The border series, p.72

The Border Series, page 72

 

The Border Series
 



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  Johanna flipped the reins, and the horse trotted up the incline leading to the main gate. Although his clothes were freshly washed, her passenger smelled of last year’s ale. “If you whine one more time, Elton Singer, I’ll treble your punishment.”

  The worthless cur jerked his hands, which were bound at the wrists and tied to the cart seat. “But, my lady, I’ll lose the use o’ me hands.”

  “As well you should.”

  The gateman rushed forward and took control of the horse. Drummond helped her from the cart, his blue eyes anxious with concern. “What’s happened?”

  A surge of giddiness took her breath away, for she could grow accustomed to his attention. “Justice.” She motioned for Sween to come forward. “Take Mr. Singer into the barracks.”

  The huntsman’s face grew blank with disbelief. “Him? But why? He cannot even nock an arrow.”

  Johanna almost smiled, for Sween obviously thought she was enlisting Singer into service. In a way, she was. “I know,” she said with fake pleasantness. “I had arranged for Mrs. Singer to help scour the barracks this week. Since she has been stricken ill, Mr. Singer has graciously offered to take her place. Haven’t you, sir?”

  Laughter rang through the throng of onlookers. Someone yelled, “Singer’s doin’ women’s work.”

  Drummond looked confused.

  Like a trapped animal, Singer scanned the men in the crowd. “Lady or not, she can’t punish a man for doing what he’s a right to. Ain’t it so, brethren?”

  Except for a few inquisitive rumblings, his speech fell on deaf ears.

  Inspired and eager to carry her mission through, Johanna faced Singer. “First, the law that allows a man to beat his wife is unfair,” she said through her teeth. “And second, your fist is not a rod the size of your thumb, as the law stipulates. Take him away, Sween, and if I learn that any other man visits cruelties on his wife, he will pay a stiffer price.”

  “My Lord Drummond,” Singer wheedled, his bound hands held in supplication. “They said you had come home to us, and bless the saints for our fair fortune. We’re sore needin’ a man’s justice. Tell my lady about a man’s rights. She’ll listen to you.”

  Drummond held his hands palms up, as if warding off a foe. “You’ll get no allegiance from me. My lady cites the law true and to the letter.” Then he gave her a winsome smile. “We’ll abide by her decision.”

  Johanna felt like laughing and crying at once. She hadn’t expected the people of Fairhope to question her, but she could not have known what Drummond would do. She almost thanked him, before she regained caution.

  She had come dangerously close to succumbing to him last night. She had lain awake for hours, reliving her mistake. If she yielded, he would know her for a virgin and an imposter. With time she could better play the role of wife and wield the female power she had glimpsed last night.

  But now she had other work to do. “Sween, once Singer is settled in the barracks you’re to take Glory to Eastward Fork. Maggie Singer needs tending.”

  “You had better have Bertie take her.”

  “Have you quarrelled again?”

  “She quarrelled. I listened.”

  “I need Bertie here, so put your differences aside.”

  “Aye, my lady.”

  Singer looked crestfallen. “I’ll look after my dear Maggie.”

  Johanna shot him a triumphant stare. “When fish walk on land!” Then she picked up her basket and walked to the steps to the keep.

  “Mother!”

  At the muffled sound, she stopped. Alasdair ran toward her, a war helmet bobbing on his head, the accoutrements of battle in his hands.

  She lifted off his heavy headgear and put it in her basket.

  His hair was plastered to his scalp and his face stained with dirt and sweat. “What did Elton Singer do?” he asked.

  With her fingers, she combed his hair off his forehead. “He beat his wife. A man should never lift a hand to a woman or a child.”

  “That’s why you never whip me … even when I’m bad.”

  “Yes. I’m stronger.”

  He stood taller. “And I’m a bright lad.” Solemnly he added, “Violence begets violence.”

  It seemed an odd statement to Johanna, considering his warlike attire. She asked the obvious.

  He banged the blade against the shield, which bore the symbolic wolf of the Macqueens. Chin up, he declared, “I’ve been learning soldiering. Father says I have quick feet and a right goodly balance.”

  In Latin, she said, “How were your studies today?”

  He sighed dramatically and waved his arm before her. “Don’t you see, Mother? I have a sword arm now. I must perfect it.”

  He seemed so determined, she knew she must nip his destructive obsession in the bud. “Who told you that?”

  “I thought it up myself.”

  She hadn’t heard Drummond’s approach. He stood behind her. She was immediately reminded of last night, of his breath warm on her neck and his arm snug around her waist. The rapturous kiss. The hollow weakness that followed. The maidenly fear that even now tightened her chest and reminded her that she must fight her attraction to him. “Alasdair was supposed to study an extra hour with Brother Julian.”

  “Why did you not tell me you had lessons, Alasdair?” asked Drummond.

  “Because you wouldn’t have helped me get a sword arm.”

  Alasdair’s skewed logic left Drummond speechless. Reveling in his predicament, Johanna sent him a what-will-you-do-now look.

  He glanced from her to Alasdair. A long moment later, he bent close to his son and said, “A soldier never lies, nor shirks his duties. No custard for a week.”

  Alasdair threw down the shield. “That’s unfair. Mother never takes away my custard for that long.”

  Drummond planted his feet and stared down at his son. “Well, unfortunately that’s what’s going to happen.”

  “Mother, do something,” the lad pleaded. “I hate Latin. Brother Julian says I cannot carp it.”

  Pleased to her toes that Drummond had supported her, she gave her son a benevolent smile. “You’ll like it better from now on, I’m sure.”

  His mouth, so like Drummond’s, turned down in a pout. “No, I won’t.”

  She calmly picked up the shield and sword and walked toward the steps. “Then you won’t see these again soon.”

  “Give it back,” he demanded. “’Tis bad luck for a woman to touch a man’s sword.”

  Johanna froze. A woman. In one word Alasdair had made her a generality. She had always been “mother” and his authority figure. Someday he would outgrow his need for her, but until then, she would influence him in word and deed.

  Turning, she stared him down. “’Tis worse luck for a lad to sass his mother.”

  He clutched Drummond’s arm. “Father, make her give it back to me.”

  “I suggest,” Drummond began sternly, “that you get to the well and clean yourself up. Then you go to the chapel, apologize to Brother Julian, and ask him to give you your lesson.”

  Tears pooled in Alasdair’s eyes, and he looked so forlorn, Johanna knew she would relent. As if sensing her capitulation, Drummond put his hand on her shoulder. Squeezing gently, he said, “Go along, Alasdair. Be a good lad. We’ll see you at table.”

  A fat tear worked its way through the dust on Alasdair’s cheek. “But I have to say the blessing. I’m the youngest.”

  His voice thick with emotion, Drummond said, “Then we’ll wait for you and Brother Julian and discuss what you learned.”

  Alasdair sniffed and wiped his nose. “All right,” he grumbled, then smiled. “But when do I get to give the orders?”

  “To us? Never.” Drummond patted Alasdair’s bottom. “Off with you.”

  Choked with elation that Drummond had taken an interest in both their son’s education and Singer’s punishment, Johanna turned away and started up the steps.

  From behind her, she heard Drummond say, “I wonder why you cho
se today to confront that wife beater.”

  Not ready to broach the subject, she shrugged.

  “I think I know where you got the idea.” He moved beside her and lifted her arm. The sleeve of her bliaud fell back to reveal the small bruise he’d given her the night before.

  She jerked her arm free. “I always believed Maggie when she claimed to be clumsy. Now I know that he’s been beating her for years. I felt dreadful.”

  “So did I, and I apologized, Clare.”

  As always, hearing her sister’s name had a sobering effect on Johanna. This time she gained strength from it. “You also promised to stay away from me.”

  His brow creased in confusion. “I agreed never to mark you again.”

  “’Tis the same thing.” Hearing that, his expression grew so calculating, she said, “You’re up to something.”

  He gave her a bold, flirtatious smile and threw her own words in her face. “You’re correct, of course.”

  Chapter 6

  Unable to stop thinking about the day’s events, Johanna paced the floor of Alasdair’s small room. An image of Maggie Singer popped into her mind. Even with one eye swollen shut and her lip split and bruised, the woman would not accuse her husband of brutally beating her. Their only child, a sweet-faced girl of five, had clung to her mother’s skirt and cast fearful glances at her father, who lay snoring on the cot.

  Did he also abuse his daughter?

  That possibility had kindled a fire of rage in Johanna. In a flash of insight she understood how a person could be driven to violence, for she had wanted to smash her fist into Elton Singer’s nose.

  He hadn’t even stirred when she bound his hands and hobbled his feet. Only when she dragged him into the afternoon sunshine did he rouse himself. His indignation had sickened her. Gratification had come when Drummond and the others applauded her actions. Drummond’s patronage hadn’t stopped there.

  From the moment she’d taken her place at the table, he had been solicitous and charming in the extreme. He’d worn a pale blue jerkin that complemented his eyes and devilishly tight trunk hose that invariably drew hers. Never before had she been enticed to stare at a well-muscled thigh or to admire a sinewy calf. She had never dwelled on the strength and grace of a man’s hands. She’d never appreciated the rumble of male laughter or contemplated a freshly shaven cheek.

  Once, when he caught her staring at him, he’d given her a roguish wink and asked if she’d care to retire to a private place and have a closer look. The memory made her light-headed. Yet beneath the excitement, she felt a stab of longing and sadness, for he would never actually pay court to her, Johanna Benison. He didn’t even know she existed.

  Feeling melancholy to her soul, she hugged herself and walked to the window. Moonlight cast the yard in a silvery glow, and the long shadow of the keep fell like a great black spike over the inner wall and the bailey. A pair of guards stood near the main gate and spoke in low tones. Mingling with the male voices was the occasional barking of a dog and the ill-timed crowing of a cock.

  The peaceful sounds lulled her into a yawn, and she considered returning to Alasdair’s small cot and trying again to fall asleep.

  The squeak of leather hinges stopped her. Someone had opened the door leading to the battlement on the roof of the tower. Who, and why was someone prowling the keep in the middle of the night? If it was Alasdair spying on the watchmen again, he’d forgo dessert until Nutcrack Night.

  From the pegs on the wall near the door, she snatched up a shawl and went in search of her incorrigible son.

  She found Drummond wrapped in a tartan plaid and stargazing. Outlined in a crenel in the shoulder-high battlement, he seemed a solitary figure, completely at peace.

  “Hello, Clare.”

  Her fingers curled around the hard edge of the door, and she retreated into the shadows. “How did you know ’twas me?”

  “I’d know you anywhere.”

  The irony in that made her chuckle.

  With a motion of his hand, he coaxed her to him.

  She stayed where she was.

  “Very well.” He pushed away from the wall. “I’ll give you proof. You’re taller and more shapely than Evelyn, and I assume no one else wears white sleeping gowns or has hair that shines like spun gold in the moonlight.”

  Charming was too quaint a word for his methods; beguiling better suited him. “Thank you. You are too kind.”

  It was his turn to chuckle, and he extended his arm again. “I’m hardly that, as you well know. Join me. ’Tis a glorious night, and we have much to discuss.”

  Returning to her room seemed prudent, but he had a point, and he looked so disarming she couldn’t bring herself to walk away. He posed no threat to her here, at the top of the keep. Although they stood in the open, no one could see them. Guards patrolled the wall below, and if she called out, they would come running.

  She moved toward him, her soft leather slippers cushioning her steps, the wind stirring her unbound hair. Gathering the wayward strands, she tucked them under her shawl.

  “Couldn’t you sleep?” he asked.

  Unwilling to reveal the cause of her restlessness, she braced herself on a merlon, leaned into a crenel, and looked down. A cat strolled across the yard, its tail held as stiff as a ship’s mast.

  “Clare?”

  She started, which was odd, considering how long she’d answered to her sister’s name. “I awoke when you opened the door. The hinges are dry and noisy.”

  “You never roused so easily, not before noontime.”

  Sister Margaret used to say that even an invading army wouldn’t awaken Clare before midday. Johanna had always been the early riser. In explanation, she told a half-truth cloaked in a midwife’s tale. “Alasdair’s birth changed my sleeping habits.”

  He hummed in agreement. “Praise be to the mother who answers the cry of her child in the night.”

  “And fortune bless the father who keeps the demons from their sight.”

  “I remember no more of the rhyme,” he confessed. “Do you?”

  Johanna did, but she grew brave and decided to speculate about this man she hardly knew. She faced him. “You never were one for poetry.”

  His appreciative gaze settled on her hair. “A condition you oft lamented.”

  She snatched up a full truth. “I haven’t the time for lamenting now.”

  “Do you still play the harp?”

  Johanna could easier strum a tune on a pitchfork. Years ago, she’d been forced to sell Clare’s harp. The forty pence she’d received had gone toward Sween’s first year’s wages. An excuse, in the form of a fond memory, came quickly to mind. “I had my hands full keeping Alasdair fed and clean and out of trouble. He was forever on a quest to explore forbidden territory—especially up here.”

  “’Tis the Macqueen in him, I’m sure. My father boasted that my grandmother had to swaddle him in leather braces.”

  Their easy conversation didn’t surprise Johanna; since her return from Eastward Fork, Drummond had been as agreeable as an almsman at harvest. Since Clare hadn’t mentioned Drummond’s father, Johanna feared tripping herself up if she dwelled on the subject. “What did your mother say about you?”

  “She died giving birth to me.”

  The squalling of cats pierced the silence. A weight pressed in on Johanna. “I’m sorry, Drummond. I’d forgotten. You must think me crass.”

  “Most often,” he murmured, “I’m in a quandary about you.”

  Feeling defeated and wary of the husky sensuality in his voice, Johanna glanced at the door and contemplated a hasty retreat.

  “Stay,” he said.

  Resigned, she pledged to be more careful. “What did you want to talk to me about?”

  He propped an elbow on one of the merlons. His wrap fell open to reveal the jerkin she’d admired earlier. “Longfellow needs more shelter than the outer wall affords,” he said. “He’s used to warmer climes and greater comfort.”

  If he were concern
ed about permanent quarters for the elephant, that meant Drummond intended to stay here. Her spirits sank even lower, for she’d been certain he’d go home to the Highlands. Looking up at him, she could tell he expected her to comment. Dashed hopes robbed her of anything to say.

  “I thought to build a closure against the inner wall near the main gate,” he went on.

  Drummond being agreeable was one thing, hesitance from him was something else. “Are you asking my permission?”

  His fine straight teeth shone white in the moonlight. “And your opinion, too.”

  Her first thought on the elephant was that it would be happier somewhere else, such as France. Knowing Drummond wouldn’t appreciate her sentiment she gave him what he’d asked for. “I do not know if Longfellow will tolerate all of the goings and comings at the gate.”

  “You needn’t worry over that. He’s accustomed to people. They thronged to see him in the Tower, and he’s not at all dangerous.”

  She remembered what Alasdair had said about the animal. “I thought he tried to knock down a wall.”

  “He did. But I was leaving without him, and he rather likes me.”

  Who wouldn’t? she thought. When he chose to be congenial, Drummond could charm a spinster out of her only fond memory. Johanna couldn’t afford to fall prey to him. “If Longfellow needs a shelter, then by all means, we’ll have the carpenter build it. Shall I speak to him?”

  “I’ll do it on the morrow.” He stared into the distance. Set against the starlit sky, his features thrown into darkness, his noble profile limned in moonlight, he looked like a leader of men and a master of women. No wonder the Macqueens named him their chieftain. He must have been glorious in the role. A pity Clare hadn’t elaborated.

  Appreciation of his physical beauty turned to a yearning that melted her heart and clouded her reason. Maybe he wouldn’t notice that she was a virgin. Perhaps he wouldn’t recall the placement of the brand on her skin. Intimacy might bridge the gap between them, and as time went by he would learn to accept her as she was. If she were truly fortunate, he would give her a daughter. She’d insist that they name the girl Johanna, for she did so want to hear the sound of her own name again.

 
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