Maiden of inverness, p.4

Maiden of Inverness, page 4

 

Maiden of Inverness
 



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  His heart ached for the young Maiden who’d been so mistreated that she hated her country. Revas prayed that he could make her feel safe, for he believed her hatred stemmed from that fear.

  With a tenderness that was bittersweet, he admitted that he revered her, too, and overmuch, for he grew distressed to see her so unhappy at the thought of returning home. She had a right, he was certain, for her memories were painful and her experiences ghastly. His abduction must seem horrid to her in the extreme.

  Life had been cruel to his beautiful Scottish princess, and while he could not undo the past, he could assure her future. At his side, she would prosper, and in return, she would ease his loneliness and help him achieve his destiny. She’d reign over the Highlands with the skill of the first Maiden, her namesake. Matching the prowess of that woman’s mate promised a challenge that Revas welcomed. Oh, yes. They were in for a merry time, he thought with a smile.

  When he’d looked his fill, he approached her. Taking her arm, he said, “Good day, my lady.”

  She jerked out of his grasp. “Worry not that I contemplate jumping into the sea. I will not forfeit my life for Scotland.”

  Resigned that he’d made no progress, Revas started again. “For what, then, will you risk your life?”

  She turned her face to the wind, her eyes glittering like emeralds in the sun. “For the chance to return to England.”

  “Achieving your destiny and returning to England are different sides of the same coin.”

  Her delicate brows arched in confusion, and she tilted her head to the side. “You’ve become a Highland philosopher. How singular.”

  The insult bounced off Revas like pebbles hurled at a battle shield. Reminding her of her duty had produced drastic results. He must guide her, steer her gently, then lead her where she truly wanted to go. “Nay. ’Tis only that I had not expected you to deprive yourself of volition. I expected more intelligence.”

  On a half laugh, she scoffed. “You’ll make a fine king of the Highlands. The people deserve a trickster like you.”

  He grinned, but his mind was a tangle of doubts. He had truly thought flattery would draw her out. A foolish error on his part. “Does that mean you’ll get me the sword?”

  “No. But I relish seeing you delude yourself.”

  Be patient, he told himself. She was justified in her anger, and he faced certain defeat in challenging her again. Tricking her was something else altogether. “I anticipate a much more rewarding association with you.”

  She gave him a withering glare. “Then you have a perverse imagination.”

  Sensing that she tiptoed close to his verbal trap, he threw out the bait. “Because I ask that you weigh your options?”

  Peering over the side, she followed the progress of a family of seals. “Weigh my options? I cannot, for they were not of my choosing.”

  “Options seldom are, else we’d never have the supreme joy of facing a quandary.”

  She peered up at him, her interest seriously engaged. He’d forfeit his favorite retreat to Sheriff Brodie for a conversational reply from her.

  “Do you embrace strife, Revas?”

  Good-bye, hunting lodge, he thought, and said what was in his heart. “I’d rather embrace you.”

  She blushed, and he held her gaze, even when she would have looked away. Come out and play, Meridene, he silently willed her.

  “No.”

  At least she hadn’t said never. He must be making progress.

  Ready to give back to her, he relaxed. “I’ve forgotten the question.”

  The fur lining of her cape fluttered around her face, the snowy miniver a perfect foil for her jet eyelashes. She almost smiled. “You were trying without success to get me to weigh my options.”

  He wanted to whoop with joy. He’d led her exactly where he wanted her to go. “Scotland is an option.”

  She stiffened. “An unacceptable one.”

  “How do you know? You haven’t set foot in the Highlands in thirteen years.”

  She touched her breastbone. “And I have thrived.”

  She had, indeed. Now he intended to see her prosper. “Do you possess a mount, Meridene?”

  Confusion lent an earthy aspect to her regal beauty. “Yes.”

  “Did you select the horse yourself?”

  “Of course.” She stared up at the lookout. “It did not fall out of the sky.”

  “If I told you a fine mare was available for purchase, if I sang her praises and extolled her virtues, would you not be curious to judge for yourself? Or would you reject the beast out of hand?”

  She faced him squarely. “If you recommended the beast, I would reject it out of hand.”

  With regret, he admitted the small defeat. But he’d never been accused of cowardice. “Your mind is narrow.”

  She huffed. “Your ploy is obvious.”

  Suddenly enjoying himself again, he leaned against a water barrel. “Enlighten me, then, as to my ploy.”

  “ ’Tis simple. Now that you’ve taken me captive, you will ignore the cruelty of your actions. You will take me to your home and wait me out. You think to woo me with your charm and enthrall me with your masculine appeal.”

  He couldn’t help saying, “So you think I am appealing?”

  On a half laugh, she said, “I’m angry, Revas, not blind.”

  He savored the compliment, for he instinctively knew she would not often praise him. Not until she fell in love with him. “Do you remember the last time we saw each other?”

  “Certainly. You barged into my room and took me against my will.”

  Tried patience nicked at his decorum. “Before that time.”

  “Yes. I was eight years old and straining to keep from retching on the king of England.”

  His heart went out to that valiant girl, but if he showed any weakness, the mature woman would take advantage. He must find a balance between both. “I understand. I expected the king to hang me before sunset.”

  Her eyes drifted out of focus. “You did?”

  “Aye. I even forgot to wear my shoes.”

  Her expression softened. “My apologies. I didn’t see—I hadn’t—”

  “Thought about what I was feeling that day?”

  “No. I was too ill and beset with worry for myself.”

  “Have you thought of it since?”

  “Not in a very long time.”

  She had, though, and he took that small gift to heart. “You pledged your troth to me. The people of Elginshire witnessed the ceremony.”

  “They matter not. What of the people in England whom I call friends?”

  “Invite them to visit us at our home.”

  Stubbornness had her in its grip. “I do not wish to be your wife.”

  “I do not wish to grow old, either,” he said reasonably. “But I cannot stop the clock of time.”

  She gave him a quelling look that probably sent servants scurrying for cover. “Age cannot be annulled. Our marriage can.”

  Dissolving the marriage was out of the question. “We were chosen for each other.”

  She tugged at her gloves. “You want a legend, Revas.”

  He couldn’t resist laying a hand on her shoulder. “I want you, Meridene.”

  Glancing at his fingers, she murmured, “You are eager to become a husband and father?”

  The subject of children was a dangerous one and best generalized for now. “ ’Tis a man’s duty to God.”

  A knowing smile curled her lips. “But first you must take up the sword of Chapling.”

  Chapling. It was an ancient term, perfectly chosen by the first Maiden of Inverness to symbolize the unity her marriage wrought. The sword had been her gift to her husband. The details of their blessed lives were chronicled in the Covenant. As always, the sentiment made Revas’s chest grow tight. “Aye. I will take up the sword and uphold the legend—”

  “Aha! I said as much. ’Tis not me you want, but a prophecy.”

  That took the wind from his
sails.

  “Do not apologize,” she went on. “ ’Tis a meaningless symbol. What would prevent me from demanding the sword and giving it to you in exchange for passage back to England?”

  His own ambition, Revas thought. He could rule the Highlands without the ceremonial sword in his scabbard and the Maiden at his side, but he’d have to conquer Clan Macgillivray first. He wanted unity through peace, and he could not achieve it without her. “I’ll tell you what prevents you from demanding your birthright: fear and loathing of your father.”

  Said plainly, his truthful comment had the desired effect: She dropped the facade of indifference. Earnestly she said, “You think you know so much, Revas.”

  “About you, yes.”

  “You would not settle for the sword.” She moved around the barrel and out of his reach. “You would seek to bind me to a land I abhor. You want children of me.”

  She had artfully dodged the emotional perils and the very real danger that existed between father and daughter, a skill she’d had thirteen years to master. Only in her sleep did she become that frightened little girl. “ ’Tis cruel to deny a man children.”

  Her interest engaged, she pressed on. “Truly, Revas. How badly do you want the sword?”

  More than air to breathe, his soul cried. But he guarded the thought. They were conversing civilly; it was a start. “How badly do you wish to return to England?”

  Her force of will was palpable. “Enough to continue bartering with you until God stands as witness to this futile exchange.”

  Formidable. There was that word again. The too apt description of her inner strength made him rethink his strategy. Were he to strike a bargain with her, he ran the risk of losing and having to honor it. “You plan to await the Second Coming.”

  She set her jaw. “Yes, and the Third Coming.”

  In the face of her implacable determination, he aborted his original plan. The irony of his predicament gripped him, and after years spent preparing to welcome her home, he must now compel. She had said the people were doomed to disappointment. A woefully poor description; they would be crushed, for he had gone to drastic measures to make a place for her in the hearts and lives of the people of Elginshire.

  The brisk April wind fluttered her cloak, and the damp air made ringlets of the wisps of hair that framed her face. The climate suited her well.

  “ ’Twould appear,” she trilled, “that we have, as you say, the supreme joy of facing our first quandary.”

  He added witty to her list of attributes. “Have you everything you need?”

  “How gracious of you to inquire after my needs. Before I answer, you should tell me how long you intend to keep me.”

  He couldn’t help but growl, “Leave off, Meridene.”

  She blinked in feigned confusion and pulled off her gloves. “Oh, but I’ll gladly leave you to your life, should you leave me to mine.”

  Damn Cutberth Macgillivray for his cruel treatment of her. Damn her father for turning her against all Scots. Damn Revas Macduff for living up to her low expectations. “You take pleasure in being stubborn.”

  A grin played about her pretty mouth. “You are too quick for me, Revas. I’m but a country girl.”

  He laughed. “And I’m chancellor of England.”

  She laughed, too, and he wanted to embrace her.

  “When will we arrive?” she asked.

  “In a few days—as the weather allows.”

  “Good. That should give me ample time.”

  He grew still and cautious. “Time to what?”

  She reached up and laid her hands against his cheeks. Her palms were icy cold, yet her eyes shone with warmth. He could fall into that alluring gaze and follow where she led.

  “ ’Twill give me time,” she whispered, “to plan your downfall.”

  With that she left him there, the breeze ruffling his hair, her words rattling his composure.

  * * *

  Two days later, the ship docked at dawn at the seaport of Elgin’s End. Meridene dawdled in her cabin, busying her hands with folding and refolding the fine garments Revas had provided. Her eye was drawn to a rose-colored surcoat embroidered with golden thistles at the hem and neck. The garment fitted her perfectly, as did the contrasting bliaud of dark red linen. Even the shoes, gloves, and underclothing had been fashioned precisely for her.

  Ana must have supplied him with the particulars.

  Feeling betrayed, Meridene slammed the lid on the trunk, walked to the bulkhead, and peered through the small opening. An endless, churning sea filled her vision.

  Since they’d sailed past Aberdeen, she’d grown apprehensive, as if a drum in her chest were beating out a rhythm of foreboding. For the hundredth time she wondered how she could free herself from Revas Macduff. The promise of an eight-year-old girl shouldn’t hold sway, not when she’d been ill and confused and coerced into pledging her troth. The law should free her from any obligation. If not, the church must surely annul the unconsummated marriage.

  Unconsummated. Therein lay her escape. She had stayed alone in this cabin during the voyage and searched for a means of thwarting him. Prejudice had colored her thinking; now the truth shone clear. Revas’s influence could not extend to the church. She would seek refuge in the clergy. They would shelter her and appeal to the pope on her behalf. The new King Edward might be persuaded to endorse her cause for an annulment. It was said he had forbidden the clans to unite.

  Her fear ebbed and her heart soared.

  A scratching noise on the door interrupted her euphoria.

  “Who is it?”

  “ ’Tis Ana, my lady.”

  The informer. Meridene tried to summon dislike for the girl, but in her heart she knew that Ana had simply followed the dictates of her own father and Revas Macduff. With only a little imagination she could picture him cajoling the impressionable girl. Thirteen years ago, he had done the same to another child, a girl whose father had tried to kill her.

  Meridene opened the door.

  Her pretty features pulled into a worried frown, Ana stepped into the room. She wore a cloak of heavy black wool lined with the subtle tartan of the Sutherlands, a rich pattern of green, black, red, and white. Her fair hair was mussed, her skin chafed from the wind.

  “I suppose you hate me.”

  “I cannot hate a stranger, Ana, and that is what you are to me.”

  Her pert chin puckered with determination. “I only pretended because ’twas necessary.”

  The admission that she’d feigned a friendship saddened Meridene. She’d had few friends in her life, and her oldest and closest companions, Clare and Johanna Benison, had been taken from her—one by death, the other by marriage. Like Ana, the other wealthy heiresses at the abbey were all younger than Meridene and prone to seek her out as mentor rather than friend. “You’ve done your part, Ana.”

  She made a fist of her gloved hand. “I would give my life for Highland unity.”

  Meridene almost laughed. “You err in thinking I will do the same.”

  “But you were born to it.”

  “While commendable, your enthusiasm ignites not one spark of loyalty in me. Quite the contrary; I envy you, for England is my home. So do not embarrass yourself by belaboring the point.”

  Ana touched the symbols on Meridene’s new cloak. “You have forgotten how important you are to us.”

  “To us?”

  “Aye, to the Highlanders. With you at his side, Revas will bring peace to all of the people above the line.”

  The Highland line. A demarcation uncharted on any map, yet etched deeply into the hearts of the Scots. Once her father had ruled the clans from the Frasers in the East to the Macleans in Inverness. Revas Macduff had expanded the territory to include this Sutherland woman and her kin in the Western Highlands.

  The extent of his domain was staggering. How much did he know about Meridene? “I confided in you, Ana. Did you tell him all of my secrets?”

  She stiffened with umbrage.
“You’ll know the answer soon enough.”

  Would he give freely of himself to Meridene? Would he cherish her above all else, including Scotland? The obvious answer depressed her, and discussing her private hopes again with Ana served no purpose.

  In dismissal, she said, “You have discharged your duty with aplomb, Lady Ana. Fare you well, and God preserve your precious Highland line.”

  Like a dog after a flea, Ana refused to leave it alone. “Revas has worked for too long to bring accord to the clans. Why do you hate him so and disparage your own people? They’ve done you no harm.”

  No longer the biddable girl eager to follow in Meridene’s footsteps, Ana Sutherland was now a self-assured young woman bent on furthering a cause. Meridene didn’t care; she wanted no part of a people who poisoned their children, then discarded them like old cloaks. “You know precisely why I despise Scotland, and you repeated my every word to Revas Macduff.”

  Her eyes pleaded. “He has a goodly heart.”

  “Then you worship him!”

  “A score of women want him,” Ana taunted.

  “So he’s a Highland rogue. I’m delighted to know that there’s enough of him to please a mere twenty women.”

  “He wants only you. The English have swayed you otherwise.”

  “The English saved me. The Maiden is no more.”

  “But you belong to us.”

  Meridene gave up the fight; Ana would never understand. “Farewell.”

  Tears filled her eyes. “You don’t deserve to be the Maiden of Inverness.”

  “I couldn’t agree with you more. Perhaps you will take up the burden?”

  “Burden?” Ana sighed and turned to leave. “You’re selfish and cruel, Meridene.”

  Meridene had thought herself immune to verbal blows, but Ana’s parting words stung. Had her life unfolded as it should, Meridene would have gladly fulfilled her duties. She would have wed her father’s choice of husband and ruled as her mother and her kinswomen before her. Politics, not her own wants and needs, had determined the course of her life.

 
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