The border series, p.53

The Border Series, page 53


The Border Series

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  She wasn’t dissembling. But she always dissembled. Confused, Malcolm watched anger overtake her. Hoping to quell it, he said, “Aren’t you curious about your father’s people?”

  “Here’s how curious I am.” She pivoted on her heel and faced the wall, her skirt twirling about her ankles, her back stiff.

  Gordon whistled. “She’s a MacKay, right enough. I’d stake the future of Scotland on it.”

  She faced them again, fire blazing in her eyes. “You can stake Comyn MacKay’s hide on it for all I care.”

  “What’s wrong with her?” Gordon asked. “She should be glad. The MacKay takes care of his own.”

  She opened her mouth, then looked at the floor, but Malcolm knew she had plenty to say. “Go ahead, lass,” he encouraged. “Say what’s on your mind.”

  Her bearing bespoke hesitancy. “It was—” She took a deep breath. “It was kind of you, Malcolm, to want to reunite me with my father’s family, if indeed these people are my relatives. But please don’t bother telling the MacKays that their long lost chick has come home to roost. I wouldn’t walk across the lane to greet them.” A tentative smile curled her lips. “I have all the family I need.”

  Gordon sent Malcolm a shocked look.

  If Alpin was Comyn’s missing granddaughter—and Malcolm wasn’t convinced of that fact, either—she’d eventually change her mind about her family. According to John, Comyn had spent years scouring the Highlands for her. Malcolm wished his stepmother were here; Lady Miriam knew Comyn MacKay and could confirm the resemblance. For now Malcolm thought it best to honor Alpin’s wishes. “My lady has spoken, John. ’Tis up to me to coddle her.”

  Her nervous gaze flitted to his chin. “Thank you,” she said.

  Malcolm wondered what she was thinking. Turning to Gordon, he said, “If you’ll excuse us …”

  Frowning, Gordon said, “I’ll just gather my men and be on my way. You’ll send the Moorish lad north when—”

  “Of course,” Malcolm interrupted before the Highlander could reveal their arrangement. “As always, Saladin will bring your salt.”

  When the door closed and they were alone, she rushed into his arms. “I’m sorry I got angry, but I truly want no more family.”

  Malcolm couldn’t ward off a twinge of jealousy. Twenty years ago, in a childish prank, she’d taken away his chance for a family. Since manhood he’d held a grudge, but now he rethought his view.

  The woman couldn’t be held responsible for the act of the child. She hadn’t meant to damage him permanently, couldn’t have known the far-reaching effects of her prank. She’d known nothing about procreation back then. For chrissake, she’d believed a woman got a child by spending a night alone at the inn in Bothly Green. She couldn’t have known the stings from the hornets had poisoned his seed and sentenced him to a life devoid of heirs.

  Blame aside, who better for him to marry? Perhaps that was her penance. When she didn’t quicken with their child, she’d be called barren. Husbands were seldom held accountable. Some people in Kildalton might scorn her. They’d scorned her as a child, but in barely a fortnight she’d won them over. Given enough time, she would prevail again. And all the while she would belong to him.

  Feeling her snuggle against his chest, he began to see her in a different light. He saw the courageous front she’d worn years ago, the mask she’d donned against the cruelty of the world. As a child she’d blustered to hide her hurt feelings. As a woman she’d made the best of her life. It was his destiny to make the best of her future.

  A sense of peace spread through him. He’d write to Lady Miriam and tell her about Gordon’s visit and the growing dissension among the Highland clans. But he’d save his personal news and his suspicions about Alpin’s Highland relatives and tell both of his parents when they returned.

  Starting tomorrow he’d try to win Alpin’s trust and learn her secrets. For now he would simply hold her in his arms.

  Saladin found them that way, standing in the study, locked in a healing embrace. Allah desert him, but he envied their accord. Still, no two people deserved to find joy in each other more than these childhood adversaries turned adult friends.

  Malcolm looked up and grinned. “Welcome back to the world of the living, my friend.”

  Elanna’s words rose in his mind—“Gods kick you out one time; gods throw you back again”—but Saladin kept them to himself. His feelings for her were too raw to expose, even to Malcolm. “I came to offer my congratulations,” he said.

  Alpin stepped away from Malcolm; he pulled her back. “Don’t be shy. ’Tis just Saladin. He’d never embarrass you or tell you what to do.”

  “I know. But I’d best see about supper.” She gave Malcolm a parting smile and hurried from the room.

  Saladin said, “You should tell her the truth.”

  Malcolm began to pace. “I know, but not now. What is it you always say about lying? I have it: ‘One evil which creates one hundred truths is better than one truth which creates one hundred evils.’”

  “I don’t follow your rationale for deceiving Alpin into a handfast marriage. You should have wed her outright.”

  “I know, and I will.”

  Saladin was only five years older than Malcolm, but the philosophical differences between them were vast. A Muslim would never take a decent woman out of wedlock. Saladin couldn’t abide such deceit in Malcolm. “How can you justify tricking her?”

  Malcolm rubbed his forehead. “Gordon and the other Jacobites are ready to move against the king. They’re demanding I join them. Marriage to Alpin gives me an option because the MacKays are moderates.”

  Another difference arose. Malcolm’s methods in dealing with the Highland clans tried Saladin’s patience. “Using a woman to settle a dispute is dishonorable. Why not use your sword?”

  “Because in our culture we value our women for more than childbearing. We give them freedom.”

  Saladin couldn’t resist saying, “But Alpin’s conceiving a child is a moot point.”

  “Dammit, Saladin. I know I cannot give her a child. But I need a tie to a Highland clan, and she needs a home.”

  Feeling guilty, Saladin said, “You’re certain she’s kin to Comyn MacKay?”

  “Now that I picture them both? Aye. I should have noticed the resemblance before now, but I haven’t seen Comyn in over a decade and I’ve had other things on my mind.”

  So much distress was surely born of emotions rather than polities. “I think you love her.”

  He chuckled ruefully. “Maybe I do.” Perching on the arm of a chair, he grew serious. “I spent years blaming her. ’Twas all senseless. She couldn’t have known the harm her prank would cause. I couldn’t be bothered with her feelings. God, Saladin, she must have been lonely. Can you imagine being six years old, alone, and boarding a ship to Barbados?”

  Such a voyage would have been a holiday in Saladin’s childhood. “Yes, my friend. I can.”

  Malcolm clasped Saladin’s arm. “I’d forgotten your wretched childhood. I’m a selfish man, and sorry to my soul.”

  One of Malcolm Kerr’s finest qualities shone through: though quick to anger, he was quicker to forgive, except in Alpin’s case, but at last he’d done the right thing by forgiving her.

  The joy of their seasoned friendship made Saladin smile. “Don’t apologize. Lady Miriam rescued Salvador and me from the slave block. Our life is as Allah willed it.”

  “I wonder what your brother would say if he knew Alpin and I were handfasted.”

  Saladin laughed. “He’d probably forgive her for breaking his ribs all those years ago.”

  Malcolm shook his head, his eyes brimming with fondness. “God, she was a hellion.” Quietly he added, “She’s changed.”

  Thoughts of his twin brother brought a lightness to Saladin’s heart, a relief he sorely needed. “So has Salvador.”

  “Aye,” said Malcolm. “Knighthood has altered his life.”

  “But not his way of life.”

We know him too well. He’d rather play the scribe for Lady Miriam than parade his achievements about the court.”

  Saladin laughed. “This is so. It also prevents him from keeping his vow to find our mother.”

  “What about your part of the pact? Will you ever seek out your father?”

  Indifference consumed Saladin. He cared less than nothing for the worthless man who’d sired two fine sons, then boarded his ship and sailed off without a word. But Malcolm’s engaging grin warranted a positive reply. “I’m certain I will someday, but I think I had better wait until you’ve persuaded the Jacobites to forget about putting James Stewart on the throne.”

  “Well said, my friend. Well said.”

  From that day on, a cloud of happiness settled over Kildalton. Alpin was the openly affectionate bride, Malcolm the dutifully attentive groom. For the next month Saladin watched them revel in the state of matrimony. As summer came to a close and harvest time grew near, no one dreaded the hard work ahead. Meetings were held to assign crews to particular farms. If the crops weren’t harvested, the people would starve. Every able-bodied person joined in.

  The joy of the laird and lady was contagious.

  Only Saladin was immune to the festive atmosphere. At times he even doubted his faith, and all because of an Ashanti princess with bizarre beliefs and too much pride for her own good.

  To escape the torment her presence caused, he distanced himself. She had destroyed his palm-sized copy of the Koran, but like all good Muslims he knew the book by heart; still he kept to his room and set about making another copy.

  Solitude offered little comfort, for Elanna came to him each evening after his prayers. She plied him with delicacies to please his palate; she tempted him with kisses to spoil a saint. He always proposed marriage; she inevitably, and often ungraciously, declined.

  Life couldn’t, he decided, get any worse. On a particularly balmy evening as he stood near his desk he changed his mind.

  Elanna appeared in the doorway, her hair brushing her shoulders. A tightly belted robe the shade of old ivory covered her from neck to ankle and served as a perfect contrast to her brown skin.

  Lust flooded his groin, but he was becoming accustomed to that torturous reaction. He could bear the frustration; the ache in his heart and the loneliness in his soul overshadowed the needs of his body. Even from across the room, he could feel her warmth.

  Past pretty speeches and small talk, he put away his ink and quills and prepared for another round in their ongoing battle of wills. But she brought the art of seduction to new heights when she leaned against the doorjamb and held up a flagon. “You will invite me in to … visit?”

  Her idea of a visit was to try to lure him into making love to her. But she confused love with lust. “Have you come to play push-me, pull-you?”

  Her eyes brightened and she started to enter the room but stopped. “No.” She settled against the jamb again. “I just want to talk.”

  And he was a eunuch with air between his legs. “Since when do you make social calls in your robe?”

  She curled her fingers beneath the edge of the garment and moved her hand to her waist, giving him a peek at her breast. “I just had a bath. My skin is slick with oil from the coconut.”

  “Yes. I can smell it from here.”

  “You invite me in, yes?”

  A fool would tell her no. A wise man would insist she leave the door open. An optimist would expect her to accept his proposal of marriage. “Close the door behind you,” he said.

  “Betcha that.” She breezed inside and secured the bolt.

  He watched her find his drinking cup. Looking inside, she frowned, then drank the contents. “I bring you berry juice.”

  Bearing gifts was her forte, but never the prize he wanted. “No, thank you.”

  She filled his cup anyway. “You drink it. You liked it before.”

  “You drink it. I’m not thirsty.”

  “But it’s for you, and there is no more.”

  “Call me unselfish, because I insist you share it with me.”

  Reluctantly she put the cup to her mouth and drank. The dark juice appeared transparent on her lips, for they were the same shade of red.

  She glided toward him, the cup in her outstretched arm. Eve. Forbidden fruit. The Christian comparison was too suitable to deny, too appealing to refuse. He took the cup.

  “You have a handsome neck,” she said. Her fingers touched his neck and followed the movement of his throat as he swallowed.

  Her smile portended trouble for his scruples. Her hands promised disaster, for she untied the robe. It fell to the floor.

  His body turned to stone. His poor beleaguered mind rattled through every helpful tenet of his faith while his eyes were fixated on her dark button nipples and his memory told him how perfectly they fit into his mouth and how delicious she tasted.

  The curve of her waist drew his attention; the cradle of her hips lured his more intimate parts. In a voice pinched by lust, he said, “If this is your idea of talking, you have an odd vocabulary.”

  She toyed with the primitive cord she always wore about her waist. “This Ashanti princess come to make you sing happy, happy song.”

  Anger dulled the sharp edges of his desire. In the last month he had denied her, ignored her, even physically removed her from his room. But he couldn’t put her out of his thoughts, so he decided to take a different tack. “I can’t think of anything I’d like better.”

  She swayed, her dark eyes luminous with triumph, her lips pursed and damp, ready for his kisses. “You one smart Muslim tonight. Better you forget that polite, polite song and play push-me, pull-you with Elanna.”

  She radiated heat, desire, and willingness. Allah help him, but he wanted more than one night of love. He wanted her for his wife. “I thought my proposals of marriage were always polite, and rather eloquent.”

  She stopped only inches away. Stubbornness brought an elegance to her high cheekbones and a pout to her full lips. “Proposal no good.”

  The crux of their problem rose between them. “Because I’ve never seen the face of my father?”

  She tapped her breastbone. “Because this Ashanti princess never look into the eyes of your father.”

  He stepped back but lowered his gaze to her finger and the rise of her breasts. “That’s an absurd tradition,” he said. “You can’t refuse my noble offer because I do not know my father, then demand I make love to you.”

  “It’s Ashanti way.”

  Her careless disregard for his feelings robbed him of patience. “May I remind you that you are not among your people.”

  She leveled him a scornful look, then gave him her back. He wanted to yell at her, but found himself staring at her narrow waist, her high rounded buttocks, and the sleek line of her flanks. His loins grew heavy and ached with need. Humility, he decided, was a state of grace he had yet to achieve.

  He held out his hand. “Come here, princess.”

  She turned. Determination shone in her eyes. “Tell your principles farewell. Gods send you this princess. Enjoy her.”

  Softly he said, “What about enjoyment of the heart?”

  “Elanna sing you sorry, sorry song, but she must save her heart for her forever mate.”

  “Forever mate. You’ve said that before. I want to be your forever mate.”

  “Never, never.” She sat on the bed and fluffed his pillows. “Ashanti princess choose you as now-time mate.”

  Incensed, he said, “Am I supposed to be flattered?”

  She grinned. “Yes, yes.”

  He turned away. “No! No!”

  The mattress rustled as she stood up. Then she was behind him, her arms circling his waist, her hips undulating against him. “I make you sing happy, happy song.”

  He’d heard the statement every night for the last month. The ignoble offer still stung his pride. “So you would have us mate at will, here in this bed?”

  She eyed the mattress. “Quick as you sing yes, ye
s song and get naked.” Her hands made fast work of the buttons on his shirt; her fingers made stones of his nipples.

  Amazed by her persistence but unwilling to let the matter drop, he turned in the circle of her arms and held her wrists. “But we needn’t trouble ourselves with promises of lasting devotion or, Allah forbid, vows of marriage.”

  Like a child getting her way, she beamed. “Betcha that.”

  His fingers coiled around her fragile bones. He stepped back. “Find yourself another rutting beast, princess. I’m unavailable.”

  She arched her eyebrows in query. “Same stupid principle?”

  If ever a female deserved a man’s wrath, it was she. Were he a violent man, he’d go searching for a rod. He released her and put a safe distance between them. “Decency and honor are hardly stupid principles.”

  With a sad smile she said, “You make mighty big mistake.”

  “Then help me unmake it.”

  She put her hands on her hips and swayed. “I’ll help you.”

  He closed his eyes. “No.”

  Her breath fanned his face and set off an explosion of desire. “You want to.” When her lips touched his, he couldn’t help himself, couldn’t deny the need that burned in his soul. He tore into the kiss. She tasted of sweet berries and bitter torment. Her tongue plunged past his lips, made a sweeping raid on his misgivings, then retreated. Knowing he must stop or cast his honor to the wind, he set her away from him.

  “Oh,” she moaned, her mouth open and ripe, her eyes wide with desperation.

  Conversation seemed prudent. He touched the cord at her waist “What’s this?”

  She sighed so profoundly that her breasts jiggled. “You always ask. I always say it is Ashanti business.” She flung her arms around his neck and went for his mouth again.

  Unable to resist, he reveled in the kiss until she touched him intimately. Jolted by a desire that made his senses spin and his head light he untangled her arms. “Then I’ll say good night”

  She glared at him as if he were an inferior. “You want this Ashanti princess.”

  “No, I don’t, not in the way you say it must be. However, I do want to know why you always wear this belt around your waist.”

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