The border series, p.51

The Border Series, page 51


The Border Series

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  The challenge in his voice spurred her on. Knowing his body shielded her from view of the approaching men, she slipped her finger inside his boot and lightly scratched his calf. “I’d rather take off your kilt, but…”

  He sucked air between his teeth, and his hand tightened on her neck. “But?”

  Alexander cleared his throat. Malcolm stiffened and glanced over his shoulder.

  “But unfortunately,” Alpin continued, her voice dripping with honeyed regret, “there’s no time. You have a guest.”

  Ignoring the intruders, Malcolm leaned close and whispered, “You’re a wicked lass, Alpin MacKay.”

  Her heart thudding against her ribs, Alpin looked up at their audience. Alexander shuffled his feet. The stranger, a stocky man with red hair and a piercing gaze, stared at Alpin.

  “Do you know what happens to wicked lassies?” Malcolm asked.

  Swallowing back fear because she knew she might have goaded him too far, she licked her lips. “No, I don’t. Tell me.”

  “I’ll show you.” He gave her an arch look. “Tonight.”

  He rose and by way of greeting said to the visitor, “Your visit had better be about the next shipment of salt. Come with me.”

  Leaving Alpin sitting in the garden, Malcolm and his guest walked to the castle. She glanced at Alexander, who frowned at his departing laird.

  “Who is that man?” she asked.

  The soldier pretended to spit on the ground. “A trouble-making Gordon, and no one you need concern yourself with.”

  “Why does he make trouble, Alexander?”

  He pursed his lips, as if he’d said too much. “’Tisn’t important, my lady.”

  “If it’s not important, then why won’t you tell me why he’s here? And why was Malcolm so curt with him?”

  Raking off his bonnet, Alexander rubbed his balding pate. “He buys Kildalton salt. I hear Fraser’s making a hutch for your rabbit. I’ll just see how it’s coming along.” He touched his forehead. “Good day, my lady.” He marched off.

  From his change of subject and abrupt departure she knew she’d have to learn the answers herself. A scan of the battlements showed no additional soldiers, so she assumed the stranger wasn’t a threat to the security of Kildalton Castle. What, then, about his arrival had so disturbed Malcolm? Surely it wasn’t salt.

  Curious, she left the garden and went to the great hall, which was empty. She took a moment to admire the eight life-size portraits of the former earls of Kildalton, including one of Malcolm’s father, the fair-haired Lord Duncan. Even now his hazel eyes looked down on her with kindness.

  Then she went to Malcolm’s study. The door was closed. She heard the muffled sounds of an argument, but they spoke in Scottish. If she sneaked into the tunnel to eavesdrop again, her entry would set off the warning bell. If she stood here, one of the servants might see her.

  So she went to the staircase and examined the battle shields of the clans that had aligned themselves with the Kerrs.

  The shield of the Gordon family was conspicuously absent.

  Chapter 13

  Wondering when his guest would get to the point, Malcolm sipped his beer and watched John Gordon of Aberdeenshire pace the study. Arms clasped behind his back, he peered at the shelves of Roman helmets, spearheads, and pottery that Malcolm and his father had unearthed from the ruins near Hadrian’s Wall. With a casual air, he perused the standing globe, gave it a departing spin, then moved on to the wall of paintings.

  For a man planning the overthrow of one of the world’s great monarchies, the Highlander seemed indifferent to the danger he courted and unaffected by the lives he risked. How, Malcolm wondered, could a man act so blasé while contemplating a declaration of war? Probably because the Gordon chieftain had spent most of his life in the scheming mews of Jacobite politics.

  Whatever the case, Malcolm had no intention of broaching the subject first. His mind kept straying to Alpin. One night in his arms and she’d awakened a minx. He intended to give her every opportunity to explore her role as seductress—after his guest stopped prowling and started parleying.

  “I don’t remember Kildalton being so prosperous when your father ruled,” Gordon said in Scottish.

  Saladin dispatched their letters, and on occasion Malcolm traveled north to the Gordon stronghold in Aberdeenshire, but the last time this chieftain was invited to Kildalton, Malcolm had been a lad. “Times have changed in the Borders,” he said. “My stepmother brought us peace.”

  His guest stopped before the most recent of the family portraits. “The Moorish lad told me Lord Duncan went to Constantinople with Lady Miriam. Have they returned?”

  Gordon was making small talk; he couldn’t have cared less about the diplomatic missions. “Nay,” Malcolm said.

  His guest laughed and shook his head. “I pity the Persians. According to Lord Lovatt, Lady Miriam can swindle a man out of his family jewels and call it diplomacy.”

  Malcolm’s stepmother had a special gift for bringing warring men to peace, and twenty years ago, while preoccupied with negotiations, she had forgotten to guard her heart. Malcolm’s father had won her love and in marrying her had given the people of Kildalton a prize of immeasurable value.

  Affection for her made Malcolm smile. “I’ll be sure to pass along your compliment,” he said ruefully.

  Gordon went back to studying the portraits.

  In his stepmother’s absence Alpin had assumed responsibility for Kildalton. She was making her own mark on the citizens; her leadership and involvement in their day-to-day activities had inspired respect and a new camaraderie among the soldiers and the castle folk. How, Malcolm wondered, had he managed without her?

  Gordon belched loudly. Leaning close to a portrait, he stared at Malcolm’s sisters. When he squinted, his roughened skin looked like old leather. He tapped the canvas. “This lass with the red hair. Your father could do something profitable with her.”

  Gordon was asking about Malcolm’s youngest sister. At fourteen years of age, Anne had one passion: to build an estate vast enough to shelter every orphan in London. She would take to Alpin like an archer to a new bow. “Anne has a mind of her own.”

  “He hasn’t betrothed her yet?”

  So much for pleasantries. “My parents don’t use their children as pawns in the game of politics.”

  “A pity. An alliance with the Lochiel Camerons would serve both clans well.”

  It was so typical and disgusting a remark, Malcolm couldn’t let it pass. “Servicing the Highland clans is not a priority with this family.”

  “Aye. ’Tis why Scotland stands divided. You Border clans may enjoy the role of conquered people, but the Highlanders never will.”

  The old argument rose before them. Malcolm strove for logic. “The Highlanders don’t share a border with the English.”

  All bravado, Gordon waved a clenched fist. “We’d vanquish them if we did.”

  “The same way you vanquish one another? You can’t stop fighting among yourselves long enough to present a unified front. Until you do, James Stewart has no one to lead or rule.”

  Unmoved by the reasoning behind Malcolm’s statement, Gordon continued to examine the gilt frame. “I take it.” the Highlander said, “your fancy piece hasn’t returned.”

  Even though he knew to whom Gordon referred, Malcolm refused to acknowledge the slur. He’d almost forgotten about Rosina. “My fancy piece?”

  With a last glance at the portrait, Gordon settled his bulk in one of the chairs facing Malcolm’s desk. “Rosina.”

  “What makes you think she hasn’t returned?”

  “Two things. First if she had come back, you would have sent the Moorish lad north with the reply from our friends in Albano. Second, you’re not the kind of man to bed two women at once. You’re like your father in that.”

  His guest’s lack of taste repulsed Malcolm, but reminding Gordon of his bad manners would only prolong the visit. Malcolm chose another facetious answer. “I never
was able to hide anything from you, John.”

  Gordon gave Malcolm a leering wink. “You concealed your Scottish lass well enough. Who is she?”

  The Scottish lass. It was odd to hear someone refer to Alpin in that way; Malcolm had never thought of her in terms of her heritage. She had lived with her English uncle. She’d always been simply Alpin. Now she was his Alpin. A situation he found exceedingly enjoyable, especially after last night. He wanted to explore his feelings for her, and he would, the moment his guest returned to his northern lair. “She’s no one you’d know.”

  Gordon shrugged and picked up his tankard. “She looks familiar.”

  That, too, was odd. “What about her is familiar?”

  “’Tis those unusual eyes and her mahogany-colored hair, but I can’t place where I’ve seen them before. What’d you say her clan was?”

  Instinct and the curiosity in Gordon’s eyes told Malcolm to equivocate. “She’s a local lass, and exclusively mine.”

  “Protective, eh?” Gordon chuckled. “Can’t say I wouldn’t covet the lassie, were I in your place. She’s a wee thing, with a bonny set of attributes.”

  The memory of her attributes rose clearly in Malcolm’s mind. His randy body followed suit. Uncomfortable, he picked up the pitcher. “More beer?”

  “Aye, ’tis a fair brew.” Gordon emptied his mug and refilled it, then emptied it again. His eyes shone with challenge. “I’d also like a commitment from clan Kerr.”

  It was always the same with Gordon. “Then you’ve made a useless trip, for my position hasn’t changed, John. I’ll ferry your messages to Italy, but I won’t be a party to treason.”

  The tankard hit the arm of the high-backed chair. “Dammit, Malcolm, time is running out. You cannot keep standing on both sides of the border.”

  “Aye, I can, since I own the land on either side. My English mother, by way of her dower lands, saw to my interest in both sides.”

  “Your father had no business taking an Englishwoman to wife.”

  Malcolm’s good intentions fled. “Then I’m sure you jumped with joy when she dissolved the marriage by dying before I was weaned.”

  Unaware of or uninterested in the tragic events of Malcolm’s life, Gordon said, “Either you’re with the clans or we’ll call you enemy. Which is it?”

  A tempest of anger churned in Malcolm’s gut. Striving for calm, he picked up a lead pencil and rolled it between his fingers. In English he said, “Watch your words, John. They’re beginning to sound like bloody sedition.”

  Gordon leaned forward, his complexion turning as red as his hair. “You’re sounding more like an Englishman every day.”

  So much for bandying words. “I am half English, as are many people in the Borders.”

  “We’ve never held that against you.”

  “Bide your tongue, especially when you’re gorging yourself on beef from my cattle in Northumberland and seasoning it with salt from my English mines.”

  “’Tis commerce, nothing more. You’re well paid.”

  Knowing the discussion was going nowhere, Malcolm reined in his temper. “You and I have better things to do than to sit here wasting our time citing the differences between Highlanders and Low.”

  “Aye, ‘low’ is the word,” Gordon growled, radiating stubbornness. “Because you’re the one who’s determined to draw a line between my people and yours.”

  “I didn’t draw the Highland line. Your ancestors did it centuries ago.”

  “We did it to protect ourselves from Lowlanders who’ll kiss the feet of any foreigner who squats himself on the throne. Answer my question, man. When the time comes, will you or will you not side with your brethren in the north?”

  “That does it.” Malcolm lunged to his feet, marched around the desk, and stood before Gordon. “You and I will settle this in the tiltyard now. Have you a broadsword, John?”

  The Highlander stood, his shifty eyes peering up at Malcolm. “You’re a braw lad, and when it suits you, you’re like your Kerr grandsire, the Grand Reiver.”

  Over the years, a few people had made the insulting comparison. Malcolm’s paternal grandfather, the Grand Reiver, had been a violent man who considered himself above the law, much the same as Gordon. Kenneth Kerr had left a legacy of strife and poverty in Kildalton.

  In his reign as the eighth earl, Malcolm’s father, Lord Duncan, had used kindness and compromise to right the wrongs of the seventh earl. Today everyone reaped the benefits of the peace his father had won.

  Because of his size and his dark hair, Malcolm was sometimes compared to his grandsire. But like his father, Malcolm would sell his soul to Satan before he’d put the people of his Borders in jeopardy.

  “Likening me to the Grand Reiver is another unoriginal condemnation.”

  “Condemnation?” Gordon laughed. “Your grandsire told the English what they could do with their laws and their taxes. The comparison would be a bonny compliment, did you live above the line.”

  Above the line, below the line. Highlanders, Lowlanders. Malcolm grew tired of the divergence, but Gordon and his ilk thrived on pitting Scot against Scot. Peace to them was a truce drawn of necessity and ended out of boredom.

  “What’s it to be, Gordon? Swords or silence?”

  Excitement glimmered in the chieftain’s eyes. “You’d like to goad me into a fight, wouldn’t you?”

  Absolutely. But not for any reason Gordon understood. Frustration over the encounter with Alpin lay at the core of Malcolm’s anger. Gordon and his petty affronts had only intensified it. “Me, goad you? If you think to come into my home and insult me, you’re daft.”

  “Must I remind you,” Gordon continued, “that I’m ten years older and ten times slower than you?”

  If the laird of clan Gordon lacked physical strength and youth, he excelled in cunning and experience. But Malcolm had learned verbal finesse from a master, or mistress in his case, for his stepmother had been his mentor.

  Thinking of the patient and clever Lady Miriam, Malcolm relaxed and sat on the edge of his desk. “Then harness that bloody tongue, John, and think about the real problems facing your people and mine. Show me you’re willing to do something to benefit the future of every Scot, above and below the line.”

  His mouth quirking in a satisfied grin, Gordon again settled in the chair. “Very well. I’ll give you my daughter.”

  Thanks to Saladin, Malcolm had expected the proposal. Even so, the political consequences of such a match gave him pause. Uniting half of Scotland would be tantamount to declaring war, especially when the king had voiced his disapproval of this same alliance when Malcolm was a lad and had done so in none too gentle terms.

  Well aware that he was being tested, Malcolm said, “I thought you had betrothed her to Argyle’s son.”

  “You don’t want her?”

  He was really asking if Malcolm would defy the Crown. He’d asked it numerous times since Malcolm became laird of clan Kerr, but never within the walls of Kildalton. It was interesting that he’d come at a time when Malcolm’s parents were out of the country. That aspect angered Malcolm more than the audacity of the offer.

  “I will not turn Kildalton into a battlefield.”

  “Look, lad.” All cordiality, Gordon turned his hands palm up. “We have to fight the English sometime.”

  The Gordons always wanted to fight someone, and what better reason for bloodshed than returning a Stewart to the throne? “Speak for yourself. I will not engage an enemy I cannot defeat.”

  “But you can defeat the English. King Louis will provide a fleet and twelve thousand French regulars. With the Bonnie Prince aboard, they’ll put ashore near London and catch the English by surprise. When those Hanoverian cowards flee to the north, you and I will be waiting for them. We’ll hold the Borders until James comes to claim his crown.”

  Military aid was a French carrot dangled before the exiled Stewart for the sole purpose of riling the Hanoverian who occupied the English throne. Unfortunately Gordon
and a few other Highland chieftains were so eager to see the reign of James III that they believed the empty promises of Louis XV.

  In some ways Malcolm pitied the Jacobites their naïveté. “I do not believe the French will fight a war for the Scots. Nor do I see much honor in having others wage our battles.”

  “The other Scots’ll join in, just you wait and see,” Gordon wheedled. “Once they set eyes on our Bonnie Prince, they’ll rally to him.”

  In other ways, Malcolm despised their stubbornness. “Why don’t they support him now, if they’re so determined to see a Stewart on the throne?”

  “’Tis James. He thinks to reconcile the Scots and the Brits, person by person. That’ll take years, and when has an Englishman been reconciled by peaceable means?”

  Ruefully, Malcolm said, “I believe George the First was the most recent converter of souls.” When Gordon frowned and looked away, Malcolm added, “William and Mary also claimed the crown in a bloodless revolution.”

  “They claimed an English crown.”

  Patience dwindling, Malcolm tapped his teeth together. “George claimed the Union of Crowns, same as Queen Anne.” He couldn’t help adding, “If you’ll recall, she was a Stewart.”

  “An Anglican,” he spat.

  As the absurdity of Gordon’s argument grew, Malcolm wondered if there would ever be peace in the Highlands. “Oh, so now ’tis a religious war you’ll fight?”

  Gordon pounded his fist on his kilt-clad thigh. “’Tis a fight to preserve the royal house of Scotland.”

  Malcolm almost retorted that, thanks to the largess of the pope, the Stewarts and their vast entourage of exiled Scots were quite well preserved in both their Italian villas. Instead, he calmly replied, “Uniting our clans through marriage is impossible, John, for I’m handfasted.”

  “To the Italian piece?” Gordon clutched the chair arms. “What kind of agreement have you worked with the Stewarts?”

  Ah, so he thought Rosina was some link into intrigue rather than a mere messenger to the exiled royal family. An interesting assumption and so typically Jacobite that Malcolm pursed his lips to keep from grinning.

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