The border series, p.77
The Border Series, page 77
The serving maid sauntered over to refill their mugs. She’d unlaced her bliaud, and the garment fell open almost to her tightly belted waist. Stopping near Douglas, she put her hands on her hips and swayed from side to side. “Yer lookin’ fit, milord.”
“Fit enough to put a twinkle in your eye, Meg.” In an odd sort of surrender, he slammed coin down on the table. “Have Jake tap a Douglas keg, and don’t expect me for Vespers.” Then he led the smiling girl through the side door.
Hay chuckled. “He supports his by-blows.”
“Would that all overlords did,” Drummond said.
“My lord, I know of a ship’s captain who harbors in Maryport and plies the Orkney trade. He could bring news of your clan and not pass it on to everyone he met.”
If Hay was offering to get news from the Highlands, then he knew Drummond hadn’t been hiding out there for seven years. “You knew I was alive.”
The sheriff huffed. “I’d never set eyes on you, dead or alive.”
“So you let Clare and Alasdair think me dead.”
“She’d already grieved. The king should have hanged you. Why break her heart again?”
A steely calm stiffened Drummond’s spine. “Tell me about her grief.”
“She had no family left, except Alasdair, and he was still suckling a wet nurse.”
Drummond had always thought her as close as sisters to the other two girls at the abbey. She had called Johanna and Meridene her family. Or had the then Prince Edward turned her out? Had she mourned the loss of her royal lover rather than her lawful husband?
But Edward could wait; Drummond had Ramsey Hay to deal with now. “You no doubt extended your sympathies?”
“She’s a decent woman, Macqueen, and yes, I’d have her.”
“If you have had her I could beat you to porridge and every man here would sing hosannahs to my name.”
“She has not dishonored you.”
“Shall I employ the ship’s captain on your behalf?”
“I could send a messenger and find out for myself.”
“Certainly you could, and when and if the king moves against the Highlanders again, what will you do?”
Drummond hoped to be fighting shoulder to shoulder with his kinsmen should that happen, but Hay needn’t know that. “I should rely on gossip?”
Hay emptied the tankard and tapped it on the wooden table. “You’re outlawed and forbidden any contact with your clan.”
Drummond grew uneasy; he had hoped to keep the stipulations of his release a secret. “How did you know that?”
“’Tis my business to know, and only mine. I’m certain Lady Clare does not know.”
“She’s hardly a chatterbox where I’m concerned.”
“She thought you dead. I heard the old king even sent your body home to your kinsmen in parts.”
Drummond couldn’t help thinking about his stepmother. She would accept his fate and go on with her life, but not out of any avarice toward him; it was Highland custom. He thought about Clare and how fiercely she protected Alasdair. A good parent.
“Have I broached an unhappy subject, my lord?”
“Nay. By order of Edward the Second, the Highlands are forbidden to me. Should I choose to travel elsewhere, Sheriff, I’ll not leave my wife or any other of my possessions to your tender mercies.” Drummond would return to the Highlands someday, but he would keep his plans to himself.
Hay reddened and ground his teeth. “Worry not about my tender mercies. Since you doubt me, ask Sween Handle.”
“I’m sending Sween to Spain.”
“For the cattle?”
“Glory’ll wish him farewell, pout until he returns, then give him her back for leaving in the first place.”
“What causes their quarrels?”
“Ask Lady Clare.”
“Is she involved?”
“Hardly. It’s a tale better told by a woman, and who spins better yarns than Lady Clare?”
Drummond doubted he’d ever hear the story, for his wife certainly wanted nothing to do with him. What a fool he’d been for refusing her offer to share his bed. Look for flaws and you’ll find them. Her correct assessment of his methods made Drummond uncomfortable, so he changed the subject. “My lady took the law into her own hands in your absence.”
“Was the miller slighting the weights again?”
“Nay.” Drummond told him about Elton Singer.
“I thought we’d shielded Lady Clare from his ilk. How did she ever learn of it?”
Drummond gritted his teeth against the guilt, for had he not bruised her, she would not have recognized Singer for a wife beater. “I cannot say.”
“Where was Sween?” Hay asked.
“He’s innocent. She told no one what she was about. What will you do about Elton Singer?”
Hay stared at the ceiling. “Nothing. I have no grounds. And I will not invent one for any price. Even if I did, Maggie would lie for him.”
So, Hay was as honest as Clare had said. “Then I’ll insist that they move to the village.”
Hay took off his chain of office and put it on the table. He would not compromise his office, so he’d momentarily abandoned it. “How will you manage that?”
“I’ll make living here so appealing, Singer will come willingly.”
“And if he does not?”
The exchange of information with another man on a leadership matter awakened a long-dormant need in Drummond. He’d grown up in the company of important men making vital decisions. He’d spent seven years where every decision vital to his life was made for him. “I’ll make the offer irresistible. Have you a comment?”
Hay tipped his head toward the barkeep. “Have Jake water down Singer’s ale and send him home, with an escort, before dark. That should help, my lord.”
Drummond’s respect for the sheriff trebled. “Macqueen will do.”
Hay again donned his chain. “Then Macqueen it is. Have I other criminals awaiting justice?”
“Two. A thief and a poacher.”
“Have you an opinion on either?”
“I’ll abide by yours.”
He nodded. “I’ll address them tomorrow. Who is the fellow with the red beard?”
“Morgan Fawr? He helps me care for Longfellow. When did you see him?”
“He was standing on the other side of the elephant when … uh … we arrived.”
“How long will you stay?”
“Three, four days. Red should have his fill of Meg by then. His men will hunt while they are here, so do not despair of feeding them after tonight.”
Drummond thought of the evening to come. Discretion told him to approach his wife before the meal and in private. He finished off the ale and went in search of her.
Johanna had just lathered her hair the second time when a knock sounded on the pantry door. “Who is it?”
“Your gracious lord.”
Yanking up a towel, she drew her knees to her chest and covered herself as best she could. Should he barge in, the soapy water would afford her some modesty. She should have latched the door, but she was unaccustomed to having a resurrected-from-the-dead husband interrupt her toilet. He was supposed to be entertaining guests; she hadn’t considered that he’d abandon them. “I’m unavailable.”
“Because you’re bathing?”
Drat that Evelyn for her loose mouth. “Yes, and I prefer privacy.”
“I prefer to talk to you.” The door swung open, and he stood on the threshold.
She looked past him into the kitchen, but Evelyn and the cook were nowhere in sight. The traitors.
He stepped inside and latched the door.
“Where are the servants?” she asked.
“The market and the buttery.”
The urge to cower was almost overpowering, but she fought it. With a casualness that she was far from feeling, she tied the towel around her neck to hide the brand
“Nay. I may have left the matter too long as it is.”
The cryptic remark said, he rolled a barrel near the tub and sat down. Light poured from the high window and threw his shadow across the pantry floor. He’d raked his hands through his hair and laced up his jerkin. He looked all legs and arms and beguiling blue eyes. The beast.
She had often been at a disadvantage with him, but those former occasions paled. Sitting naked, him towering over her with something weighty on his mind, made her feel completely at his mercy.
“Alasdair will sit between you and me at table tonight,” he said.
It was the last thing she expected. “I’m certain he’s very excited. Thank you for telling me.”
He half smiled and made a slow inspection of her hand, her wrist, and her arm.
A shiver worked its way up her spine, and her fingers stilled. “Was there something else?”
His eyes narrowed with mischief and his grin turned cocky. “I imagine so.”
Borrowing one of Glory’s particularly successful remarks, Johanna said, “Don’t be tiresome.”
“I thought I was a beef-witted troll.”
She’d wring Alasdair’s neck, and then she’d seek Glory’s counsel on how to avoid a husband she did not want. “A beef-witted troll will do for now.”
He scanned her face and the mane of wet hair trailing over her shoulder and pooling in the water. “You enjoyed kissing me.”
“I’d as soon watch milk clabber.”
Laughter fluttered his belly, and she remembered the dark mat of hair that tapered to a thinner line and led past his navel and pointed the way to his—
“And if I command you to kiss me again?”
Her heart thudded against her ribs. He’d said those same words on the night she’d comforted him on the battlement. At the time she had answered honestly, because she’d been genuinely moved to heal the wounds of the past. But he’d spoiled the occasion, and now she faced a mother’s worse terror. “I would refuse to kiss you, unless you threatened to take my son away.”
He winced, but she wasn’t fooled by a prick to his conscience; Drummond Macqueen was heartless to his core. “If that will be all…” To emphasize her dismissal, she lifted her brows in query.
Grabbing his ankle, he drew up his left foot and rested it on his right knee. “What of our hard-won truce? We’ve not discussed provisions.”
Heaven help her. He was settling in for a chat. With the door latched. “Provisions?”
“Aye. We both make concessions to show that we are earnest about keeping the truce.”
When her hands began to shake again, she curled her fingers around the edge of the tub. “I’ve done my conceding.”
“You did it exceptionally well, if I may say so.”
“You may say it to the Pope.”
Bracing his arms on the barrel, he leaned back and stared at the bundles of drying heather that hung from the ceiling. “I’m certain you felt desire for me.”
The jerkin fit too snugly across his chest and upper arms. The seams would rip if he didn’t stop flexing his muscles or have the garment altered. She hoped his tailor lived in London. “I’m certain you will color up the event as you see fit.”
In a lithe move, he stepped off the barrel and picked up the bucket of warm water. “I’ll rinse your hair. You never liked doing it yourself.”
She stared at the wall shelves and tried to ignore her nakedness and his insistence, but sacks of dried peas and crocks of honey did little to ease her trepidation. She was his wife. His faithless wife. “I’ve changed.”
He sniffed her hair. “In your choice of soap as well. You know ’tis my favorite.”
She knew no such thing. She also found the fragrance pleasing, but he seemed destined to claim responsibility for that, too. “Heather is abundant here, and I haven’t the coin for expensive scents.”
“You chose it for me. ’Tis another of the ways you’ve changed.”
His eyes turned hungry as he gazed at her. Her skin turned to gooseflesh. “Think what you will, Drummond. Just think it elsewhere.”
“Why order me out? You were never so modest before. Quite the contrary. You were proud of your body and the predictable effect it had on me. Why do you blush now?”
With tremendous glee, she said. “I am not the woman you married.”
He was staring at her breasts. “I like you better now.”
Kindness from him would never do, not if she hoped to keep him at a distance. “I like you less.”
A self-effacing grin added charm to his already handsome features. “Even a beef-witted troll can see that you’re angry with me.”
“Stop being so accommodating; that only makes me question your motives.”
“I could tell you my motives outright, for they concern you,” he said in a silken whisper, his cheek very close to hers. “Then you wouldn’t wonder.”
As if the oaken bucket were a lightweight crock, he grasped it in one hand. “Lean over, unless you want water everywhere. And take off that towel.”
Not for all the world’s riches would she risk exposing the brand. “I can rinse my own hair.”
“Indulge your husband.”
Trapped and disgusted, she hugged her knees and kept a tight hold on the towel.
“Close your eyes.”
She did. A moment later warm water trickled over her head, and his fingers kneaded her scalp. She’d been correct about the size of his hand, for the span of his fingers captured her skull, and like a man prone to thriftiness, he rationed the water, spreading it carefully over every strand of her waist-length hair.
Soap stung her eyes, and she pressed the soaked towel against them. Even though she tried to ignore him, she felt the heat of his body and the rush of his breath very close, too close. She tried to move out of reach.
“Be still. I have always wanted to taste heather on your skin.”
Clare had favored lilacs or roses, and she had never mentioned Drummond’s penchant for tasting skin. Then he pushed her hair aside and kissed her unmarked shoulder and her neck.
Johanna’s toes curled. Thank God the servants would be back soon. With so many visitors, Evelyn and the cook wouldn’t tarry at their errands. Johanna felt moderately safe, and if she kept talking to herself she could ignore the voice of weakness and its never-ending plea for her surrender to Drummond Macqueen.
“Do you remember my recurring dream?” he said. “The one you thought vulgar.”
A brilliant excuse came to mind. “I forced myself to forget it.”
He spoke against the cap of her shoulder, his teeth lightly grazing her skin. “I lay on the grassy bank of a fast running burn. ’Twas a glorious summer morn. Eagles soared overhead, and forest creatures scurried in play. The world and all in it seemed on display just for me. Then you rose, naked from the water.”
“I walked on water?”
He nipped her skin in a playful bite. “Hush. Irreverence is not allowed.” In a too husky voice, he continued. “You smiled and knelt beside me. You told me you had been sent especially for me. Then you granted me three wishes.”
The sensual cadence of his voice lulled her, and the tale sounded harmless so far, except the naked part, but it was fitting. The troubling part was, he thought she was his wife. No, she realized, would not be a big enough word to extricate herself if he didn’t stop nibbling her skin.
“What did you wish for?” she said.
“That depends on which time I had the dream.”
Humor him, she thought, and perhaps he would leave. “The first time.”
“I asked for a sword, a bed without two snoring brothers, and a pony.”
Laughter burst from her. He joined in, and the sounds of their mirth felt so natural she wondered if they might find lasting accord after all.
“How could you have a dream about me when you were a lad? You didn’t even know me then.”
When it came to fate, Johanna Benison could go him one better. “What did you ask for the last time you had the dream?”
“Very adult things.” He gathered up her hair. She snatched the ends of the towel in a death grip.
Making a rope of her hair, he wrung out the water, then picked up the brush and began to work out the tangles. “A room with many windows at the top of Fairhope Tower.” His lips fluttered down her spine, leaving a trail of shivers on her skin.
“Shush.” He breathed the word into her ear, and she had to strain to keep from crying out. Showers of pleasure cascaded over her, refreshing, taunting, bringing to life a picture of the idyllic scene he’d described, complete with her kneeling naked beside him and awaiting his bidding.
“Aren’t you curious about my second wish?”
“Wish? What wish?”
His arrogant, manly chuckle sounded a warning. She grasped the gist of the conversation. “Your second wish.”
Brush forgotten, he lifted her arm, ducked under it and kissed the tender side of her breast. His other arm went around her shoulder and tried to rake the towel aside.
“You must stop.” The feeble request sounded unconvincing even to Johanna’s ears.
His mouth hovered over the tip of her breast, his breath puckering the nipple. “’Twas a wish to find you here bathing in the pantry and in need of someone to rinse your hair.”
His sensual tone and romantic words lulled her, and she squeezed her eyes shut. “What was your third wish?”
He took her nipple into his mouth and dragged his lips back and forth, around and around, stealing her breath and clouding her thoughts.
“Do you know,” he murmured. “I think I’ve forgotten.”
“Try,” she gasped, “to remember.”
“You’re too distracting.”
“No. I’m conceding to you again.”
He sounded so satisfied by her answer that Johanna almost rejoiced; they were conversing easily. Conversing? She could lay claim to the title of second biggest fool if she equated having her breasts suckled to carrying on a conversation. But if she didn’t stop him, he would expect her to take her wifely duties one step further. She was already in over her head.
by Arnette Lamb / Romance have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes