The border series, p.76

The Border Series, page 76

 

The Border Series
 



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  Wearing a particularly menacing grin, he looked her up and down.

  She swallowed her pride. “All right. I will occupy your chamber if it will ease your mind.”

  “How generous, but I must decline,” he said, much too cordially. Then his tone changed to insistence. “You will stay in Alasdair’s room. The lad will stay with me. Bertie can barrack with the huntsmen. Our guests will occupy his chamber.”

  “I have always given them my bed.”

  “Not,” he said, “in my presence.”

  Sweet Saint Mary, her words had come out wrong. Just as she grew weary of convincing him, his expression softened. Taking advantage, she moved close enough to see her own image in his eyes. “When important guests visit, I always occupy Alasdair’s room, and he stays with Bertie. Ask anyone, Drummond. You know the custom well, so don’t pretend otherwise. You’re just being wicked to me because you think I deserve it.”

  He said “cuddle up” to the elephant. Longfellow’s trunk snaked about both their waists, bringing her flush against Drummond’s half-clothed body. She gasped at the feel of the elephant’s cushiony snout, for it held her immobile. As unyielding as a stone wall, Drummond’s body dwarfed her. She trembled in fear. “Drummond, tell him to let me go.”

  “You must learn to trust your husband.” His grip tightened on the crossbeam overhead. “You were saying?”

  When she realized that Longfellow would not squeeze the life out of her, she calmed, but only a little. “I was saying that you have the wrong impression of me. Look around you, Drummond. I could not command the respect of these people did I behave with abandon. I am a respectable widow.”

  His brows rose in mock surprise. “Your husband is very much alive.”

  He’d labored most of the morning to complete Longfellow’s shelter, yet he still smelled of minty soap. “You mean you’re—ah …”

  He writhed against her. “I mean that a certain one of my ungovernable extremities is ‘touched’ by your nearness and quite sympathetic with the plight of a lonely widow.”

  She recalled the first kiss he’d given her, the strength of his passion stirring beneath her hand. Even through his clothing his desire had been evident and shocking that night. The tight trunk hose he now wore would leave nothing to the imagination. “You’ll be embarrassed, too.”

  “Aye, but ’twill be tempered by the envy of every man who hears the tale. If not, I shall contrive to abide the shame.”

  The jangle of harnesses and the pounding of hooves told her their guests were nearing the main gate. They would enter the yard momentarily. “What must I do to make you release me?”

  He took his time appraising her. At length he said, “Put your arms around my neck and kiss me.”

  Drat her for walking into his trap. From her vantage point her view consisted of him from his naked shoulders up, and Longfellow’s huge head behind him. “They’ll see.”

  Seemingly unconcerned, he scanned her face. “Now that I think on it, I would have you kiss me on the lips.”

  Leather creaked; their guests had dismounted. Against her breast, Drummond’s chest rose and fell. “Please, Drummond. Stop being foolish.”

  He licked his lips. “Having time to think truly stirs the imagination,” he went on conversationally. “I would have you kiss me with your tongue.”

  Behind her horses danced restlessly, and a man, probably her overlord, cleared his throat. Were they close enough to hear? Incensed that they might, she hissed, “You’ll regret this.”

  “I could order you to rip off your coif and let down your hair.”

  Like dread, awareness of his ploy seeped into her shocked senses. “If I do not kiss you now, on the lips—”

  “With your tongue,” he reminded in a chiding tone. “And they cannot hear us.”

  She sighed. “If I do not kiss you on the mouth and with my tongue, you will think of other, more intimate ways of embarrassing me.”

  His response was a sly wink. “Bright lass.”

  Banishing her good sense, she twined her arms around his neck. He made a great show of rearing back, his face a mask of shock. But under his breath, he commanded the elephant to hold them tighter.

  He was making her act the wanton! The beast.

  “You begged for a truce, Clare. I offer you what you asked for—only don’t look so long-suffering when you claim me for your own.”

  Through a haze of mortification, she recalled the adoration that Glory on occasion bestowed on Sween and copied the expression.

  “Splendid,” he murmured.

  Feeling the rumble of his voice, she cupped his nape, pulled him down, and pressed her mouth to his. His lips parted, waiting; his heart hammered, or was it her own? Hollowness spread through her, and when shame threatened to fill the void, she forced it away, rallied her feminine power, and slipped her tongue into his mouth. His response was immediate and expected; he became the aggressor, twisting his mouth for a better fit and radiating a heat that seeped through her clothing to warm her skin.

  Fearful that he was pushing her too far, she hummed a scold into his mouth, and he grew still again. With a final twining of her tongue against his, she brought the kiss to an end. Leaning back to see the results, she was disappointed to find him staring past her.

  He murmured, “If the sheriff is not your lover, why then, does he look like a calf taken too soon from the teat?”

  “Because he has an affection for me, not a passion.”

  When he huffed in disbelief, she said, “Savor that kiss, Drummond Macqueen, for it’s the last you’ll get willingly from me.”

  His gloating grin faded, and she hoped his ardor with it. “We’ll see,” he said. Then he spoke to Longfellow, who released them. Johanna stepped back, fighting the urge to fuss with her surcoat before she faced the sheriff and her overlord. Pretending normalcy, she turned.

  If manly envy had put the grin on Red Douglas’s craggy features, it had made Ramsay Hay look like he’d swallowed a snake.

  Drummond came up beside her and pulled off his gloves. Folding his arms over his chest, he held the work gauntlets in the hand nearest to her.

  Ramsay Hay stood ramrod straight, his chain of office slightly off center, his dark green jerkin dusty from the road. His hazel eyes normally brimmed with humor, but today they were clouded with disappointment. A kind, intelligent man, he commanded the admiration of everyone she knew. He was horribly uncomfortable, and for that she was completely sorry.

  Red Douglas, as stocky and solid as a stunted oak, removed his bonnet and gave her a perfunctory nod. Then he turned to Drummond. “Macqueen.”

  Drummond flicked his wrist, bringing the gloves to rest on her shoulder. The possessive gesture shocked her, but she did not move away.

  “Welcome to our home, Dubhghlas,” Drummond said.

  The overlord brushed the air with his hand. “We seldom speak the Gaelic in the Borders.”

  They seemed to be squaring off like dogs ready to fight. Before being declared a traitor, Drummond, as chieftain of the mighty Macqueens, outranked Douglas, who commanded only his clan and the landowners in Drumfries. To quell the unexplained animosity between the two men, Johanna considered throwing them a conversational bone, but thought better of it. Their behavior was not her concern.

  Instead, she took pity on Ramsay Hay, who put on a grim smile to hide his disappointment. “How nice to see you, Sheriff Hay. May I present my husband, Drummond Macqueen.”

  Ramsay stepped forward. “When did His Majesty set you free, my lord?”

  Tonelessly, Drummond replied, “Two months after his coronation.”

  That would have been in April, over three months ago. Where had he been since then? The gloves grazed her upper arm, as if to remind her of his presence and his authority over her. Bother him, she silently scoffed, and decided that she didn’t care a rusty needle where he’d been.

  Red Douglas pitched the reins of his mount to one of the dozen clansmen who had accompanied him. “The new
king also gave you the elephant? I’ve heard of its existence.”

  Drummond shrugged. “Edward the Second had little choice, for Longfellow follows me everywhere. I doubt the king opines the loss, for I now shoulder the enormous cost of feeding the beast.”

  The overlord stared at Longfellow, who sent his trunk dancing in the air near the newcomers. Lifting his bushy eyebrows, Douglas said, “Just as well. The king can use the coin to pay off the debt his father left him.”

  Drummond made a chopping motion with his hand; Longfellow went back to coiling his trunk around snatches of hay and tucking the food into his mouth. “’Tis for certain he’ll not fill his coffers by raiding the Highlands.”

  “He knows that,” said Douglas. “I expect that we in the Debatable Lands will suffer for it in higher taxes.”

  “For the war Edward the First waged on my people?” Drummond asked, incredulous. “Pardon me if I’m unsympathetic for your loss of gold.”

  Douglas’s eyes narrowed. Drummond seemed unconcerned. Ramsay glanced cautiously from one man to the other, before sending Johanna a searching look.

  Drummond didn’t miss the silent exchange between his wife and the sheriff. To again illustrate his command of her, he handed her the gloves. “Will you fetch my shirt, Clare? ’Tis draped on the manger in Longfellow’s castle.”

  She opened her mouth, but closed it before stating her mind. A curse for him, most likely.

  “Of course, my gracious lord.” She retrieved the garment and waited until he’d pulled it on. “Perhaps our visitors would like to come inside and refresh themselves.”

  “The alehouse’ll do,” said Douglas.

  Drummond wanted to talk to both men—alone. “My lady, you go along and have that talk with Bertie. Tell the cook we have guests.”

  On the surface, she appeared the dutiful wife, but Drummond saw past her civility; underneath she was angry enough to slap his face. She wouldn’t, though, for she was scared to her soul that he’d take Alasdair away.

  “Your wish is my command, my lord.”

  Guilt nudged Drummond, but he paid no mind. She had been unfaithful once, she could do so again. Should that occur, Drummond would make certain Alasdair did not witness her shame or pay the price.

  He watched her speak again to their guests, then start up the steep steps leading to the keep, her back as stiff and straight as a new lance. Out of the corner of his eye, Drummond saw Alasdair skipping across the yard toward them, his face alive with youthful exuberance. The lad skidded to a halt a few feet from Douglas, then gave him a wide berth.

  Drummond was reminded of himself and his siblings when in the presence of their father and the other Highland chieftains.

  “Good day, sir. Father’s going to buy me one of your fine horses.”

  Douglas completely ignored the lad.

  Drummond, too, had expected Alasdair to speak only when addressed, for that was the way lads his age were treated. Seeing it happen to his own son, however, gave Drummond a prejudiced view of the practice. Douglas could have at least acknowledged the lad.

  “Alasdair,” said the sheriff. “I’ve brought you something.” From a pouch on his saddle, Ramsay Hay produced a package wrapped in oilskin. He handed it to Alasdair, who fairly beamed. “Thank you, Sheriff. Did you know that I’m getting a set of armor and a—?” He glanced cautiously at Douglas. “A horse.”

  Unabashed affection shone on Hay’s face. He laid his hand on Alasdair’s shoulder and said, “You’ll make a fine knight, lad. Your father’s a bit of a legend in that regard.” Looking up, he caught Drummond’s eye.

  Drummond saw acceptance and sadness in the sheriff’s expression. He remembered what Clare had said: Sheriff Hay is a delightful fellow, and if you would but try to engage a friendship, I think you will admirably succeed. Knowing it now for a fact, Drummond smiled.

  With a slight nod, the sheriff dropped his hand and stepped back. Alasdair ambled off, pretending great interest in the book. Drummond suspected that the lad was confused and his feelings hurt. Knowing this couldn’t be the first time, Drummond lamented the years in prison; Alasdair had needed him.

  Turning to Hay, he said, “Go with Douglas to the alehouse and tell the barkeep to tap a laird’s keg. I’ll meet you there.”

  Drummond moved in the opposite direction. He caught up with Alasdair near the well. Pulling him aside, he said, “That’s a very fine book.”

  He rolled it over in his hands and continued to stare at his feet. “Aye.”

  The words “a good parent” flashed in Drummond’s mind, and he understood what his wife had meant. Carrying out his responsibility to Alasdair posed a challenge, for he knew not where to start. He squatted so they were eye to eye. “You like the sheriff.”

  “Aye, he taught me to piss off the curtain—” He stopped. “Oh, I told you that story already. Mother says I’m not to repeat myself, especially to you.”

  “You worry too much, Son. What else does your mother say?”

  “That you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a lad, and when I’m as old as you, I’ll wish I was still making mischief. Do you?”

  “On occasion, especially when there’s a custard about.”

  “You like custards, too?”

  Drummond made a great show of licking his lips. “More than you know.”

  “Mother says I used to yap like a puppy for custards.”

  “Came from me, most probably.”

  His eyes glazed with pleasure. “You did that?”

  To his own surprise, Drummond threw back his head and yipped.

  Alasdair roared with laughter. “I look like you, too.”

  “You’re a limb off the mighty Macqueen tree.”

  “Truly? Tell me about my grandfather. Do I have hundreds of uncles and cousins? Will I be as good at soldiering as they are?”

  “We’ll discuss it at length tonight, should you want to sleep in my bed.”

  “Hoorah!” As quickly, his expression fell. “Mother will sleep in my bed again?”

  “Aye.”

  “I saw her kissing you. Does that mean you’re not a beef-witted troll anymore?”

  “Did she call me that?”

  “You made her very angry.”

  “Do you know why?”

  He replied that he could say nothing more on the matter. “I gave her my oath, do you see.”

  Bertie, too, had influenced Alasdair, for the lad copied the man’s speech. “Then you must keep your word; ’tis the honorable thing.”

  “Aye, sir. A Macqueen must always be constant and faithful.”

  It was the motto of Clan Macqueen. “Did your mother tell you that?”

  “Nay. Sheriff Hay found out about it for me.”

  So, thought Drummond, Clare couldn’t be bothered to educate Alasdair. Look for flaws and you will find them. He was guilty of both. “You must thank the sheriff warmly at table tonight.”

  Drummond’s astounded son clutched the book to his chest. “I can sup at the table with Red Douglas there?”

  Had Clare allowed the slight? Another flaw. Douglas would pay the lad no mind, but that wasn’t Alasdair’s fault. Old habits rule men like Red Douglas; they had once ruled Drummond, but he vowed never again to carelessly disregard Alasdair’s feelings. “Aye, Son. You’ll sit between your mother and me.”

  Alasdair scampered off. Drummond thought of a way to celebrate Alasdair’s first meal with the overlord. He went to the cutler’s shop, then hurried to the alehouse. No sooner had he taken the first swallow from his tankard than Douglas said, “I expect your oath of fealty, Macqueen.”

  He had the right to expect allegiance; Drummond would have thought less of him had he not demanded his due. But before he went down on his knee to a marcher lord, Drummond would have to reconcile his Highland loyalties. If Douglas were smart, he’d pick a more insistent matter on which to take a stand.

  To pacify the man, Drummond held up his tankard in salute. “We’ll come in a fortnight for Alasda
ir’s horse.”

  “In October, the king comes for the salmon. Make it then.”

  He was probably conniving to have Drummond swear fealty to Edward II, too, or at the least have a royal witness. Then later, if Drummond went against the king, Douglas would not be held responsible. Watching his back, as Drummond’s father used to say. “I favor a go at the salmon myself.”

  Douglas nodded, half his attention on the maid tending tables. “’Twill wait.”

  Drummond broached the subject of the field pledged to Douglas.

  The overlord scratched his shoulder. “’Tis a matter agreed and done.”

  “In lieu of the funds Clare borrowed to build the chapel, she agreed to give you one-third of the grain from a given field. The land has been overprosperous, and you have taken advantage of her.”

  “A bargain is a bargain.”

  “We’ll not give you another grain on account of the loan. ’Tis paid and more.”

  “I also gift her with a beef every Michaelmas.”

  “You may keep it. Henceforth, we will raise our own.”

  “I have a fine bull, if you’re interested.” He spoke to Drummond but his attention kept straying to the serving girl.

  “Thank you, nay. I’m importing fresh stock from Spain.”

  “Will your clansmen be bringing the beasts?”

  Was he worried? Odds were he knew more about the comings and goings of Clan Macqueen than Drummond did. “My kinsmen do as they may.”

  “There’s trouble with Clan Chapling. That young laird Revas Macduff thinks to claim the sword.”

  Clan Chapling was a mighty alliance of Highland clans. United, they presented a formidable defense. Edward I had dissolved the union. His son’s indifference toward Scotland had obviously allowed the Highlands to consider uniting again. Drummond knew little about Macduff; the Macgillivray clan had always claimed leadership of Chapling. “Revas Macduff will have to claim his bride first.” And Drummond knew precisely where to find the lass, Meridene. He’d wager his sword arm that Macduff did not know where Edward I had hidden her.

 
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