Border lord, p.5

Border Lord, page 5

 

Border Lord
 



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  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.

  He was two steps away when Verbatim bared her teeth and growled. Gasps sounded from the crowd. The earl stopped. He swallowed noisily. "Is she vicious?"

  Miriam pulled on the leash and ordered the hound to sit. Smiling, she spoke loud enough for all around them to hear. "Actually Verbatim is very gentle once she knows you. May I have one of your gloves, my lord?"

  Gingerly, he removed the right one. She remembered the blisters. "How is your hand today?"

  "What?"

  "The blisters on your hands, my lord. How are they?"

  The castlefolk closed in. The horses started to wander.

  The earl's eyebrows rose in surprise. "You remembered." Then he waved his hand." 'Tis nothing. Mrs. Elliott gave me a poultice."

  Miriam held the glove before the dog's nose. "Friend." Tail wagging, soulful eyes trained on the earl, Verbatim held up a huge paw.

  Ohs of surprise and ahs of approval spread through the crowd.

  Miriam returned the glove. "She wants to shake your hand, my lord."

  As if reaching into a roaring furnace, the earl extended his bare hand. Staring at Verbatim's mouth, and probably expecting the animal to bite off his fingers, he said, "She's… uh… quite an engaging beast, and lovely in a way."

  "To some, I suppose," Miriam said, patting the dog's head. "Good girl."

  Verbatim barked. The earl jumped back and fell against the carriage.

  The onlookers roared with laughter, yet none went to their master's aid.

  The earl righted himself and his spectacles. To the people he said, "Yes, well, carry on, everyone, and keep watch for that fellow with the peacocks. I expect him any day now. Shall we go, my lady?"

  "Of course, my lord. We can continue our discussion later."

  Duncan cursed himself for not expecting straightforwardness from her. The solicitous query about his silly blisters had caught him off guard.

  I never forget anything.

  Grumbling inwardly, he handed her into the carriage and was pleasantly surprised at how slight she was, how delightful she smelled. His pretty little diplomat wore an exotic fragrance that reminded him of crisp winter days in the mountains. He climbed in beside her, remembering to stumble on the step. He could be thorough, too, when the situation demanded it.

  Verbatim leaped into the opposite seat and sat in ladylike elegance.

  Duncan shrank back. Making sure his hands trembled, he flicked the reins. As the crowd parted, he decided his people deserved a boon for their performance; none except the newly arrived tinker had expressed surprise at his appearance or his exhibition of cowardice. Angus had schooled them well. He'd also ridden out earlier to prepare the farmers for a visit from their laird. The excursion would proceed without a hitch.

  The instant the carriage passed through the outer curtain wall, Lady Miriam said, "Out, Verbatim."

  The sleuthhound bounded from the carriage, put her nose to the ground, and began a systematic mapping of the terrain. Her sleek, golden-red coat glistened in the sunshine.

  Seated comfortably in the open carriage, the afternoon breeze ruffling his outlandish wig, the queen's minion his captive audience, Duncan reviewed his plan. By day's end she'd be convinced that he and his people were innocent, defenseless victims of Baron Sinclair. She'd report back to the queen. Baron Sinclair would be revealed as the villain he was. Life, albeit peaceably, would go on.

  Duncan said, "Did you train the hound?"

  She gazed after the dog, affection softening her features. "She needed little, actually. Sleuthing is bred into her. Do you mind if she stays in my room? I promise she won't misbehave."

  If it made her happy and kept her occupied, Lady Miriam could bring a litter of squealing pigs into his pantry. "Please, feel free."

  "Thank you. I noticed that you have a number of terriers from the dales of Aire and a litter of foxhounds in your kennel."

  He glanced down at her and smiled. "Is that what they are? Terriers and foxhounds," he repeated much like Malcolm when he learned a new curse word. "To me they're scruffy creatures with heaven knows what in their fur. None are so fine or elegant, I think, as your Verbatim."

  As if he'd made small talk about the weather, rather than a diatribe about dogs, she said, "I forgot, my lord, that you prefer fishing to hunting."

  He knew that for a lie; she never forgot anything, and if she thought to trip him up, she'd be vastly disappointed. "Verbatim looks swift enough to outrun a horse."

  "Thank you. She's an excellent traveler. Did your father teach you to drive a team?"

  Duncan tensed. The horses slowed. Her attempt to turn the conversation might have charmed him, if she had chosen any subject except his father. Kenneth Kerr had been an impatient, cold man who was highly skilled and inventive with a strap.

  Flicking the reins, Duncan said, "No. I'm afraid we didn't get on well at all. He was such a crude fellow. He used to say he'd sooner stroll the halls of Holyrood Palace in stays and a farthingale than ride in a carriage. Can you imagine such a thing?"

  "Did he also fight with Baron Sinclair?"

  Duncan wondered if she practiced that smile in a mirror. Was she attempting to distract him? Or trick him with wily questions?

  Answers would have to wait, for Duncan needed to keep his wits about him. Wits! He almost laughed out loud; he was supposed to be witless. "Also? You don't think I'd sink to the baron's level? Heaven forbid. Violence brings on the grippe. I prefer fishing, but then you know that. Did I ever tell you about the boot I mistook for a salmon?" He twisted his face into a self-effacing grin. "Bent my hook and destroyed one of my most valuable lures. I call it the spangle-dangle. Took me a whole day to make another."

  "How clever of you to name them."

  She stared at the horses, but Duncan knew she wasn't thinking about the grays. He'd trade all the salt in Kildalton for a peek at her thoughts.

  "Are you named for your father?" she asked.

  Duncan spoke from the heart. "No. For the king MacBeth slew. My father was a rough Scotsman who embraced the clannish ways. A likable, bold chap, I suppose—if you favor that sort. They called him the Grand Reiver."

  "He raided, then?"

  "Until the eve of his death."

  "How old were you when he died?"

  He had expected her to ask personal questions. He just wished he could return the favor. He wanted to know why she'd never married. If she were betrothed? Was she the mistress of some well-fixed peer? Were her nipples pink, and did they pucker when suckled?

  "If the subject makes you uncomfortable, my lord…"

  Duncan marshaled his lustful thoughts. "Not at all, my lady. I was twenty and in Rome at the time." Sheepishly, he added, "I've always enjoyed studying the Romans. The aqueducts fed some of the finest trout streams in Italy."

  "Ah yes. I'm curious," she said, toying with the leather lead. "Why does the baron accuse you of raiding?"

  "Why, it's as obvious as the scales on a bass. He accuses me to cover his own ghastly crimes. Surely someone of your vast experience and knowledge understands that."

  He might have been a spy lurking in her wardrobe, she eyed him with such suspicion. He almost chuckled, for that's exactly what he intended to become.

  Sunlight turned her irises to sparkling gems of blue and gray, and her hair to golden fire. She powdered her face, he decided, for he could discern a faint spattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks. How adorable. Perhaps he should powder his face too, or ask her what cosmetics she preferred. The carriage hit a bump. He turned his attention to driving the team and playing the fool.

  "Where shall we visit first?" she asked.

  Pretending spontaneity seemed a good tactic. "You've seen the Mac
Larens' croft—or what's left of it. Do you truly want to see the other farms Sinclair has burned? You'll muss your dress and dirty your hands."

  "No. But I should like to meet a few of the farmers. Not, of course, that I don't believe you, Lord Duncan."

  He should have expected the request. Considering her reputation for composing detailed trade agreements, Lady Miriam wouldn't take the pope's word for the date of Easter. Ah, but she was newly introduced to Duncan Kerr.

  He almost laughed. "I should be flattered that you think me capable of subterfuge. Do you speak Scottish?"

  "Aye. I'll be able to converse with the people." In his language, she said, "You hesitated before answering me. What were you really going to say?"

  He loved playing verbal hide-and-seek with her. In English he said, "Oh, Lady Miriam. I fear you already think me foolish."

  "If you don't tell me, I might think you're hiding something."

  Duncan snatched an outrageous topic. "If you must know… I was wondering if dogs could be taught to fish."

  She looked like a child tasting a lemon for the first time.

  To keep from laughing, Duncan said, "I told you 'twas foolish. You'll forgive me, I'm sure. It's just that fishing is such a marvelous pastime. I'm always inspired to improve upon my technique. I'm a very progressive thinker, you know."

  Skepticism lent an angelic quality to her features. God, did the woman never laugh?

  "I'm sure," she murmured.

  They visited two cattle farms and three shepherds. At every croft they were met first with cheers and then straight faces. Angus had done his job well. The women wailed of crimes committed by the baron. The men knotted their fists and called Sinclair names that would have made a lesser diplomat than Lady Miriam blush. Goodwives fawned over Duncan as if he were incapable of caring for himself. Everyone spoke of the dreadful twist of fate that required him to wear spectacles. He was proclaimed a saint, a savior, and a gentleman among men.

  Blessed Scotland, his people were magnificent.

  Except for Lettie Melville.

  Later in the afternoon, they had stopped at the croft belonging to the Melvilles. Duncan had been pulled aside by Finlay, a wiry shepherd who had lost a hand while protecting his flock from Sinclair's raiders. As he listened to Finlay praise the sleuthhound, Duncan watched Miriam. She chatted amiably with Finlay's wife, Lettie, but her attention and her bewitching gray eyes constantly strayed to him.

  "Oh yes," said Lady Miriam, as charming as Malcolm on the day before his birthday. "I understand Lord Duncan's lures are all the rage."

  "Sure as the good Catholics eat fish on Friday, milady," said Lettie, bouncing her son on her knee. "Ladies come from as far as Aberdeen to get a taste of his 'lure.'"

  "I beg your pardon," said Lady Miriam. "You mean they come to fish with him?"

  Finlay burst out laughing.

  Lettie huffed and said, "Oh, he's been known to hook a few ladies all right. All they suffers is a broken heart."

  Miriam turned so fast that her shock of hair swung over her shoulder. The look she shot Duncan said, "You, a heartbreaker?"

  If she were as easy to bed as she was to fool, they'd be buck naked and going at it like newlyweds. The image kindled a fire in Duncan. He pictured her languishing on his feather mattress, her glorious hair blanketing his pillow, her slender arms extended in invitation. His loins swelled with need.

  It was time to get back to bamboozling her.

  Once they returned to the carriage and headed toward Hadrian's Wall, she said, "You and Mr. Melville seemed to find much to whisper about."

  As he had since the excursion began, Duncan discarded his natural response and thought of what a bumbling coward would do. He held his breath to make his face turn red.

  "Don't be shy. Tell me about today's chat." That trouble line reappeared in her forehead. "Are you blushing?"

  Tucking his cheek to his shoulder, Duncan did his best to look embarrassed. "Oh my. I couldn't possibly repeat it. 'Tisn't suitable conversation for a fine lady."

  Her chin came up. "I'll be the judge of that."

  Oh, she'd regret it, for Duncan relished her reaction. Would she blush in soft pink or red to match that enticing satin jerkin? Guilt stabbed him, for Duncan realized he liked her. Still, he had a role to play.

  "Finlay wanted to send his bloodhound courting your Verbatim—when, uh, the time is right," Duncan blurted.

  Surprise smoothed out her features, and her skin blossomed in an enchanting shade of pink. "I see."

  A master actor in a play of his own creation, Duncan added, "I told you so. Now you'll think me crass, when I want more than anything to be cooperative." Almost more than anything; he wanted her cooperation in a very different matter.

  She cleared her throat. "No, not at all. I did, as you say, ask for it. Thank you for your cooperation."

  Duncan wondered if she ever had fun. He could make a vocation of entertaining her. But as diverting as the prospect might be, it was impossible, for he couldn't go on being the witless earl forever. Or could he?

  Studying the landscape, she said, "Why are the farms smaller on your side of the wall?"

  She recovered quickly, he'd give her that. Squinting, he peered over the rims of the spectacles. "A man can only work so much land—or so I'm told."

  "But I've seen entire families working in the fields, both here and on the baron's land."

  Were she truly knowledgeable about the baron, she wouldn't make such a statement. Unless, she'd only viewed his holdings from the London road. Those he kept prosperous, for show. Cautiously, Duncan said, "You know the man?"

  She stared at the dog, who was chasing a hare. "He brought the complaint against you."

  A hedge, if Duncan ever heard one. Could the renowned Lady Miriam of Her Majesty's diplomatic corps be so unprepared and uninformed? She hadn't known that the baron only arrived in the Border eight years ago; she'd asked if Duncan's father raided the baron. Duncan had to find out how much she knew. "Complaint?"

  "I told you. Robbery, vandalism, kidnapping, and bodily injury."

  Duncan decided to fish. He thought of Adrienne. "That's laughable. You do know that in June he offered one of his stepdaughters to the magistrate as an inducement to dismiss a charge I brought against him."

  " 'Tis a father's obligation to arrange his daughter's marriage."

  Happy thoughts of Adrienne carrying her first child made Duncan smile. "Unfortunately, the magistrate was already married at the time. A cruel trick to play on a well-bred girl."

  Her eyes narrowed. A moment later, she said, "You were telling me what you know about the work ethic of the crofters."

  What would it take to shock her? The Border Lord could find out. He tried to imagine the life she'd led, the experiences that could bring about such iron control. No wonder the queen praised and valued Miriam MacDonald. Why, then, had no one briefed her on the problems here? He'd find out, but he'd pick his time to ask, for Duncan had learned a thing or two about diplomacy himself.

  "The crofters, my lord," she prompted.

  The carriage clipped along at a brisk pace, wheels whirring, harnesses jingling. Fields sped by. "Sinclair works his poor families to the bone. But in Kildalton, the children don't work in the morning. They attend school."

  Her gaze whipped to him. "All of them?"

  "Most. I provide the school and the teacher—nothing elaborate, or so my steward tells me. But no one forces the children to attend. I like to think their favorite subject is nature study. Imagine a whole crop of youth learning about fish and fowl." He preened. "That was my idea."

  She waved a gloved hand toward a field that had been plowed in stick-straight rows. "Yet the farms in Kildalton prosper."

  He dare not tell her how hard he and his tenants worked to implement new farming techniques and try new crops. Instead, he chose a defensive stand. "None of the farms near the wall do as well as they should, because of Sinclair's vile raiding."

  "Does the baron also p
rovide a school?"

  Duncan had to work at stifling his anger. He flipped the reins. Summoning nonchalance, he said, "I can't trouble myself with his agenda. I have my own interests. Do you know about the ruins near the wall? 'Tis a wondrous place the Romans built. I've been exploring there since I was a child."

  Successful diplomacy required a certain amount of com-promise from all parties involved. Duncan waited, hoping she'd do her part.

  "Then you must have had an interesting childhood."

  Again he wondered about her life. To which MacDonald clan did she belong? Where had she grown up? But his role didn't allow for familiarity with the queen's minion. His next words tasted bitter. "Oh, a very interesting childhood."

  Hadrian's Wall came into view. Guiding the team off the road, he steered them toward a bracken-infested vale that contained two stone walls and a well.

  "Behold… the remains of Virgin's Gate," he said.

  She stepped from the carriage and approached the well. Peering over the edge, she said, "Hello…"

  Spoken into the well, the word sounded hollow, distant. Duncan didn't move from the carriage, for his eyes and his senses suddenly fixed on her slender ankles and shapely calves. Her hips were narrow, too, he suspected. Silently he begged her to bend over just a bit more.

  The dog joined her, front paws braced on the lip of the well. "Listen, Verbatim." She spoke playfully, smiling at the dog. "There's an echo in there."

  Tail swishing, her regal head cocked, the dog listened in rapt attention.

  Duncan sneaked up behind them. Cupping his hands around his mouth, he said, "Woof."

  The dog yelped and jumped back. A startled Lady Miriam froze. "Quite diverting, my lord. Go find something, Verbatim."

  The dog lumbered off. The woman turned toward Duncan.

  His breath caught. She looked the picture of feminine charm, an alluring virgin. Or was she? The Border Lord would find out.

  God, he wanted her.

  "Tell me about the well."

  She wanted to know about a stupid well.

  His groin aching, Duncan didn't have to pretend to stumble on the rocky ground. In a voice pinched by longing, he said, "It was built in a.d. 120, but destroyed twenty years later."

 
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