The border series, p.4

The Border Series, page 4

 

The Border Series
 



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  He smiled indulgently and folded his arms over his chest. “My son doesn’t like his given name, which is Malcolm.”

  The boy made a gagging sound. “Malcolm’s a prissy name.”

  Miriam wondered why the earl didn’t pad the shoulders of his jacket in the fashion of the day. Or why he allowed his son to behave so disrespectfully.

  Sighing, the earl said, “’Tis also a king’s name.”

  “Malcolm the Maiden,” spat the boy, hands on his hips. “I refuse to answer to it.”

  “My son hasn’t settled on a name he likes.”

  “Yes, I have. ’Tis Roger.” He hitched up his plaid. “After Roger Bacon.”

  The earl raised his gaze to the ceiling. The lenses not only magnified the size of his eyes, but also the length of his lashes. Through the thick glass, they fluttered like dark fans. Beneath the wig, his hair was probably dark, too, the same as his son’s. Quite attractive, she thought, then caught herself. Objectivity was her watchword.

  “Excuse me.” The earl went to his son, clasped him on the shoulder, and whispered in his ear.

  Malcolm slapped a hand over his sporran. “No, Papa. Roger Bacon had a mistress and her name was Rainbow. I don’t think she was as pretty as your mistress, but she was comely all the same.”

  Society expected a nobleman to keep a mistress, but when did the earl find the time or the wherewithal to seduce a woman?

  “You’re mistaken, son.”

  The boy stomped his foot. “I swear ’tis so, Papa.” He snatched up the book from the floor. “I read it here. See for yourself.”

  The earl turned beet red. He poked his nose in the open book and read. Teeth clenched, he said, “You misunderstood the text. Roger Bacon was a theologian, a Franciscan. He said ‘theology is the mistress of all the other sciences.’ He was merely studying the rainbow and prisms of light, not bragging about his manly prowess or naming his mistress.”

  The boy craned his neck to stare at his father. Looking crestfallen, Malcolm said, “You mean he didn’t use his ‘precious lady crackers’? Never?”

  “I hardly think this is the time for such a discussion.”

  The boy glanced at Miriam. To hide her confusion, she focused her thoughts on King Ahmed III and his cultural revival of the Ottoman Empire.

  Malcolm’s expression grew mischievous. “You mean I shouldn’t mention my precious lady crackers in front of a lady.”

  The earl’s hand tightened on the boy’s shoulder. Turkish kings forgotten, Miriam wondered if the earl was angry.

  “Precisely, Roger.”

  “Oh well.” The boy slammed the book. “’Tis just for today. I’ll take another name tomorrow, and the day after, until I find the one I want. Right?”

  “Right. I think you should excuse yourself.”

  “I’ll go this instant if you give me a baby brother.”

  The earl flushed, but his voice was calm when he said, “Don’t you have something dirty to get into?”

  “Aye,” said the lad, squaring his shoulders. “’Twill be a duel to the death!” He dashed out.

  The earl studied the toes of his shoes, which were splayed. “My apologies. He spends too much time with the soldiers.”

  Miriam’s confusion vanished. “The ones who patrol the wall, fifty at a time?”

  “You’re very observant, my lady, and may I say, that’s a beautiful gown. The precise color of cardinal feathers.”

  Was the bumbling earl resorting to pretty compliments? Or was he trying to distract her? How interesting, and disappointing.

  “Thank you.” She sat in the chair he’d indicated. “I was hoping we could have a chat about Baron Sinclair.”

  The earl returned to his seat “Why ever would you want to talk about that scoundrel? His methods are not the sort of topic one discusses with a lady. We could talk about—” He snapped his fingers. “Fashion!”

  Silently Miriam counted to ten. “I wish to discuss Baron Sinclair.”

  His eyes grew as large as his coat buttons. “Why?”

  How dare Alexis think him adorable. Slow-witted, perhaps, but definitely not adorable. “Because he’s your neighbor and he’s been complaining of trouble.”

  He smiled apologetically, his broad forehead furrowed. “A Border dispute seems a rather harsh subject for a gently bred lady. How did you come to know of it?”

  Baffled, Miriam said, “I can’t believe you don’t know who I am or why I’m here.”

  “I’ve offended you.” His hands fluttered, disturbing the feathers on his desk. “I’m a country boor and beg your indulgence. Please, enlighten me.”

  Miriam suspected all the Greek scholars couldn’t enlighten Duncan Armstrong Kerr. Speaking slowly and concisely, she said, “My name is Miriam MacDonald. I’m an emissary of—”

  “Yes, of course.” He slapped his forehead with his palm. “I have the gist of it now. You’ve come at the insistence of the earl of Mar. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint his lordship, but my answer remains the same: I will not side with the Jacobites. I abhor politics.”

  While the earl of Kildalton gave her a dissertation on the dissatisfaction among the Highland clans over the Act of Union, Miriam counted to one hundred.

  When he finished his speech, she noticed that he was staring at her hand. She looked down and realized she was strumming her fingers. She made a fist and fought the urge to pound his head.

  “Let me begin again, my lord. I have been sent by the queen to settle your dispute with Baron Sinclair. He’s charged you with robbery, vandalism, kidnapping, and bodily injury.”

  He scratched his forehead, leaving the elaborate wig askew, but not enough to discern the color of his hair. “Bodily injury? Me? Don’t believe him. He’ll say anything to impugn my character. Don’t you agree?”

  He assumed she knew the baron. Let him continue to do so. “That’s what I’m here to find out.”

  “Why would Her Majesty send a … a woman? No offense, of course. Some of my best feathers come from female birds. Take the moorhen—”

  “Because mediation is my job,” she said through clenched teeth. “I am a member of Her Majesty’s diplomatic corps.”

  Mouth open, he levered himself up in the chair, then plopped down again. “Well, I’m impressed. I thought you a minion of Mar’s here to turn my head and sway me to his cause. You must be horribly embarrassed.”

  He could think her a Persian harem dancer, for all Miriam cared. She hated losing control of a conversation. “Enough about me. I’m here to listen to your side of the story. Proceed, if you will.”

  Duncan bit his tongue to keep from howling with laughter. He had the chit exactly where he wanted her. When he was done with his tale of woe, she’d pack up her entourage and report back to the queen. Baron Sinclair would go to jail. Duncan’s life would return to normal, his household to his bidding. The first order of business would involve blistering the seat of a certain seven-year-old brat who was playing at being a disobedient son.

  “I’m waiting, my lord.”

  “Of course. But won’t you be needing those soldiers you sent away this morning?”

  “No. I intend to settle the matter without further bloodshed.”

  Nearly gagging on his own insincerity, he said, “I can’t tell you how grateful I am.”

  “Please, you needn’t waste a noble breath trying.”

  She needn’t waste her time, either. The baron would think twice before ordering his men over the wall again. Once, that is, his men recovered from the trouncing the Border Lord had given them last night. “Would you like to write down his offenses—for posterity?” He remembered the unusual twins. “Or perhaps call in your scribes?”

  “That won’t be necessary.” She gave him that supercilious smile again. “I never forget anything.”

  He’d like to put a few memories in her mind. He’d also like to know where she acquired that charming concoction of gray wool and red satin. Splendid indeed, and a perfect foil for all that red hair.
Lord, he could pillow his head on that mass of curls.

  Thinking of the texture of those silky strands, he felt his fingers relax. Thinking of the price he’d pay for such an indulgence, he got to the business at hand. “’Twould take days to list all of the baron’s crimes against Kildalton,” he warned.

  She leveled him a gaze that said she doubted he could list his own titles. “I’m in no hurry.”

  Duncan cleared his throat, and began speaking in a high-pitched tone that would have set Malcolm to giggling. “His men have burned three farms this year alone. Ghastly, smelly business. Now there are cinders in my best trout stream. All that soot turns my sheets gray—”

  “How many deaths?”

  Banishing the image of the bodies, he said, “Four. He also encourages his fishermen to net the salmon in the river Tyne. Poor creatures never make it to spawn.”

  “Poor creatures indeed. Go on.”

  “He steals cattle at will. The churl even had the gall to take a new herd my agent just purchased from Aberdeen.” Rifling through the clutter on his desk, Duncan said, “I have the transfer of ownership here somewhere. Oh, this blasted mess. Things are never where you put them. Most annoying—”

  “You can find it for me later.”

  A feather settled on his nose. Duncan made several attempts to shake it off. He even stuck out his bottom lip and huffed, but to no avail. She started tapping her fingernails again. He plucked off the feather. Pretending to examine it, he held it an inch away from his spectacles. Over the rims, he examined her. How did she manage to compose herself so? He’d trade one of his hideouts in Hadrian’s Wall to show her the man he really was.

  He chose discretion instead. “I’ll save this one for a fat trout,” he said, dropping the feather into a drawer.

  “What about the kidnapping charge?”

  Duncan thought of Adrienne and how happy she’d sounded in her letter. Charles had purchased a plantation in Barbados. They were expecting a child.

  “My lord … The kidnapping.”

  “That’s a bit of fiction. The baron’s soldiers absconded with our best beehives. ’Twas done before the clover was pollinated.” Shaking his head, he added, “We suffered a poor harvest.”

  “You retaliated by stealing something of his.”

  Was that hope he saw in her eyes? Imagine her, a romantic. Imagine him, exploring the feminine facets of her. Oh, but he couldn’t, for duty called. Blinking like a fool, he perjured himself. “Me? A Border reiver? What a novel thought, but off the mark. I gave the farmers grain from the storehouses and acquired new hives for them.”

  Her voice dropped. “You never retaliate?”

  With absolute honesty he said, “Duncan Armstrong Kerr is a scholar. He battles with pen and ink, not guns and bullets.” He shuddered. “The sight of blood makes me ill.”

  “I’m sure. Anything else?”

  The tapping of her fingernails, which had ceased, seemed her only peculiarity. He didn’t even remember seeing her blink. Lord, she could teach a parson patience. He made a show of hesitating, as if he couldn’t say what was really on his mind.

  “Please, don’t be shy, my lord. I’m here to help you.”

  And he was the bloody king of France. What could a well-composed and finely constructed redhead do to solve the problems that began centuries ago when a pack of hungry, pelt-clad Saxons took a shine to Scotland? The malleable woman who currently occupied the throne was merely following the lead of her predecessors in trying her hand at settling the Border. Only this time Anne had sent a minion who pleased the eye and challenged the intellect.

  “You could continue your list now, Lord Duncan. What’s so terrible that you can’t speak of it?”

  He didn’t reply, for Mrs. Elliott stepped into the room, her eyes averted. “Excuse me, my lord. I’ve brought cider for you and Lady Miriam.”

  That was the signal. Lookouts had spotted visitors from Sinclair approaching Kildalton. They’d be here in an hour. Duncan would be gone, though, for he couldn’t let his enemies see him disguised as a bumbling idiot. He didn’t like the idea of his leaving Lady Miriam either.

  He thought of a solution. “I say, Lady Miriam, would you perchance want to see for yourself what the baron has done? We could take the carriage and the cider. I could show you some other things, too—Hadrian’s Wall, and a dozen species of butterflies. We could make an afternoon of it, if you will.”

  Gray eyes glittered with pleasure, and her mouth tipped up in a genuine smile. “That would be splendid. May I bring a friend along?”

  The facade of bumbling idiot shifted. Duncan’s true nature surfaced. “Of course. So long as it’s not a man more handsome than I.”

  An enchanting expression of confusion eclipsed her smile. Blinking, she said, “But my sleuthhound is a female.”

  Inwardly Duncan groaned. Miriam MacDonald possessed a logical, calculating mind and the body of temptress. But she had no sense of humor.

  Before this beauty left Scotland, Duncan intended to give her one. Among other things.

  Chapter 3

  A cloak over her arm, Verbatim on a leash at her side, Miriam left the kennel and stepped into the castle yard. The sounds and smells of country living filled the air. The alehouse rocked with raucous laughter and singing; the blacksmith hammered out a tune of his own. At a trough beside the well, a group of women rolled up their sleeves and plunged into the laundry. Nearby, the children played at peevers and tag.

  Small herds of black-faced sheep bleated their way down the hay-strewn thoroughfare to the lush carpet of grass in the outer bailey. A pleasantly brisk breeze fluttered the Kerr pennons that framed the open gates.

  Only a handful of soldiers wearing Highland bonnets and colorful Kerr plaids patrolled the walls. Where were the others? Searching the yard she spotted Malcolm near the portcullis. Brandishing a wooden sword and shield, the lad battled a tree stump.

  Hoping to get a closer look at the courtyard where she’d glimpsed the mysterious shadow last night, Miriam walked to the rear of the castle. Passersby called out greetings as if they’d met her before. None came too close, but then strangers never did when she had Verbatim at her side.

  A rickety cart, pulled by a fat jennet and stacked high with peat, rumbled across the yard. As a child, she had loved to stare into the shiny brass brazier filled with glowing clumps of peat.

  “Doona get too close, pet,” her nanny would say.

  Pain squeezed Miriam’s chest. The Glenlyon Campbells had bludgeoned poor Nanny to death.

  Verbatim tugged on the lead.

  Taking a deep breath, Miriam moved on. A stair tower with fishtail arrow slits stood at the back corner of the castle. She stopped at the ten-foot-high wall surrounding the courtyard. From beyond the barrier came the sound of rushing water. To get her bearings, she studied the windows until she located the green velvet drapes that marked her chamber.

  Then she located a squat wooden door in the garden wall. She pulled on the iron handle. Well-oiled hinges emitted not a whisper of sound. “Stay close,” she said to the hound, then ducked under the portal.

  Heat from Verbatim’s massive body seeped through Miriam’s dress. She rested a hand on the dog. Beneath her fingers she felt the sturdy chain of backbones and the bow of Verbatim’s ribs. Her other senses were fixed on the cozy garden before her.

  A trysting place, she thought, staring at the fountain that housed a trio of naked marble nymphs emptying urns into a pool. Benches carved with vines and horn-shaped flowers ringed the fountain. The lush motif was repeated on a dozen mosaics set into three walls of the enclosure. The castle proper formed the fourth wall. Against it stood six Grecian urns as tall as she and overflowing with herbs. The perfume of basil, thyme, and fennel sweetened the air. Between the fountain and the castle wall was an elegant flower bed laid out in the shape of the clan symbol: a blazing sun. Bright yellow gorse formed the flames, frost-tinged daisies the center.

  Verbatim tugged at the leash, her ke
en black nose sniffing the ground. Miriam let the slack out of the leash. Head down, the dog picked up a scent, followed it around the giant urns, and discovered a door in the castle wall.

  Who else save the lord and lady of the keep would warrant direct access to the private garden? Had Duncan Kerr crept from the castle last night?

  Verbatim scratched at the door and whimpered.

  “Shush, girl,” Miriam whispered.

  She tried the door. It was locked. Tonight they’d return, and if she was lucky, she’d find out who used it.

  She returned to the castle yard. A pair of dappled grays harnessed to an open carriage emerged from the stable. The earl held the reins. He sat straight and tall and confident, much like a ruler surveying his kingdom. From a distance, he appeared handsome, in a general sort of way. His neck appeared thicker, his shoulders broader.

  Spying her, he slumped and sawed on the reins. The team veered right and headed her way. Scoffing at the alluring picture she’d made of him, Miriam vowed to keep her imagination in check.

  Traffic on the thoroughfare stopped. The castlefolk and the laborers paused in their conversations to doff their caps. Some called out greetings to the lord of the keep. Smiles wreathed their faces, except the tinker, who stared in awe.

  They like Duncan Kerr. She wondered how so eccentric a man had attained their respect and devotion. Could they truly admire his obsession with fishing lures and his blithe indifference to his son? Of course they could; when it came to raising children, the earl was no different from the rest of the nobility. They cared little for children, leaving them to cruel nannies and later, stern governesses for the girls and strict academies for the boys. When she had children, she’d love them, respect them, and be a part of their daily lives.

  As the earl approached, his spectacles glinted in the sun. Miriam tried to picture him conducting assizes and passing out harsh judgments. She failed.

  When the carriage reached her, he dropped the reins and climbed down. He wore unadorned shoes, on the proper feet, and a coat and long breeches of dark green wool. Over the wig, he wore a sheared beaver hat that sported a cluster of badly frayed peacock feathers. His longed-for birds had better arrive soon.

 
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