders. “Always?”
“How did you know that? I saw no mention of it in the Covenant.”
Feeling smug and contented, she trailed her index finger down the front of his tunic. “Not all of the legend is written.”
An idea had him in its grasp, yet he slapped his hand over hers. “Ah, womanly secrets inspire me.”
She welcomed the leverage of knowing more than Revas on at least one subject, for he was quickly becoming an expert on her. “Inspire you to what?”
Drawing her hand to his lips, he kissed her palm. “To strip you of that bonny blue dress and love you again, unless we attend Summerlad and Serena.”
A shiver stole her composure.
“Come, love, the day wanes.”
Riding four abreast and laughing all the way, they returned to the castle. In the yard, the sheriff approached them, his face drawn into stern lines.
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