The border series, p.28

The Border Series, page 28

 

The Border Series
 



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  Sensible Mrs. Elliott. Duncan reached into his sporran, but when his fingers touched the wig, he stopped. He’d already decided that the Border Lord should disappear, but vengeance made him rethink his plan. Miriam MacDonald would never belong to Duncan Kerr, how could she love a man who had deceived her? How could he continue to love a woman whose sole purpose in life was to ruin his?

  God and all the saints help him, because he could no more stop loving her than he could unite the Highland clans.

  All things considered, the matter of her knowing the true color of his hair seemed inconsequential. He would continue to wear the spectacles, though. He wanted a good close look at her when he told her the horrible fate of the Border Lord.

  Half an hour later, a wigless Duncan stood on the threshold of his son’s room. Mrs. Elliott had fallen asleep in a chair, Miriam sat on the narrow bed, Malcolm’s hand in hers. In a voice as clear and pure as the wind off the Cheviot Hills, she crooned a Highland lullaby about a bairn who was so well loved and by so many, the king had given the lad his own clan.

  Duncan couldn’t see his son’s face; Malcolm’s knees were bent and the bed linens draped over him in tent fashion.

  Bracing himself for the worst, Duncan walked to the bed and stared down at his son.

  A cruel hand squeezed his heart.

  Malcolm’s closed eyes were puffy, the lids blotchy red. Tracks from the tears he’d shed ran down his cheeks. He’d bitten his bottom lip, for it was swollen and bore the bruised impressions of his teeth.

  He looked small and helpless, his hair too black and thick for a face so fragile and fair. He looked very much like the shy woman who’d died only days after bringing him into the world.

  Duncan swore that nothing would ever force him to abandon this lad. Neither war, nor inept monarchs on any throne, nor diplomats would cause him to leave Malcolm at the mercy of others.

  Duncan dropped to his knees beside the bed and said a silent prayer.

  Her singing stopped.

  Unwilling to look at Miriam just yet, Duncan glanced at her left hand, which lay palm up and joined with his son’s. What he saw through the thick spectacles shocked him.

  Four small, boyishly dirty fingers, the knuckles pasty white, curled in a death grip. Dried blood caked her palm where the lad’s nails had scored her tender flesh.

  Feeling miserable to the depths of his soul, Duncan followed the line of her delicate wrist where her pulse pounded quick and steady. He felt her staring at him, compelling him to look up, and even though silence hung in the room, he heard her unspoken plea: Forgive me, Duncan, for letting harm befall your son.

  Temptation dragged at him. His gaze moved past her wrist to the lacy webwork of veins that embellished her forearm. She’d rolled up the sleeves of her gown. Stains marred the costly sea green velvet. The color would enhance her eyes and complement her extraordinarily lovely hair. Her beauty would draw him. Her mood would soften him, temper his anger, then with clever words, she’d knead his attraction into full-blown desire.

  “Duncan…” Her entreaty weakened him.

  And awakened Malcolm. “Papa…?”

  Thoughts of yielding to the desirable woman fled his mind like forest creatures scurrying from a fire. His gaze swept to Malcolm. A new kind of heartache wrenched him.

  His face contorted in agony and fresh tears pouring from his eyes, Malcolm held up his arms. “Oh, Papa. Hold me.”

  Duncan leaned down and scooped up his son, cradling him against his chest. Malcolm’s narrow shoulders quaked and his chest heaved. His heartfelt sobs cut Duncan to the core.

  “I know, sweet son. I know,” he crooned in Scottish. “I’m so sorry you’re hurt, but we’ll fix it. I’ll stay right here until you’re well. Mrs. Elliott will make you a broonie tomorrow. I’ll read you all your favorite stories. You’ll be better before you know it.”

  Malcolm’s wracking sobs turned to soft moans and gasping hiccoughs. Careful of the boy’s injury, Duncan held him gently, murmuring reassurance and pledging love.

  The mattress shifted, and he knew Miriam had stood. He thought about the marks on her palm. “Thank you for staying with my son,” he said, his gaze fixed on the indentation in Malcolm’s pillow.

  She sniffled as if holding back tears. Don’t cry, he silently begged; I have enough misery, right here in my arms. Yet a part of him wanted to comfort her and be comforted in return. Another part of him wanted a return to the times when he could leave this castle and his responsibilities, if only for a day, and know his son would be safe. He needed the freedom to sit beside his favorite trout stream and dream of finding a woman to share his bounty. He deserved the time to exercise his God-given right to teach his son the importance of dreaming.

  He needed a woman to bring the dreams to life. A woman like Miriam.

  “I’ll just say good night, then.” Anguish lent a husky quality to her voice.

  Duncan hardened his heart to the woman who could force him to yield up his son to Baron Sinclair. “Good night.”

  Malcolm whispered, “ ’Night, Lady Miriam.”

  Miriam roused Mrs. Elliott, who patted Malcolm’s head and gave Duncan’s shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Wake me,” she said, “should you need me.”

  Duncan heard them leave, the door clicking shut behind them. Then he rocked his son to sleep and settled in for the longest night of his life.

  Near dawn, when Malcolm had fallen into a deep sleep, Duncan eased from the room and visited the butcher. Then he went to the empty quarters of Angus MacDodd. He pulled the cape of the Border Lord from the trunk and prepared his revenge for Miriam MacDonald.

  He spent the morning with Malcolm, who was faring much better than expected. The lad ate three scones, slathered with butter and honey, and insisted Saladin be allowed to visit him. He offered only a token resistance when the midwife returned to change his dressings. As the fresh cloths soaked in a cool decoction of coltsfoot and mugwort were applied to his tender and swollen parts, the boy actually sighed, dropped his head on the pillow, and fell asleep again.

  Saladin moved to the window and studied his worn copy of the Koran.

  Duncan sent word for Miriam to join him in study.

  Considering her parting words and sympathetic mood of the night before, he expected a subdued Miriam. Her squared shoulders, draped in a lively tartan shawl, and her blunt, “You asked to see me, my lord?” brought him up short.

  Had she worn her clan colors to distract him? He found himself murmuring, “Won’t you take a seat?” while staring at the slender column of her neck and the nicely scooped bodice of her yellow taffeta gown. As she crossed the room, the rustling of the crisp fabric vibrated in his ears and reminded him of other times, of breathless intimate moments in pitch dark places and the sounds of clothing hastily discarded.

  His unexpected awareness of her femininity and the predictable response of his manly parts made him glad he’d chosen to conduct the interview from behind his desk rather than the chairs before the hearth. The spectacles, too, offered a small refuge from the allure of Miriam MacDonald.

  He was pleased and encouraged to find her staring at his golden hair. “Thank you, Miriam, for coming so quickly.”

  “’Twas quite fortuitous, actually.” She gave him a charming smile, the one she probably bestowed on the king of France before convincing him to abandon the Stewarts and recognize the Hanoverians. “I had planned to ask for a few moments of your time today anyway.”

  “You sound so formal, Miriam. Have you come seeking another concession from me?”

  She stared at her wounded palm. “I know you’re upset over what Alpin did to Malcolm. I don’t think anyone suspected their enmity to go so far. They bickered at first, but their childish arguing gave me no cause for alarm. You mustn’t take for gospel what the midwife said about his never fathering children. Only time will tell.”

  She summoned confidence as easily as she twisted words. But he knew her better now. Picking his way through the tangle
of her assurances, he gleaned a curious aspect in her message: In his absence she thought it her duty to protect what was his.

  And in so doing, she had fulfilled one of his basic needs. Perhaps he’d been hasty in blaming her. Maybe there was hope for them yet.

  “I was hoping you’d understand, Duncan.”

  Of course you were, he thought, damning himself for forgetting how clever she could be. “I do understand, Miriam. Completely. Now what did you wish to see me about?”

  “Two things. First you were correct about those two men the baron employs. Mrs. Lindsay identified them.”

  “Where are they now?”

  “The baron promised to hand them over to the magistrate.”

  “You believe him?”

  “I’m testing him.”

  She sounded so composed. But Duncan didn’t care; he’d see the men were punished. “What else?”

  She strummed her fingers on the arm of the chair. “I think you should speak now.”

  “Why?”

  “The other thing I have to say shouldn’t be difficult for me, but I find myself in the odd position of being prejudiced. I’ve come to cherish our friendship, and what I have to say affects you personally, and your future. So, please.” She gave him a blinding smile. “Go ahead.”

  Second thoughts deluged him. But he’d cast the die, figuratively, when he’d visited the butcher’s shop. Now he picked up the package, but when she held out her hands for it, he couldn’t bring himself to break her heart just yet. “No.” He tossed the bundle to the floor. “I insist that you go ahead. Ladies and all that.”

  “You won’t like what I’ve been asked to propose.”

  Plainly said, the statement piqued his interest. He lifted his eyebrows and tried a little diplomacy of his own. “We’re friends, Miriam. I trust you.”

  She lowered her chin, giving him a perfect view of the glorious crown of braids resting atop her head. The style lent an elegance to her fiery beauty. The Glencoe plaid spoke poignantly of the miracle that had spared her life. But the blush creeping up her cheeks caught him off guard. Why would the mention of friendship and trust inspire so maidenly a reaction in the world-wise Miriam MacDonald? Now he was desperate to know what she had on her mind. “Please. I insist that you tell me.”

  She cleared her throat and locked her gaze to his. “As you know, the baron is truly anxious for peace between you and him.”

  Bitterness filled Duncan; she was back to business again. “Certainly. That’s why he brought Alpin yesterday. To show his good faith.”

  Miriam turned up her hand in entreaty. “She can’t help the way she is. You do know that Malcolm always tries to kiss her. She’s unaccustomed to receiving affection. Most of the time no one even notices her. She doesn’t know how to respond to Malcolm.”

  Duncan saw the tiny half-moon scars on her palm, but refused to be swayed. “I would hardly call loosing hornets on him not knowing how to respond. I think she knew exactly what she was doing.”

  “Yes, Alpin retaliated, but did you know the baron made her give up her pet rabbit? That was only a cruel example of the treatment she receives every day. He simply can’t afford to feed and clothe his poor relations.”

  Before falling asleep, Malcolm had told Duncan about Hattie, and he sympathized with Alpin’s plight. Loyalty to his son won out. “You condone what she did to Malcolm? You should, since you’ve unmanned men across the continent with your diplomacy.”

  She balled her fists. “Of course not. But it has little to do with the baron’s state of mind. He honestly wants peace. He’s made another … gesture of his sincerity toward coming to terms and settling matters that are outstanding between you. So that the trouble will end and you both can get on with your lives, so to speak.”

  Miriam was babbling. Good Lord, what had the baron proposed? Sinclair’s gesture had disconcerted her to the point of robbing her of her normally eloquent repartee. Duncan had to know. “If you keep dancing with words, Miriam, my curiosity will force me to agree.”

  “No.” Her nervous gaze darted from his hair to the lamp on his desk to the tips of her fingers. “I mean, I wasn’t trying to force your hand. Not by any means. ’Tis a decision you should make on your own behalf. Should you choose to make it.”

  Enjoying the devil out of watching her squirm so prettily, he said, “Do you think I should agree?”

  She opened her mouth, then closed it. “I couldn’t possibly presume to influence you in so … so important a decision.”

  “What,” he said, “must I decide?”

  She took a deep breath and said, “Whether or not to marry the baron’s niece, Caroline.”

  Stupefied, Duncan slumped in his chair. He’d expected the baron to use any means to gain another foothold in Kildalton and steal Duncan’s hard earned wealth. But another marriage? “Preposterous.”

  Miriam’s smile and the lazy way she propped her chin on her palm told him she liked his reaction. But why? If she loved the Border Lord, why would she care whether or not Duncan Kerr married again? He intended to find out. He let his eyes drift out of focus. “I may have been too hasty in my refusal of the lass. I can’t even remember what she looks like. Refresh my memory, Miriam.”

  With her thumb, she rubbed the tips of her fingers. “Caroline’s not as tall as I am. She has fair hair and brown eyes and is quite accomplished on the harpsichord.”

  Her noncommittal tone told him nothing. “One of the women in his household has the voice of an angel, clear and—”

  “Not Caroline.” She spoke decisively, like the Miriam he knew. “She hardly carries a tune.”

  He had the strangest and most appealing notion that Miriam didn’t want him to like this Caroline. To investigate further, he stared intentionally at Miriam’s fine breasts and said, “Is she … shapely?”

  Clear blue eyes regarded him. “She’s quite thin. A regular stick.”

  “I see. Does she want to marry me?”

  “She’s most tractable, my lord.”

  “Who in the baron’s household isn’t?”

  “Alpin.”

  Caught off guard, Duncan laughed.

  “Then you’ve forgiven her?”

  Alpin didn’t require his forgiveness, but the careless, self-serving baron would grow old and gray before he crossed the threshold of Kildalton Castle again. Miriam, however, needn’t know that.

  “Have you, Duncan?”

  He had to hedge. “Not enough to jump into a marriage because the baron wants my title for another of his relatives. Besides, I’ve done my duty to clan Kerr. The next time I marry it will be for love and friendship.”

  Interest flickered in her eyes. “You will?”

  Suddenly wary, he said, “Aye.”

  “I’ll tell the baron. He’s having a ball in your honor and Malcolm’s. He came yesterday to invite you. Will you go?”

  “No. Will you?”

  “I must. How is Malcolm today, my lord?”

  Her eagerness to be done with the subject of his marrying someone else and traveling to Sinclair’s to confirm it brought a smile to Duncan. “He’s better, but he mustn’t overdo. Saladin is with him. They seem to have become fast friends.”

  “Saladin doesn’t usually make friends. I hope you approve.”

  Was she testing him? He’d grown so accustomed to considering his answers, he found her casual conversation suspect. He’d test her and see. “I find Saladin a fine young man, and support his friendship with my son. Oh, and I’ve changed my mind. You may tell the baron I’ll consider his proposal.”

  “You will?” she squeaked, her pretty mouth open in surprise.

  Artlessly, he said, “I wouldn’t want you to think me uncooperative in the negotiations.”

  “That’s very good of you.” She rose and fluffed out her skirt. “I hope you find the woman you want.”

  Again, dark places and hastily shed clothing came to mind. “Would you care to dine with me tonight?”

  She moved t
oward him, and through the thick lenses she appeared as a blur of yellow taffeta and red and green tartan plaid. “I’d love to, Duncan. With Alexis and Salvador gone—I—well, I’d like very much to dine with you.”

  He hadn’t expected honesty from her. She was lonely, had probably been that way since childhood. The bloody massacre. The bloody tartan of the Border Lord.

  A shudder went through Duncan. Like a blow from a cherished hand he realized the cruelty of his plan. Of all the ways to punish her, to hurt her, a blood-soaked tartan topped the list.

  How could he have been so thoughtless?

  He swiveled and planted both feet on the parcel.

  “What’s wrong, Duncan? You said that package was for me. Don’t tell me you’ve changed your mind, for I do so love surprises.”

  Before he could stop her, she yanked the package loose. Too late, he saw her pull on the string. The oil cloth fell away, revealing the tartan cape of the Border Lord, caked in dried pig’s blood.

  Her knees buckled, and she gripped the edge of his desk for support. “Sweet Saint Ninian,” she said, then pressed her lips together. The garment slipped from her hand and fell in a heap on the rug.

  The cruelties he’d rehearsed died on his lips.

  She swallowed hard, and her disbelieving gaze scoured his face. “You called me here to give me this?”

  The reply burned like a fire in his throat.

  “Is he … dead?”

  The unspoken plea in her haunted eyes made Duncan feel like the lowest worm. But he’d gone too far to turn back now. “Aye. I’m sorry.” The sorriest wretch in Christendom. “’Twas an accident. A rogue bull charged him. A cowherd found his—found him.”

  She choked back a sob, and her eyes drifted out of focus. What was she seeing? The answer brought him to his feet—the massacre of her parents. He crushed her to his chest and held on tight. “Don’t, Miriam,” he begged. “Please don’t think about Glencoe.”

  “I wasn’t, really.” She rested her head on his shoulder. “I was thinking about Ian dying alone. No one should, you know. Someone ought to be there to honor the passing of a life.”

 
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