Border lord, p.33
Border Lord, page 33
She gave him a look of tried patience. "No. But a pillow would be nice."
That mysterious pillow again. An odd jealousy stabbed him. He couldn't own her every thought. She was curious about the pillow and wouldn't leave the subject alone. He reached for the item in question and held it so they could both inspect it.
Embroidered in satin thread were the words "We love you, Papa."
Juliet said, "Only Lottie's stitches are so finely done."
Lachlan eased the pillow beneath her head. "Never will I understand the female mind."
"We are cerebral creatures, even in our stitchery."
They'd plowed this conversational field often over the years. "Cerebral." He pretended to ponder it. "For a thinker you're doing some very earthy things with your other hand."
"Then I'll allow you a moment to gather your priorities."
"Gather holds great appeal." Which is what he did to her skirts, moving his hand up her thighs. He found bare skin. "No underthings? You're bold, Juliet."
She fairly preened. "The last time you lured me into the stables you took my underclothing and wouldn't give them back. Agnes made a show of returning the garments to me."
Two months to the day after Kenneth had been born, Lachlan had enticed his wife into the loft.
They'd spent the day loving, laughing, and napping in their pursuit of happiness. She was the sun to his day. The moon to his night. The joy to his soul. The love in his heart.
He pressed her back into the soft hay. "We were also interrupted that day."
The interruption had come when she'd asked him to give her another child. He'd refused. She'd respected his wishes.
" 'Twas a rough argument 'tween us." She mimicked his Scottish speech, but beneath the mockery lay regret, for she'd carried his children with ease and birthed them with joy. Five babes of her own had not been enough for his Juliet. Counting his illegitimate daughters, nine children were plenty for Lachlan.
"You're wonderful," he said.
"I thought I was the moon to your night."
"Aye, you are."
"The rain in your spring?"
"And the skip in my step."
She pretended to pout. "The thorn in your side?"
He blurted, "The bane of this loving if you laugh like that again."
She giggled low in her belly, more dangerous than full out laughter. Still in the throes of mirth, she said, "Do you recall the morning I seduced you in Smithson's wood house?"
He did. "Hot house better describes it. Actually I was remembering the time you tied me to the bed at Kinbairn Castle."
"You made a delicious captive, except for that one request you refused me."
Had she been cunning, Juliet could have gotten herself with child that day, for she had ruled their passion. "I prevailed."
"A winning day for both of us, but—" Something caught her attention. "Look." She pointed to the ceiling.
Craning his neck, Lachlan saw a piece of parchment secured to the rafter with an arrow. Printed on the parchment in Sarah's familiar handwriting were the words, "We love you, Mama."
Fatherly love filled him. Knowing he'd bring Juliet here, the lassies had left the pillow so he could see the affectionate words. Mary, the best archer of the four, had secured the note in a spot where Juliet couldn't miss it. Even though she wasn't their mother, they thought of her that way. But the positioning of the messages left no doubt that the girls knew that Lachlan and Juliet were making love in the loft.
On that lusty thought, he burrowed beneath her skirts and feasted on her sweetest spot.
Too soon she tugged on his hair. "Please, love."
He growled softly, triggering the first tremor in her surrender to passion. The beauty of her unfettered response moved him to his soul. But when she quieted, he eased up and over her, wedging himself into the cradle of her loins. His own need raging, he entered her, but not quickly or deeply enough, for she lifted her hips and locked her legs around him.
Lust almost overwhelmed him. "Say you're wearing one of those sponges." The sponges were the second most dependable way to control the size of their family.
Her slow smile struck fear in his heart. She wasn't wearing the sponge. If she moved so much as a muscle below the waist, he'd spill his seed, weighing the odds that she'd conceive again.
With his eyes he told her no.
Juliet's smile turned to resignation, and she mouthed the words, no ill feelings, love. He didn't need to hear the sound of the words; he'd heard them many times in the last three years. She waited until he'd mastered his passion. Then she reached into her bodice and retrieved a small corked bottle. With a flick of her thumb, she sent the cap sailing into the hay. The smell of lilac scented water teased his nose.
To tease her, he plucked up the wet sponge. "Excuse me for a moment." He put the sponge between his teeth, leered at her, and again burrowed beneath her skirts.
Primed, sleek, and ready, she awaited him. In his most inventive move to date, he inserted the sponge, then brought her to completion a second time.
"I want you now," she said between labored breaths.
Obliging her came easy to Lachlan. Just when he'd joined their bodies again and began to love her in earnest, voices sounded below.
"You must let me go with you," said a very disgruntled Virginia.
Lachlan groaned. Juliet slapped a hand over his mouth.
He knew to whom Virginia was speaking: her betrothed, Cameron Cunningham.
Hoping they wouldn't stay long, Lachlan returned his attention to Juliet.
Praying for patience, Cameron followed Virginia into the last stall.
She stopped and folded her arms. "Why can't I go with you?"
The greatest adventure of his life awaited Cameron. Years from now, after they were married, he'd sail around the world with her. For now, reason seemed prudent. "'Twouldn't be proper."
"Proper?" Her dark blue eyes glittered with temper, and her pretty complexion flushed with anger. "We're betrothed. That should be reason enough. Papa knows you will not ravish me. I haven't even gotten my menses yet."
From another female the remark would have sparked outrage, but Cameron had known Virginia MacKenzie since the day of her Christening, ten years ago. His ears still ached when he remembered how long and loudly she'd cried. He'd been eight years old at the time. He'd fostered here at Rosshaven. He'd learned husbandry from Lachlan MacKenzie, the best man o' the Highlands. The announcement earlier today of Virginia's betrothal to Cameron had been a formality. Their marriage, five years hence, would mark the happiest day of Cameron's life. Their parents heartily approved, for the union would unite their families.
He told her a lie and the least hurtful refusal. "You cannot go with me to France." He was sailing for China. She'd learn that truth from her father on the morrow.
"But everything's formal now, and I've made us a symbol of our own. See?" From her fancy wrist bag, she produced a silk scarf.
Fashioned after the ancient clan brooches, the design on the cloth featured a circle with stylistic hearts and an arrow running through.
"The arrow is for your mother's people, Clan Cameron. The hearts are in honor of our friendship and love, which will be timeless. It took me ever so long to think it up and a week of nights here in the stable to stitch it. 'Tis a secret. I wanted you to see it before everyone else."
Cameron voiced his first thought. "'Tis feminine for a man to wear."
Her eyes filled with tears. "That's a wretched thing to say."
Immediately defensive, Cameron stood his ground. "I'm sorry. I was surprised is all."
"Then don't disappoint me again. Take me with you. I'll cancel the betrothal if you do not."
His pride stinging, Cameron tucked the scarf into his sleeve and headed for the door. "Cancel it if you wish. I only agreed to please my parents."
Virginia gave up the fight. He couldn't mean those hurtful words, and by the time his ship sailed tomorrow, she'd be tucked securely in t
Nine years, eleven months, and thirteen days later, Cameron swung the canvas bag onto his shoulder and stepped on the quay in Glasgow Harbor. Pain no longer accompanied memories of Virginia. Only a deep sense of loss. Since her disappearance, he'd learned to live with an empty soul. The image of the clan brooch Virginia had designed years ago rose in his mind, as vivid as the day he'd first seen the delicate hearts with an arrow running through.
Cameron stopped in his tracks and blinked. The picture became real. Before him loomed a wall of hogsheads. Burned into the wood of each of the barrels was the symbol created almost a decade ago by Virginia MacKenzie.
His heart pounded, and the ale he'd drunk with his crew just moments ago turned sour in his belly. No one else had seen the hallmark. Virginia said it had been her secret gift in honor of their betrothal. By candlelight, she'd embroidered the scarf for him. After her disappearance, when Cameron had relayed to her father the details of that last meeting in the stables at Rosshaven, the duke of Ross confessed that he'd never seen Virginia's hallmark.
Cameron had thought never to see it again.
He put down his burden and peered closer at the design. With only a slight variance, a common heraldic crown over the top, the symbol was the same.
From the ashes of certainty, a spark of hope flickered to life. Virginia could be alive. The thought staggered him.
Mouth dry, hands shaking, he leaned against the stack of tobacco casks. Past disappointments warned caution. But what were the odds of another person combining the arrow of Clan Cameron, his mother's Highland family, with hearts of love? No coincidence appeared before him; Virginia was alive and this drawing was her cry for help.
Stuffing one of the hogsheads under his arm, he located Quinten Brown, captain of the merchantman.
"From where did this hallmark come?"
Brown swept off his three-cornered hat and tucked it under his arm. "Why would you be asking, Cunningham? Ain't the brandy trade enough for you?"
In his place, Cameron would also be protective of his livelihood; any businessman would. To allay the man's worry and loosen his tongue, Cameron fished a sack of coins from his waistcoat. "I've seen this design, and it's very important to me. I've no intention of heeling in on your trade."
Satisfied, Brown pocketed the gold. '"Course you ain't. I'll tell you what I know o' the matter. The cooper at Poplar Knoll always favored the plain crown—even after the colonies was lost to us." He traced the design. "This girlish mark, the hearts 'n' arrow, on their barrels. I ain't seen it afore."
"Then how do you know this tobacco came from there?"
"The new mistress herself come aboard to pay her respects to me." Rocking back on the heels of his bucket-top boots, the seaman clutched his lapels. "Her husband, Mr. Parker-Jones, bought the plantation more'n a year ago. I tell you true, Cunningham, the slaves 'n' servants o' that place are praising God. The old owner and his wife were devils and more."
In his search for Virginia, Cameron had scoured every port in the British Isles, the Baltic, Europe, and even the slave markets of Byzantine. He'd searched Boston, the cities of Chesapeake Bay, and even the Spanish-held New Orleans. "Where is this plantation?"
"Poplar Knoll? The tidewaters of Virginia."
Cameron had sailed those waters, but not in years. With his father serving in the House of Commons, Cameron now favored the shorter European trade routes. "On the York River?"
"No. The James, just west of Charles City."
"The south or the north shore?"
"South, if I'm remembered of it. Fine dock with lovey doves carved into the moorings. Yes, south side."
At the least, the person who'd crafted this hallmark had some knowledge of Virginia. If she were on an isolated plantation, that would explain why he hadn't found her. The lost war with the colonies had limited shipping traffic, and little news traveled out of tidewater Virginia.
Anticipation thrumming through him, he thanked the captain and made his way to Napier House, home of Virginia's sister, Agnes. Now the countess of Cathcart, Agnes was the only family member who still believed that Virginia was alive.
Dear God, he prayed, let it be so.
Poplar Knoll Plantation
Planting would be upon them soon. From dawn's first light until sunset or rain forced them to stop, they'd hunker in the fields. Virginia shifted on the bench, her back aching at the thought. In the corner of the weaving shed, the strongest of the slaves dismantled the looms used to weave book muslin, the fabric of necessity for slaves and bond servants. Everyone, even the pregnant females worked in the fields until harvest. At first frost, the looms would come out again.
Life would continue for another year. But three harvests hence Virginia's indenture would end. The old bitterness stirred, but she stifled it. She'd tried escape once, nine years ago. For penalty five years had been added to her servitude. Freedom would come. Three years from now, she'd have money in her purse, new shoes and a traveling coat, and passage to Williamsburg. From there—
Virginia started. Merriweather, the smartly dressed butler from the home house strolled toward her.
"Wash your hands and face, Duchess. Mrs. Parker-Jones wants to see you."
No one addressed Virginia as Virginia. They hadn't believed her story about who she was and how she'd come to the colonies. When she'd proclaimed herself the daughter of the duke of Ross, they'd laughed and named her Duchess. She'd been a frightened child of ten.
Merriweather cleared his throat. "You've done nothing wrong. The mistress hastened me to say so."
Virginia smiled and put aside the hat band she was tooling. She'd spoken only once to Mrs. Parker-Jones since the woman and her husband had purchased Poplar Knoll two years ago. Did this summons also involve the design Virginia had secretly branded into the hogsheads? Hopefully not, for she'd come away from the meeting with a small victory and an apology. She'd been assured the matter was ended.
Encouraged, she went to the table and washed her face in the bucket of clean water. Then she untied her apron and took the brush from her basket.
As they left the shed and made their way through the servants' hamlet, she brushed her hair and tied it at her nape.
"She'll not be seeing you in the front parlor, your grace."
No rancor hardened his words, and Virginia chuckled. She might be a bond servant, but never had she been a sloven.
She was ushered into the back parlor, where Mrs. Parker-Jones was reading the Bible. Putting the book aside, she waved the butler out the door. "Close it on your way out, if you please, Merriweather."
Although she'd never been in this room, Virginia refused to gape at the fine furnishings. She'd seen better at Rosshaven.
"Tell me about yourself." Mrs. Parker-Jones indicated a chair. "How did you come to servitude?"
Caution settled over Virginia, and she stood beside the chair. "Three years remain on my indenture, Ma'am. I want no trouble."
"I want the truth. Are you Virginia MacKenzie, daughter of the sixth duke of Ross?"
Something in the tone of her voice alarmed Virginia, that and her knowledge of the specifics of Papa's title. She gripped the back of the chair. "Who wants to know?"
Images of her youth swam before Virginia. Then she saw nothing at all.
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