Maiden of Inverness, page 25
She hadn’t considered that, hadn’t imagined their discussion would be perceived as a disagreement between siblings. Most times she thought of herself in a singular fashion. “It would not have come to a squabble.”
He held up his thumb and forefinger in measure. “You were this close.”
Drawing her legs beneath her, she sat up straight. “Ha! I do not know him well enough to engage in an argument.”
He fell back across the mattress, his arms behind his head. “You do not speak openly of yourself when others are listening. You are a private person, although not so much as when you first came home. Still, I feared you would regret revealing so much of yourself in public.”
True, she had changed. That he had anticipated her feelings filled her with joy. “You thought to spare me embarrassment later.”
“Aye. I know the both of you. I spent years with William, drinking and wenching—” He stopped and gave her a pained expression.
Her mind latched on to the word. “Wenching?”
Suddenly affable, he touched her knee. “Look, Meridene, ’twas nothing. Just lads reveling . . . and . . . foolish talk.”
Had she not been so jealous, she would have enjoyed seeing him squirm. “Foolish? I doubt that. I’m certain you take your wenching seriously.”
“I don’t suppose you would be willing to look upon those times as preparation for my marriage to you?”
It was the last thing she expected him to say. She said the first thing that popped into her mind. “Had I been cloistered, I would know better than to believe that worthless chaff.”
He lifted his brows in entreaty. “Then could you perhaps view it as the misspent youth of a poor butcher’s son?”
For a man of his size and strength, he squirmed handsomely, with grace and charm. She seethed with satisfaction. “Not even if your wenches were toothless crones.”
“You would have preferred a chaste husband?” He drew lazy circles on the bedcovers. “Here in your bed?”
“I would have preferred no husband at all.”
With the tips of his fingers, he touched her forearm. “You cannot deny that you enjoy our intimacies.”
He wanted to drop the subject of his transgressions. Relishing his discomfort, she resisted. “You wish to practice your wenching here? Now?”
Far too reasonably, he said, “A man cannot wench with his wife.”
“For that base logic, I should be grateful?”
His hand stilled. “Gratitude is not what I seek.”
Oh, no. Not Revas Macduff. He lounged in her bed as if it were his own. And according to the law, it was, along with all of her possessions. “You hope to make me forget your sordid past?”
“I hope to hear you again say my name and God’s in the same breath.”
Warmth pooled in her belly. He moved up and over her, his face a hand’s length away, his eyes filled with longing. “But were I given only one wish, ’twould be to hold you in my arms tonight and have harmony between us.”
Conversing with him was the easiest endeavor she had ever known. He exuded warmth and honesty.
She smiled in appreciation of yet another of his attributes. “Do you know what my father said when he learned that I had come home?” Why had she named Elginshire home?
He jerked away and put the Covenant on the table by the lamp. Sitting on the edge of the bed and staring at the wall, he said, “Nay, and I’d trade my place in paradise to have been there.”
He meant it, and she felt their closeness grow. “You know him far better than I. What do you think he did?”
“What any frightened coward does. He found a weaker man and spent his wrath.”
“A frightened coward? My father?”
Turning, he glanced at her over his shoulder. “ ’Tis for certain he fears you—even above the king of Scotland.”
“That’s preposterous. Why should he fear me?”
“Because, my cloistered lass, he must yield his power to you, the Maiden of Inverness.”
“You cannot be so certain of that. Even if I did—and I have not said I would—declare myself the Maiden of Inverness.”
With his index finger, he tapped her nose. “You’ve been away too long. You belittle your importance in the matter of who wears the crown of the Highlands.”
Ten lifetimes wouldn’t be long enough to evade Cutberth Macgillivray. “My father will not hand over the sword to me.”
Yes, he will, Revas’s expression said. “He has no choice, not with his people as witness and his sons flanking him.”
“A public spectacle.” She cringed.
“May we please speak of happier things?” He flipped onto his back and settled his broad shoulders into the mattress. “I am weary of Scottish politics, and the mention of your father fair sours my stomach.”
“On that,” she declared, “you have my complete agreement.” But her mind held an image of her father on bended knee, yielding up the sword of Chapling to the daughter he’d wronged.
“Would you care to tell me what message William’s wife sent?”
What if Cutberth could tell she was no longer a virgin and publicly shamed her for it? She fled from the horror of that possibility and harkened back to the subject of her sister-in-law. “You would hear her words, even if they are political in nature?”
He kicked off his slippers. “I take back the question. Share a pleasantry with me. Tell me the plans Serena and Summerlad have made for their finest hour.”
Lamplight flickered on the moonlit scene on the tapestry overhead. The goings-on below appeared just as peaceful to Meridene. “Their wedding is also political.”
“Then I forbid you to—How can speaking their vows . . . ?” His expression turned sly. “ ’Twas a jest you were making.”
She faced him boldly. “Yes.”
“At my expense.”
He winked. “Good housewifery, that.”
Flattered to her naked toes, she smiled down at him and thought herself as fortunate as her namesake. “Hacon, indeed,” she scoffed.
He sighed contentedly and closed his eyes. “Leave off, and tell me again about your fine English mount.”
“I’m tempted to go a-raiding for new horseflesh and delicacies.”
Delicacies. She understood. Rather than admit he’d come to England solely for her, he had praised the English ports for their fresh fruit. So well tended was the memory of that conversation, Meridene felt she had always known his tastes.
“Unless the beast has a rough mouth and plodding gait. Then I would hear you retell the tale of donning that chastity belt.” Laughter rippled his chest and danced in his eyes. “I’ll wager you played the tart that day.”
Pleasant moments from her past clamored to be shared. When he took her hand, Meridene told him about the day her mare had outdistanced Johanna Benison’s exalted hunter.
He spoke of the Highland games at Elginshire and the year the duke of Ross traded five-score sheep for a yearling from Revas’s stallion.
He kissed her good night and left. Meridene fell into a restful sleep. A popping sound awakened her. She opened her eyes and screamed in terror.
Flames climbed the bed hangings.
* * *
Hours later, Meridene stared, shocked, at the destruction the fire had wrought. Serena mopped up dirty water from the stone floor. Summerlad pulled the scorched mattress from the bed frame. Sim yanked the charred remains of the bed hangings from the canopy. Gibby huddled in the corner, her shoulders shaking, her face buried in her hands. At her feet, the terrier whined in confusion.
Revas paced the floor, his hair singed, his face dusted with soot. The acrid smell of smoke hung in the air, a constant reminder to Meridene that her beautiful sanctuary had been invaded. Thank goodness no rushes covered the floor. Her looms were spared, and her clothing untouched. The fire had been contained to the bed and several of the small floor tapestries.
The answer did more than lay blame for the near tragedy; it told her just how desperate her father was and how frightened she should be of him. Without doubt, this was his work, for she had no other enemies in Scotland.
Her own father had tried again to kill her.
The knowledge bewildered her, and she turned to flee the room.
William made an untimely entrance.
“Sweet Lord, what happened here?”
Looking at her brother, Meridene was reminded of countless and long-suppressed confrontations with Cutberth Macgillivray. She did not try to hide her scorn. “I should think it’s obvious.”
“Are you hurt?”
“No.” Not where anyone could see.
“I’m sorry we quarreled, but I thought you wanted no part of your heritage.”
Her first thought was to keep her own counsel, but the urge to express herself won out. “I did not ask you what my father thought about the return of the Maiden.”
He opened his mouth, then closed it. “I do not understand. You are the Maiden of Inverness.”
Even William could not separate the woman from the legacy. She considered reminding him that she was also a child of Cutberth and Eleanor Macgillivray, same as he, but he wouldn’t understand that, either.
A hand touched her shoulder. “I ken your meaning,” Revas said, then addressed William. “Have you come to help?”
“Aye. What can I do?”
Revas jerked his head toward Summerlad. “Help him haul out what’s left of the bed. We’ll discuss what happened here later.”
To Meridene’s relief, William nodded, picked up one end of the blackened leather mattress, and dragged it out the door. Sim followed, his arms filled with the ruined velvet drapings.
Serena leaned on the mop handle. “What could have happened?”
A father tried to kill his daughter, Meridene thought morosely. But did Revas speak the truth when he said her father plotted against her out of fear, rather than hatred? Did her mother know and condone Cut-berth’s treachery? Did the answer lie in the Covenant? Meridene glanced at the book and knew that she must find the strength to read her mother’s words. But heaven help her, she’d had enough shock for today.
“ ’Twas my fault.”
Gibby’s tearful admission broke the silence.
Revas knelt at his daughter’s side. “Nay, lass.”
“I banked the fire poorly.” She gazed up at Meridene. “I’m sorry.”
Her misery pushed Meridene into action. She, too, moved to comfort the girl. “The brazier was perfectly tended.”
“I’ve ruined it all. I’m unfit to be a handmaiden.”
Revas pulled her into his arms, dwarfing her tiny form. “Never say that, sweeting.”
“Misfortune was the cause,” Meridene insisted, her heart aching for the girl.
“ ’Twas a villain’s work,” he said.
Gibby cried harder. “I’m wretched to my soul.”
He squeezed his eyes shut. “Oh, nay. You’re my special gift from God.”
The girl leaned back and looked her father in the eye. Chin quivering, she said, “I should not have come here to live. You’re only being nice because you love me.”
His chest swelled, and he clutched her to him in a death grip.
“ ’Twasn’t your fault, Gibby.” He carried her to the window. “The glass was broken from the outside. See the shards on the floor? Had the damage been done from here, the glass would have fallen outside, into the flower garden.”
He was speaking of an intruder. Gibby was thinking of the fire itself. To aid his failing logic, Meridene said, “Gibby, did you clip the candle wicks when Lisabeth forgot?”
Gibby twisted in his arms. Her yellow smock was smeared with soot from his soiled hands and clothing. “Aye.”
“Didn’t Ellen thank you twice yesterday for sweeping the floor after she spent too long in the common room?”
She sniffed and rubbed her nose. “Aye, but she fetched the stool so I could reach the windows.”
“You complete every task in great good cheer, and you have made friends with the other girls. You do not even laugh at Ellen’s carrying on.”
Revas shot Meridene a look of sheer gratitude. To Gibby he said, “You’re a thoughtful girl who never gathers wool.”
“Nay, Papa. I gather berries and lichens for the dyes.”
He made a funny face and pointed to his head. “Woolgathering.”
She tucked her chin to her shoulder. “Oh.”
“The brazier did not start the fire,” he insisted.
Gibby searched the room. “What did?”
“A devil came through the window.”
Serena dropped the mop. The wooden handle clattered loudly on the stone floor.
Gibby’s red-rimmed eyes widened in surprise. “Someone tried to hurt Lady Meridene?”
That explanation wouldn’t do. Meridene had to help them. “You both are wrong,” she said, keeping her voice calm and reasonable. “The brazier door was latched tight, as were the windows. The glass was shattered from the heat of the fire. I was reading in bed and forgot to put out the candle. I was the careless one, not you.” She glared at Revas. “And certainly no intruder.”
As serious as Meridene had ever seen him, he said, “I do not color up the truth for Gibby.”
“Is that the Highland way?” she challenged. “Spare the children nothing?”
He stared at his daughter, but didn’t actually see her. “We’ll discuss it later, Meridene.”
Eager to see Gibby put the matter behind her and get back to being a bright and contented child, Meridene stood her ground. “We’ll make an argument of it now, Revas Macduff.”
She smiled at Gibby. “Serena will walk with you to the tanner. You’re both to wait there with Ellen until he has sewn my new mattress.”
Uncertain of what to do, Gibby looked up at her father. “Are you going to quarrel with Lady Meridene?”
“Most certainly, he is,” Meridene rushed to say, then smiled. “He fancies himself clever with words.”
Eyes agog, Gibby drawled, “He is.”
Serena choked with laughter and moved into the hallway.
Meridene propped her hand on her hip. “Then I shall see how well acquainted he is with the word ‘humility.’ ”
“Papa, what’s humility?”
“A hard-won trait, sweeting. Especially when a vixen demands it of a softhearted fellow who is justified in his opinions.”
Concern creased Gibby’s brow. “Because you’re a lambkin?”
“To the bottom of my Scottish heart.”
She giggled. He put her down. “Go with Serena, and tell Ellen she’s not to pester the tanner with her romantic musings.”
A purpose in mind and the terrier on her heels, the girl skipped out the door. Revas slammed it, then rounded on Meridene.
Fatherly concern fell prey to ruffled male pride. “Well?”
In the face of his anger, her courage wavered. “Well what?”
“Why do you make light of this destruction?” He pointed to the charred bed frame and soot-stained ceiling.
“Should I hurry to Kilbarton Castle and accuse my father? Lot of good that would do.”
A steely calm settled over him. “You can take his power.”
There it was. The sum of their differences. “And give it to you?”
He hadn’t expected the blunt challenge; his blank stare was proof. But he recovered quickly. “I am your husband. I have earned the crown!”
“While I worked night after night to earn forty pence at that loom.”
He marched to the windows and braced his arms on the casement. Staring into the yard, he said, “Did you believe your life would unfold without misery or hardship? None of us can expect so much good fortune.”
“Pardon me for sparing your daughter one misfortune.”
“We live in troubled times. But ’tis not about Gibby that we ar
“It is! I will not visit my troubles on an innocent child. And if you tell me the Maiden’s business is everyone’s concern, I’ll . . .”
He turned to face her, his arms crossed over his chest. “You will what?”
No worthy retribution came to mind. “I shall make certain you regret it.”
“I’m too angry to cross words with you now.” He started for the door. “I must speak with Brodie about trebling your protection.”
More armed guards. “Why not manacle me to the well? Then everyone can watch me. You can make a sport of it. The tale will spread to every village and farm. The curious will flock to Elginshire.”
Twisting his neck, he stared at her. “ ’Tis unwise to taunt me, Meridene.”
“Next you’ll say it’s my own doing.”
He slapped the doorframe. “I’m not so prideful as that!”
No. He was gloriously determined to right a wrong and wear a crown. “I thought you were a lambkin.”
That stopped him. “I thought the blood of your namesake thrived in you. And cease calling me that.”
“I will forget you are a lambkin, if you will return me to England.”
Oh, that look. Even with soot on his face and ashes in his hair, he seethed with restrained civility. “England is lost to you.”
“I hate Scotland.”
“Do you dislike Lord’s Meadow? Does Montfichet’s porridge thicken on your tongue? Do your handmaidens ill serve you?”
His questions were unfair; he knew she could voice no complaint on those subjects. “I dislike the treachery of the Macgillivrays.”
He grew serious. “Do you think William set the fire?”
“Nay,” she said without thinking. More calmly she said, “He has put his trust in you.”
His eyes glittered with mock relief, and he wiped his hands on his hose. “I shall rejoice, then, for I’ve found one Macgillivray who knows the meaning of loyalty.”
“Meaning I do not?”
His jaw grew taut, and the muscles in his neck stiffened. “Meaning that some of your clan are overeager. Others are not.”
The cryptic observation begged for a defense. “I did not deceive you. From the beginning, you knew that I wanted no part of—” She almost said “this life,” but that was not entirely true, not anymore. “I made clear that the office of Maiden of Inverness holds no interest to me.”
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