Maiden of Inverness, page 7
“What know you of chastity belts?”
Two years ago, a Kentish girl had arrived at the abbey wearing one of the ghastly devices. By separate messenger, the key had been delivered. For amusement, Meridene had borrowed the key, and she and the others had tried on the belt. Later, Sister Margaret had ordered the blacksmith to fashion the contraption into a handsome trivet. “I know enough.”
From a gaming table near the hearth, he picked up a pair of dice and rolled them in his palm. “Shall I commission you one?”
“Do and I will fling it in your leering face.”
He tsked in reprimand and let the dice fall back onto the table. “I seldom leer.”
“How pleasant of you to reveal so much of yourself.”
“Do you often encounter forthright men?”
“Of late, no. I seem destined to keep the company of cowards and kidnappers.”
He walked to the table and returned with the ring of castle keys. “Should you sweeten your tongue, you will fare better here.”
“Are you, a butcher’s son, commanding me?”
“Nay.” He hooked the heavy ring onto her belt. “As your husband, I am advising you.”
With the added weight, the chain slipped low on her hips. “I’ll never obey.”
Revas noticed, and moved to adjust the belt. “Because my father was a butcher?”
She stepped out of reach. “No. Because his son is a blackhearted monster.”
He touched his chest, and his eyes gleamed with mock innocence. “But I’m a lambkin.”
She chortled. He’d said that foolishness before.
“If you’re so gentle, why did you kidnap me, rather than woo me with your tender mercies?”
He paced, his hands clasped behind him, his mind brewing God only knew what mischief. Would he never grow angry? Lord, she’d walk back to England if he would show his true self.
Expecting more verbal trickery, she took the lead. “I suppose you’d prefer that I fall into your arms and shower you with affection.”
As if daring her, he held his arms wide. On a man of lesser stature, the yielding pose would have looked foolish. But Revas Macduff was too well made, and he knew it. Against her will, she found herself admiring him, his trim waist and powerful legs, his broad shoulders and winsome ways.
Winsome. Her interest waned and she regretted the bold words.
When she did not move, he lifted a brow in disdain. “ ’Tis as I thought, but you’re too much the coward. I doubt you’ve ever had a passionate thought.” Shaking a finger at her, he sagely added, “ ’Tis the English who have spoiled you for romance.”
“How dare you aspire to decipher my thoughts.” He knew her not at all. “What would a Highlander know about the needs of a woman’s heart?”
Deep in contemplation, he strolled toward her, stopping an arm’s length away. “Any Scotsman worth his salt will tell you that your skin is supple enough to make a man go begging for the touch of your hand. Your smile is a treasure that rivals a saint’s ransom in gold.”
The sweet words washed over her. He took her hand and brought it to his nose. “Except that you smell of leather and horse.”
She froze, trapped between umbrage and laughter. When he winked, the latter won. Chuckling, she went to the table and washed her hands in the basin. The soap was scented with heather. A memory flashed in her mind.
A very long time ago, she had frolicked in a field of heather so tall, she couldn’t see over the tops of the plants. How young had she been? Three or four, she was certain, for at six she’d shot up in height like a larch in the sun.
Revas handed her a cloth. “What makes you smile?”
A happy thought, which was odd; she seldom recalled her childhood with fondness. It wouldn’t do to make a practice of it now or to share the details with him.
She looked for an answer to his question and found it in the return of Sim. “I smile at the thought of tasting Mrs. Montfichet’s brew. I should like to savor it while I bathe.”
His knowing expression said he wasn’t fooled, but he had the good manners to let the matter drop and hand her the goblet of wine. “This way.”
He led her down a narrow and well-lighted hall to an iron-studded door. Carved deeply into the wood was a cinquefoil.
She couldn’t hold back a sarcastic reply. “You have an odd penchant for that flower.”
He cocked one eyebrow, but his expression reeked of tolerance, not disdain. “For more than the flower, Meridene. You have my sacred oath on that.”
“You can take your sacred oath and weave it into a tartan for all I care.”
Not in the least bothered by her angry words, he unlatched the door and pushed it open. “Your apartments.”
Momentarily stunned at the beauty of the room, Meridene ignored the three serving girls who stood quietly against a wall. This was the small dwelling situated between the two square towers, the one with the rowans planted out front. She had admired it from the yard.
Recently constructed, the solar contained costly glass, and before the windows lay a fine carpet. Upon it sat baskets of yarn and precious silken thread. Her loom would perfectly suit that sunny spot.
Off to the right stood an enormous bed, its canopy soaring to the ceiling. The hangings were made of dark green velvet and tied back with golden cords. The mattresss bore a matching coverlet embroidered with one golden cinquefoil in the center. Two stone braziers, as large as rain barrels, sent an inviting warmth throughout the cozy chamber.
The room verily screamed an invitation. Unable to refuse, Meridene stepped inside. No rushes littered the room; small woollen tapestries were scattered on the flagged floor.
Behind an open door, a buttery contained an assortment of wines, a keg of ale, and mugs enough to serve a small banquet. Her mother had entertained her father in a room that looked and smelled just so. The linens on her mother’s bed had been blue, but fashioned the same as these drapings.
But how had Revas known?
The book. The blasted Covenant of the Maiden. The sloth had not only read the book, but he’d furnished the room according to the descriptions written by her forebears.
Descriptions Meridene had not been allowed to read. Why had her mother withheld the book? Like most children, Meridene had been confined to the nursery, except for special occasions. At those times the talk always centered around clan loyalties or an impending English invasion. In the beginning, she had been too young to understand, and just when she’d begun to grasp the subject, she’d been sacrificed to the enemy and forgotten in England.
“Will it suit you, my lady?”
It was a foolish question, for the room was grand enough for a princess—a peaceful place that encouraged her to cast off her worries and languish here.
She looked up at him, and the anxious expression in his eyes gave her pause. He’d gone to great lengths to prepare a place for her, and now he expected her to thank him. She’d dreamed of a different life in a land where men didn’t make war over a herd of cattle or a drunken boast.
But for a reason she did not understand, Meridene couldn’t disappoint him. “ ’Tis beautiful.”
He smiled, and she again thought of a chivalrous lad who had braved a mighty Plantagenet on her behalf.
I expected the king to hang me before sunset.
Watching him now, she knew in her heart that an army of kings couldn’t harm this Revas Macduff, yet a cruelty from her on the matter of this room would bring him low. “Thank you,” she said, knowing she’d regret it.
He put his hand on her shoulder and turned her to face the waiting servants. Two of the girls were of an age, probably twelve years old. The third was considerably older, probably twenty. All three wore matching yellow smocks over white bliauds.
“Your handmaidens,” he said.
Meridene’s mother had had three such servants, as every Maiden did. From the age of five until she’d been cast out of Scotland, Meridene had served her mother in all three ca
Sentimentality choked her, and she had no weapons against the longing of a daughter for a mother who had forsaken her.
“Meet Lisabeth,” he said, “the keeper of your quills.”
With an effort that was suddenly new, Meridene staved off the old yearning.
The girl with brown hair and hazel eyes fidgeted with excitement at being presented first. The other girls, a tall redhead and one as fair as summer wheat, stared at their hands.
So endearing was their disappointment, Meridene put aside her own discomfort. “All of you, come forward at once.”
Revas continued. “This carrot-haired lass is Serena, tender of the rowans. She is especially glad you have come. She’s eager to marry that young buck, Summerlad Macqueen.”
The older girl blushed, causing a clash of colors between complexion and hair. “Welcome, my lady.”
Mother’s handmaidens had always ended their service on their twelfth birthday. Obviously that was not written in the book, for Serena was far beyond that age. Or was it written? Meridene wanted desperately to know.
“And this fair lass is Ellen, keeper of the bath, which was, I believe, your immediate request.”
Ellen curtsied, and her blue eyes darted from Meridene to an open door off to the right. Meridene could see that the room contained an overlarge tub, drying cloths, and an extravagant looking glass as big as a beef platter.
Understanding the girl’s quandary, Meridene said, “You may fetch the hot water, Ellen.”
Her small shoulders slumped with relief, and she hurried out of the solar, her long blond hair flying behind her.
“Is such luxury your doing, Revas?” Meridene asked.
“I suppose. But the giving of a bath was begun by the husband of your tenth grandmother back. She was one of the Marys. She described it in the Covenant.” He shook his head as if remembering a fondness. “An endearing soul, that Mary—according to her account.”
Shocked, Meridene almost challenged his explanation. The Covenant contained advice and rules for governance, not individual chronicles. Or did it? Her mother hadn’t said so. Had she omitted the information?
Meridene didn’t know, and the mere fact that she was curious about the contents of the book bothered her more than the knowledge that Revas planned to keep her. Her ties with Scotland had been broken over a decade ago. She belonged in England. Bother the wretched book!
“Have you duties for Lisabeth and Serena?” Revas asked.
Meridene grasped the respite from her troubling thoughts. “Yes. Lisabeth, you are to watch for the arrival of my trunk. When it comes, put away my writing things. And, Serena, you are to supervise the setting up of the loom. I’d like it there, by the windows.”
“In a trice,” the older and braver girl, Serena, said. “My father is a fine and prosperous weaver. I’m the veriest expert at tending a loom.”
“When do you find time to keep the rowans?” Meridene asked.
“They require no keeping now. They’re as barren as an Englishman’s soul.”
Behind her, Meridene heard Revas sputter with laughter. She couldn’t help saying, “That may be true, Serena. But do you know what the English say about the Highlanders?”
Her chin came up. “Nothing good, I’m sure.”
“They say,” Meridene began, casting her voice toward Revas, “if you want to tame a Scot, you must capture him young.”
Serena looked like she’d swallowed a thistle.
Revas leaned close. “The English also make a habit of capturing Scottish princesses and turning them against their kin. But we catch them, and then we make them ours again.”
She whirled around and came nose to chin with him. “You’ll run afoul of reason should you think that, Revas.”
His mouth was but a whisper away from hers. “Did they tame you, Meridene? Or have they left that pleasure to me?”
She swallowed a lump of apprehension. “Pleasure?”
His gaze roamed her face, inspecting and admiring what he saw. “Aye. Pleasure of the most rewarding kind.”
Twenty women had fallen victim to his masculine charm, and Meridene understood why. Her own heart thumped loudly, and she couldn’t help wondering how his mouth would feel on hers. Twenty women knew. Did he also imprison them with his alluring eyes?
He gazed past Meridene, and with the smallest movement of his head, he indicated the door. She heard the girls leave, but her mind whirled with inappropriate questions about Revas Macduff. She couldn’t turn away from him.
He rested his arms on her shoulders, but she didn’t notice the weight. “Close your eyes, Meridene, and give me a kiss.”
He had called her a coward on the field of romance. Proving him wrong while satisfying her own curiosity posed a challenge. The daring look in his eye sparkled with a friendly invitation she would not refuse. Her eyes drifted shut, and in the next instant his mouth touched hers, softly, then melting closer and moving in slow, deliberate circles.
Did all women feel this dizzying, floating yearning? If so, she certainly understood why the fishwife in Scarborough always wore a smile the morning after her husband came home from the sea. Meridene intended to explore the practice and come away from it with the knowledge she had been denied.
His lips parted and enlightenment followed, for his mouth tasted as sweet and as welcome as a warm drink on a cold winter night. Relief relaxed her to her toes, and when she swayed, his hands gripped her, steadying her, drawing her into the cradle of his chest and arms. Against her breast, his heart beat loud and constant, and his breath wafted against her cheek. Pleasurable visions began to dance in her head—a joyous spring morn and a breakneck ride on a swift mount through a meadow of wildflowers. She imagined the wind whipping her hair and heard the drumming of hooves in her ears. Her idle fingers touched the velvet of his jerkin and felt the rippling of muscles beneath.
He groaned deep in his chest, and the demeanor of the kiss changed. He grew insistent, his tongue nudging her lips apart, his hands playing across her buttocks, kneading gently.
The intimacy alarmed her. Did he have ravishment on his mind? She pulled back and asked him.
His eyes were glassy, and he shook his head as if he’d been awakened from a sound sleep.
“Were you trying to ravish me?” she repeated.
He blew out his breath and stared at the bed. “Not today.” His gaze slid back to her. “You are a virgin, Meridene Macgillivray. On the ship you claimed otherwise just to spite me. That was your first kiss.”
Indignation made her bristle. “ ’Twas my first kiss from one of your kind.”
Pride held him still. “My kind?”
“Yes.” He liked his own words so much, she threw a few in his face. “A man who smells of leather and horse.”
She might have told him he was the finest lord in Christendom, so complete was his relief. Breaking into a grin, he gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. “Enjoy your bath, Meridene. I’ll come back for you at eight o’clock.”
“I will not answer your knock.”
Strolling toward the door, Revas tamped back the desire that clawed at his loins. “Then I’ll use my key.”
But as he ducked beneath the dainty portal, he saw Kenneth Brodie standing in the hall, a bundle of rolled parchments in his hand, an anxious look in his eyes.
“There’s trouble, Revas,” he said.
More than you know, Revas thought, and made his way to his own chamber with Brodie close behind.
“Give me the last of the messages, Brodie, and I pray you have not saved the worst till the end.” Revas took the remaining bite of his apple, pitched the core out the window, and reached for an orange.
His friend and mentor pushed back from the small trestle table. “Angus has called his young Munro home.”
The Munro youth was one of dozens of lads who fostered with Revas. Whi
Meridene. Here. In the flesh. At home. At last. For years, Revas had imagined precisely that. In his randy youth, he’d envisioned himself getting a strapping son on her even before the wedding feast was done. His gallant days had inspired poetry to her goodly heart and enchanting eyes. Yet now when he considered a life with Meridene, he thought of the binding ties of children and cozy evenings before a fire. He’d have them and his helpmate, but only after she fell in love with him and lost her heart to Scotland. A challenge that rivaled uniting the Highland clans. A challenge he accepted without hesitation.
“Revas, are you not concerned that Munro has called his son home?”
Yanking himself from his favorite pastime, Revas plunged into the exhausting and dangerous realm of politics. “Is that why you sent young Munro after the luggage cart?”
“He needed time alone to think about the summons before seeing you.”
Spoken plainly, the simple words conveyed a wealth of honesty. Revas replied in kind. “I will not influence his decision.”
Brodie looked weary, and Revas couldn’t hold a bad thought. Meridene had come home. His goal was within reach, and he wanted to dance atop the curtain wall and shout his glee like a half-wit on May Day. Brodie ought to smile, too, and since achieving goals had become the order of the day, Revas took up the challenge of improving his friend’s somber mood.
“I suppose ’tis too much to hope that Munro’s sister is getting married and our young friend must return home to stand as witness to her unexpected nuptials.”
The weariness faded from Brodie’s august expression. “Aye, ’tis too much to suppose.”
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