Border lord, p.6

Border Lord, page 6

 

Border Lord
 



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  "Who destroyed it and who fixed it?" She eyed the structure.

  Duncan eyed her. "The Scots destroyed it. An engineer named Severus rebuilt it. This was a fort once. The Roman soldiers brought their families."

  He dragged her along, showing her the spots where he'd found treasures, and laughing over the rubbish he'd carted home. She listened intently, even sifted through rubble for a treasure of her own—the handle to a teacup.

  "Once," he said, sitting on the lip of the well and drawing her beside him, "after scavenging for the better part of a morning, I found what I knew to be a priceless vase belonging to old Hadrian himself. I was eight, as I recall, and destined for what I knew would be international acclaim." He chuckled so hard, his shoulders shook. "I hauled the heavy thing home and spent days cleaning it up. Only to discover that it was a chamber pot from a pottery concern in Worcester."

  She tilted her head. The sun sparkled in her eyes, which were soft with concern. "How can you laugh?"

  How could he reply without tripping himself up? He'd let down his guard and stepped onto dangerous ground.

  "You must have been embarrassed to your toes," she said, her expression solemn.

  "Oh, I was," he admitted. "But only Angus saw it and he'd never betray me."

  Her keen gaze locked with his. "The burly fellow? I thought you didn't know any of your soldiers' names."

  Duncan instantly regretted his confidence. She was too quick to catch a slip of the tongue.

  "People always betray themselves," she said. "'Tis the way of things."

  Was the cryptic statement a warning? How odd, he thought, that she could snatch up a single word in a sentence and create a beatitude, albeit a dangerous one.

  Duncan didn't comment, for out of the corner of his vision he saw the sleuthhound nosing around the wall. "You should call the dog back," he said. "Badgers and snakes nest around here."

  She tunneled her hand under her thick hair and lifted it off her neck. Taking a handkerchief from her pocket, she dabbed at her nape. "Don't worry. Verbatim avoids snakes, and a badger's no match for a sleuthhound. Besides, she won't kill game. She only tracks and finds it."

  Fear jolted through Duncan, for the dog could accidentally unearth the lair of the Border Lord. He rose. "All the same, she could be hurt or scarred in the scuffle. Not to mention the badger."

  As he approached the dog, Duncan watched her put to use the fine qualities of her breed. She darted in and out of the bracken, and once, jumped on the wall. Long ears flapping in the wind, she sniffed and investigated. Then she bounded to the ground and into the bushes very near the door that led to an underground chamber. Dirt began to fly.

  Heart thumping, Duncan yelled, "Stop that digging."

  Verbatim's head popped into view. Dust coated her black muzzle and burrs clung to her long ears. A moment later, the dog went back to her excavation.

  Frantic, Duncan went in pursuit.

  Lady Miriam whistled. One hundred pounds of eager dog dashed from the bushes. She ran so fast in her haste to reach her mistress that she almost plowed into him. But not so fast that he missed the swatch of black silk hanging from the dog's mouth.

  Duncan's heart skipped a beat, for the dog had found the black scarf of the Border Lord.

  How had he been so careless as to lose it? Bloody hell, the answer wasn't important. Like a dervish, his tortured mind whirled in search of an explanation. The scarf belongs to a traveler. It's the property of a grieving widow. Yes, of course. Duncan would offer to locate the poor creature.

  Wait a minute. Miriam couldn't know who the scarf belonged to. Duncan's anxiety eased. He sucked in a deep breath and felt his heart slow to normal.

  The dog had found a plain black scarf. So bloody what?

  If he acted guilty, Miriam would fix those gray eyes on him and persist until he came up with a satisfactory excuse or tripped over his own foolish tongue. Act natural, he counseled himself. Then he laughed and banished the word natural from his mind. Duncan Kerr had a bumbling earl to portray.

  Mincing over brambles and rocks, he returned to the old well. He retrieved his own handkerchief and began brushing debris from his long trousers. To his surprise, he saw Lady Miriam tying the scarf around the dog's neck and praising the animal.

  Delight sparkled in her eyes. "Doesn't she look dashing, my lord?"

  He'd only met her last night, but instinctively Duncan knew that Miriam MacDonald didn't often express herself so freely. An honest, open conversation with her sounded very appealing, and impossible. Sadly Duncan did what he must, what he hated.

  He let his mouth drop open and propped his hands at his waist. "You should have the maids clean that filthy rag first. Goodness knows what creatures infest it."

  An imploring expression gave her a girlish appeal. "Verbatim's only playing, which she seldom gets to do. You yourself said 'twas naught but a rag. Don't be such a spoilsport, my lord."

  Unable to live with the constant reminder of his dual identities, he forced himself to insist. "I couldn't allow the animal inside the castle with it on."

  Her cheerful expression wilted like daisies in a freeze. She yanked the scarf free. "Of course, my lord. Rest assured I'll have the twins bathe her and wash the scarf as soon as we return."

  Duncan felt as if he'd taken a cannonball in the chest. Damn. He'd buy the blasted dog a scarf in every color of the rainbow—anything to put the light back in Miriam's eyes.

  During the return to Kildalton Castle, he fabricated fish stories to entertain her, to make her smile. He might as well have tried to reform baron Sinclair.

  Silently Duncan cursed.

  The cool diplomat sat inches from him.

  The laughing woman stood miles out of reach.

  He consoled his guilty conscience with facts. She was here to gain evidence against him. What proof did he have that she would be fair? Certainly not the English justice system. She could knock his life into the hazard. That done, she'd pack up and move on to wherever the queen sent her.

  He'd better stay one step ahead of her. He knew just the way. After the evening meal he'd slip into the secret passageway, stand behind her wardrobe, and listen and watch. She'd never know he was there.

  Encouraged, he patted his stomach. "Mrs. Elliott's preparing umbles of deer and fricassee. 'Tis a favorite of mine. I prefer fish, of course, but one can't eat it every day. I'm certain we'll have dessert, probably berry tarts with clotted cream."

  His constant chatter rattled Miriam. She could abide his eccentricities, he was entitled to those, but didn't he ever shut up? Keeping her voice light, she said, "Sounds delicious. I love kidneys and heart."

  "Splendid. Perhaps my peacocks have arrived. Oh, I do hope so. Are you familiar with the mating habits of peacocks?" He laughed and didn't seem to expect an answer. "The male puts on a show that is pure entertainment. They'll be molting now, though. Poor fellows seem so despondent without their pretty feathers. They mope around like a buck without a doe. I'm doing a study on it, you know."

  At least deer fought for their women, and defended them, she thought morosely.

  By the time they entered the castle yard she wanted to scream. She almost did when a shepherd approached, a lifeless sheepdog in his arms.

  "The baron's men did it, my lord." Tears pooled in the old man's eyes. " 'Tweren't no cause to kill my ol' Barley. I give 'em my chickens and all the acorns I'd collected to sell to the swineherd."

  "Oh, you poor, poor man," said the earl.

  Her heart breaking over the sad man and his burden, Miriam turned to the earl. "What will you do?"

  Blinking innocently, he said, "Why, I'll find him another dog. Would you care to help me locate one?"

  Galled by his cowardice, she didn't trust herself to answer. Instead she climbed from the carriage and took Verbatim to the kennel so the twins could bathe the dog. Then Miriam went in search of solitude.

  Later that night she stood at the window looking down on the garden. Behind her a freshly w
ashed and recently fed Verbatim snoozed by the fire.

  The side door opened. Alexis came in, a rueful smile on her face. "Had enough peace and quiet?"

  Guilt plagued Miriam. "I'm sorry I snapped at you earlier, but I simply couldn't help it. After the earl's chattering, I needed solitude."

  "Apology accepted." Alexis knelt beside Verbatim and stroked the long velvetlike ears. "Anyone who works as hard as you should be allowed an occasional touch of bad humor."

  Miriam let the drape fall back in place. "I thought I wouldn't know humor if it crept under my skirt."

  "Which you're still wearing. Not sleepy again?"

  The candle flame flickered. Miriam shivered, wondering if architects designed drafts into castles. Rubbing her arms, she said. "I can't stop thinking about that poor, dead sheepdog."

  Alexis's hand stilled on Verbatim's head. "If it's any consolation, the earl helped bury the dog and promised the shepherd he'd find a replacement."

  "How magnanimous of him."

  Alexis sighed. "He's not your Sir Lancelot, Miriam. But don't judge him unfairly."

  "I'm trying not to judge him at all."

  "I know, and he's lucky the queen sent you. Shall I help you undress?"

  "No. I'm going to investigate the garden."

  "I'll go with you."

  "Thank you, but no. I'll take Verbatim."

  The dog barked and jumped to her feet. Head cocked, she stood perfectly still. Then she lifted her long blunt nose and sniffed. A moment later she went to the open wardrobe and poked her head inside.

  The candle wavered wildly in another draft of air.

  Alexis raised an eyebrow. "Something strange is going on. Maybe we have a ghost—"

  "Shush." Miriam crossed the room and threw open the other door to the wardrobe. "What is it, girl?" she whispered to the dog.

  The hound's head disappeared between the folds of a lavender day dress and an emerald evening gown. After rummaging through every item of Miriam's clothing, the dog backed up and sat.

  For the thousandth time since acquiring the animal, Miriam wished Verbatim could talk.

  "Would you like to go for a walk outside?" Miriam asked.

  A loud bark was her answer.

  Miriam picked up the leash and her cloak. "Don't wait up for us," she said.

  "I wouldn't dream of it." But Alexis sat at the vanity and began brushing her hair.

  Her scribes had explored the castle today. Following Saladin's directions, Miriam found the back stairs and exited the castle through a door that faced the kennel. The air smelled of rain, and clouds masked the moon.

  Torches lined the wall, illuminating the guards on patrol. She counted twenty armed men. In Scottish, they spoke of a storm to come.

  As if she were out for a casual evening stroll, Miriam made her way slowly to the garden gate. Looking left, then right, she bent low and tiptoed inside, Verbatim on her heels.

  She started across the garden, but stopped at the sight of a tall dark shadow. Her heart hammered.

  He stood near the giant urns, which now seemed as small as flower pots.

  Verbatim growled.

  Miriam clutched the leash and started backing toward the door.

  The shadow moved. "Doona be afraid, lassie."

  The rich burr in his voice sent shivers down her spine. The crunching of his boots on the stone pathway echoed off the garden walls.

  Swallowing hard, she said, "Who are you?"

  "A friend who means you no harm," he said in Scottish.

  When he was only an arm's length away, she saw that he wore a hat pulled low over his forehead, the wide brim effectively shielding his face from view. A muted tartan cape fell to his knees. She squinted, studying the pattern of the plaid, but couldn't discern the design or his clan.

  "What are you doing here?" she asked.

  He chuckled, deep and natural, as if laughter came easy to him. "I could ask the same of you."

  Feeling foolish and frightened at once, Miriam said, "I'm walking my dog." She yanked on the lead. "Who happens to be extremely vicious."

  "It doesn't look vicious." He squatted in the path. "It looks like a fine wee beastie to me."

  In the dim light, a rakish plume waved over his hat. Was he a cavalier? A guest of the earl?

  "Animals love me." He extended a black-gloved hand to Verbatim.

  "Don't!" Miriam stepped back, dragging a growling, quivering Verbatim with her. "Easy girl."

  The dog sat.

  The man said, "Can you shake my hand?"

  To Miriam's surprise, Verbatim held up a paw.

  The stranger chuckled and stood. "I've been told I have the same effect on all women."

  Miriam craned her neck. Fear snatched her breath. Dear Lord, he was tall and broad-shouldered. She whispered, "Tell me who you are."

  He bowed from the waist. "I'm the Border Lord."

  "The what?"

  "The Border Lord. Doona tell me you've never heard of me?"

  He reeked of feudal nobility. She remembered the tales told to her by the innkeeper in Bothly Green. He proclaimed the Border Lord a legend. "What are you doing here?" she asked.

  "Living out a prophecy, I trow. You, lass, have the look of a MacDonald about you."

  Her throat closed. No one ever mentioned her family. "I do?"

  "Aye." The sound rumbled in his chest. He reached out and took a strand of her hair. " 'Tis like silky fire. MacDonald for certain."

  Good judgment told her to flee from this dark stranger with the ominous name. Fascination made her blurt, "I'm Lady Miriam."

  "You must be a Highland lassie," he said thickly.

  She thought of her childhood home. A snow-covered glen.

  A river of blood. A little girl wandering aimlessly. Tears welled in her eyes. She sniffled. "Doona cry, lassie. 'Tis too bonnie a night for tears." Then his hands touched her shoulders, and Miriam saw the invitation in his eyes.

  4

  Duncan held his breath. Anticipation coursed like vintage wine through his veins. Would she take the bait and come willingly into his arms? Could he play the rogue and woo her into confessing her plan to make peace? Darkness intensified his doubts, for he couldn't see her clearly.

  He squinted, trying to make out her features. In the dim light he could discern only the shape of her lips and the line of her jaw. She neither smiled nor frowned. Yet one thing was certain: In darkness or light, deception or innocence, Miriam MacDonald was a beautiful woman.

  Instinct compelled him. He tugged gently on her shoulders. "Come, lass, and bide a wee. 'Tis time you had a proper Scottish welcome."

  "I shouldn't. I don't know you."

  Standing behind the wardrobe, he'd heard Lady Alexis say that Miriam longed for a Sir Lancelot. Duncan thought of something a gallant knight would say. "Look into your heart, lassie. You know who I am."

  She stepped closer. He held her in a loose embrace. She felt kitten soft against his chest, her glorious head bowed, her delicate hands clutching the fabric of his cape.

  The old familiar yearning for a woman of his own gnawed in Duncan's belly. But Miriam MacDonald was not the one for him. Still, he had a job to do. He stroked her back. "You're cold. Let me warm you."

  "I don't usually embrace strangers. I don't recognize your plaid."

  "I'm no stranger. Not to you."

  He'd come here to gain her confidence, to charm her, to learn her secrets. But she was doing her own prying and quite enticingly, too, from the way her fingers traced the weave of his cape.

  Over the gurgling of the fountain, he heard the dog lapping water. The resident bullfrog croaked to his lady love.

  Conscience nagging, Duncan thought of the ways he encouraged Malcolm when the lad grew shy. "You feel safe with me, don't you, Miriam?" he queried softly.

  A subtle change occurred in her bearing, and while Duncan couldn't precisely name it, he sensed she was judging him. "You're very forward, Sir Border Lord. What is your given name?"

 
The special boots added inches to his height and allowed Duncan to rest his chin on her head. Her clean, fresh fragrance permeated his senses. The word companionship flashed in his mind. He whisked it away, snatched a name for himself, and got to the business at hand. " 'Tis Ian. Tell me. What brings such a finely bred and bonnie Highland lass to the Borders?"

  With a feather-light touch, she brushed her hand over his tartan. Even through the heavy wool his skin prickled.

  During the years Duncan had donned the costume and the demeanor of the Border Lord, he'd seldom encountered a woman, let alone romanced one. Now the notion challenged him.

  "I've come to settle a few matters," she said.

  He might be portraying a different man tonight and view the situation through new eyes, but Miriam hadn't changed. She was still the wily diplomat. He could be wily, too. He clutched her left hand. "You don't wear a wedding ring or a widow's band. Is that the matter you've come to settle?"

  "No. I've no wish to marry." Then she added, "At this time."

  By modern standards she should have been wed five, even ten years ago. "You should have a man to cuddle up with on a warm winter's night, or a man to give you bairns."

  She leaned back, bringing her thighs in contact with his. "You're bold."

  If she got any closer, she'd redefine her opinion of boldness. His confidence soared; he could play the rogue. "I am right about you, but doona take umbrage. I'm country-bred and have little knowledge of courtly manners and such."

  "Are you a farmer?"

  "Aye." Nonsense popped into his mind. "I've a pig farm," he said, putting a note of pride in his voice.

  "I thought pigs lived in a sty."

  Lord, she missed nothing. Delving deeper into his bag of fiction, Duncan said, "What do you know about swine?"

  "Little. Does your wife mind living on a pig farm?"

  "I've not found the lass who'd have me—or my pigs."

  "Somehow I doubt that."

  "You flatter me."

  "'Twas not my intention. I merely thought you a forthright man."

  Now he was on even ground. "I've been known to pursue a quest with a certain amount of vigor."

 
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