The border series, p.84

The Border Series, page 84

 

The Border Series
 



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  Glory blinked in understanding. “My lord,” she said, still fishing through the contents of her pouch. “Before you remove that dressing, will you ask Evelyn to fetch hot water and cold?”

  He had loosened Johanna’s underdress and reached for the placket to ease the garment off her shoulders. He paused and shot them a look that indicated he knew they were conspiring to get rid of him, but he went.

  The moment he disappeared into the hallway, Johanna said, “Help me into that dress, Glory, and quickly.”

  The midwife paused, a roll of clean cloth in her hand. “Why do you shy from him? He doesn’t seem the sort to go green at the sight of injury.”

  “I have my reasons.”

  “I believe he’s truly concerned. More than Sween would be should I lie injured.”

  Drummond was concerned, but only out of curiosity. Sween Handle was Glory’s business.

  “My lady?”

  Johanna didn’t reply, but peeled off her clothing herself; she’d learned years ago that the best way to deal with Glory was not to try. Just as she stepped into the newly altered dress, she heard Drummond in the stairway passing on the request for water to Evelyn.

  Biting her lip to stave off the pain, Johanna held the garment in place with her injured right arm and threaded her left through the sleeve. She had to work the dress up over her hips. The gown had been altered in other ways.

  “What have you done to my dress?”

  Glory’s eyes glittered with mischief. “A tuck here, a smaller one there. You have Lord Drummond’s pleasure to consider. It’s obvious he finds you beautiful, why not give him more to admire?”

  Now that Drummond had returned to Fairhope, Glory probably expected Johanna to commiserate on the intimate side of marriage; the women often talked among themselves on personal matters. Johanna had always avoided the discussions. She could not speak knowledgeably when she knew only the rudiments of the subject. “Why indeed? At the moment I hardly feel like enticing him.” That much was certainly true.

  “You admit that you should have stayed abed?”

  She did feel better since coming inside, so Johanna gave Glory the answer she wanted. “Yes, and you were correct I cannot use my arm. It’s too sore. Will you please help me!”

  Her objective met, Glory laced up the dress, but not too snugly. “Do you promise to rest?”

  Listening for Drummond’s return, Johanna said, “I promise.” But her agreement came too late, for he stood in the doorway, his gaze moving from her waist to her naked right arm and settling on the trail of bandages that began at her shoulder, wound beneath her right arm, partially covered her right breast, and circled her neck.

  Glory produced shears from her pouch, and with her mouth set in concentration, she cut away the old dressing. The shears felt cold against Johanna’s skin, and she shivered, both at the hard touch of the metal and the cold dread about what Drummond would say.

  “My lord,” Johanna interjected, using her good arm to hold the now loosened bandage in place. “Glory is capable —more capable than the king’s own physician.”

  Disregarding her, he crossed the room and reached for her wrist. “I want to see what you’ve done to yourself.”

  “Oh, very well, but it looks worse than it is.” She waited until he released her wrist; then she peeled back the dressing.

  He winced and his gaze fled to hers. “By the saints, Clare. I’ve seen men suffer lesser wounds and claim debility for weeks and more. You’ve hurt yourself badly.”

  If she hadn’t lost her grip on the iron the moment it touched her skin, the wound would have been the size of her palm, as she had planned. But the wayward iron had fallen back to her shoulder and rolled toward her neck, searing a patch of skin larger than her hand.

  Glory peered over Drummond’s shoulder. “The salve has brought down the swelling.”

  “Brought it down?” he asked, engrossed in the wound. “’Twas worse?”

  “Yes. My lady swooned,” Glory said. “Bertie found her in a heap near the hearth. Her shoulder is tender from the fall, which is why she favors her right arm.”

  His gaze captured Johanna’s. “What were you doing swinging a hot mulling iron over your shoulder?”

  Did he doubt her story? She hadn’t considered that he would ask for a detailed explanation. Finding the courage to carry out the deed itself had taxed her no end. He couldn’t know how long she had grappled with the decision. The harm was done. She must go forward from here. “I was not swinging it over my shoulder. ’Twas an accident.” From which he would also benefit, for she could now truly become his wife and hopefully fulfill his wish for more sons.

  His mouth pulled into a tight line, his eyes brimming with regret, he shook his head. “We’ll discuss your accident at another time.”

  “Why?”

  “You’ve obliterated the old brand on your shoulder. One might wonder if you did it on purpose—to obscure the mark.”

  Over the pounding of her heart, Johanna heard Glory gasp.

  “Mark?” said the midwife. “What mark?”

  Battling back fear and pain, Johanna struggled to keep her voice even. “The mark is my affair, Drummond. I had forgotten it.”

  His gaze turned steely, and she had the distinct impression that he did not believe her.

  “You’ve left me no choice in the matter, have you?” he said. When she made no reply, he continued. “You’re to stay in this bed until Glory gives you leave to move about the keep.”

  She’d willingly chain herself to the floor if only he would take himself elsewhere. Discretion gave way to exhaustion. Later she would contrive a plausible explanation for the mishap. “I promise.”

  “I’ll bring Alasdair to see you tomorrow.” Then he did the unexpected; he kissed her forehead and gave her hand a gentle squeeze. To Glory he said, “Have you everything you need, Mistress?”

  “More, if you count the unwelcome presence of Sween Handle in my life.”

  Looking distracted, he rose. “Heal my lady, and I shall oblige you by sending him away.”

  “What?” Glory’s mouth fell open and she almost lurched at Drummond. “When? To where will he go?”

  “You do not wish him to leave?”

  Glory started, then tossed her head. “Of course I wish him gone. He’s another canker on the pocked face of man.”

  Drummond turned to Johanna. “After I meet with Red Douglas, I’m off to Eastward Fork. The tanner’s son wants to try his hand at farming, so we’ll be moving him to the Singer place and the Singers into his house here.”

  Guilt compounded Johanna’s misery. Moments before she had judged him a poor helpmate, and now he was taking up her causes and assuming her responsibilities. “Thank you,” was all she could manage.

  He looked at her strangely, his bearing suddenly rigid. “I need no thanks for carrying out my duties, especially when I doubt you will approve of all the changes I intend to make.”

  On that cryptic statement, he exited the room, leaving Johanna to wonder what he meant.

  A week later, alone atop the keep’s battlement, Drummond still wondered if she had spoken the truth about the accident. Time and again he had pictured the motions involved in plunging a hot mulling rod into a tankard to warm the contents. How could the iron have touched her shoulder when the motions were downward in direction? Logic told him she had lied. But why and how had the mishap occurred? Or had it been a mishap?

  The “why” especially troubled him. If she were now ashamed of the mark, that would account for the discrepancy in her explanation; yet his wife hadn’t possessed the courage to maim herself. Few people would go to such extremes, and she had been proud of her beauty. But as she had so often reminded him of late, she was not the same Clare he’d married.

  Thinking perhaps the brand had turned ugly with age, as some scars did, he had casually questioned Evelyn. To his surprise, she had never helped Clare dress or assisted with her bath. Queries to Alasdair about their summer swims had
yielded no information on the brand. Odd as it seemed, the two people closest to her had no knowledge of the unusual mark on his wife’s shoulder. The day he’d seen her naked in the pantry and almost made love to her on a barrel, he had not seen the mark. She’d covered it with a towel, and when he had tried to move the cloth aside, she’d held it tightly. Why? She always wore concealing clothing. She bathed alone. She dressed herself.

  Dressed. The dressmaker.

  Drummond applauded himself, for he’d discovered the one person who would have knowledge of his wife’s body.

  Except Edward Plantagenet, his pride protested. Drummond rejected the thought, for he had no proof of her continued infidelity save the king’s word. But in less than a month, when they traveled to Dumfries, Drummond would know.

  Pray she told the truth, his heart cried, for with each passing day, he found something new to admire about her.

  Still, the mystery of the accident niggled at him. But now he had a plan, and although he’d never pictured himself visiting a dressmaker, he relished the prospect.

  For seven years he’d been deprived of honest companionship and intelligent conversation, and he felt starved for the camaraderie Glory had damned. Yet he found the healer interesting and wondered what had brought her and Sween to such a romantic blockade.

  In some ways Drummond felt blessed to abide among people with more on their minds than torturing and hanging. None of these people called him an animal and cursed his ancestors for cave dwelling creatures.

  Suddenly hungry for a slice of the rare beef the cook had served earlier in honor of the overlord’s and the sheriff’s departure, Drummond made his way down the stairs and walked softly past Sween, who slept soundly on a pallet near the hearth.

  In the pantry Drummond found the plate of meat wrapped in a cloth. He poured himself a mug of cider and took a long pull of the sweet juice. Just as he rewrapped the roast and returned it to the platter, he heard a soft gasp behind him.

  His wife stood in the doorway. Beneath a modest shawl, she wore a flowing white gown, and the rope of her braided hair lay over her shoulder and dangled at her waist. The faint light from the hearth behind her was too dim to shine through the fabric, but from past experiences, he knew well her feminine form. In this very room he had pulled her from a bath and held her on his lap. His fingers itched to trace the tapered curve of her waist and he remembered vividly the contours of her breasts, the texture of her pert nipples, and the taste of her skin. He thought of the brand, gone now.

  “I thought you were abed,” she said.

  Since her injury, Drummond had moved his pallet into the hall. As tonight, Sween often joined him. But Drummond seldom slept there for more than an hour at a time. He liked the freedom of the battlement and the solitude and safety of the keep at night.

  He held up the slice of beef. “Would you care to join me?”

  “Hum, yes.” She crossed the small room, leaving the door open. “The beef was the best we’ve had all year, thanks to Red Douglas. Do you like him?”

  “Well enough, and we’ll soon have our own cattle.”

  “Have you decided when to send Sween to Spain?”

  “Aye, he’ll leave on Sunday.”

  “Does Glory know?”

  “He told her after Vespers.”

  The light was faint, but he could discern Clare’s smile. “I wish I’d been a flea in the rushes during that discussion,” she said, spreading a cloth over a waist-high barrel.

  When she reached for the platter, Drummond stopped her. “Let me, Clare.” He put it on the barrel.

  “You needn’t coddle me, Drummond. I’m truly mended, and there’s little meat left on the bone.”

  That was true, for everyone, even Alasdair, had asked for a second portion, and the once sizeable haunch of meat would now provide them with only a light repast. She could easily have lifted the platter, but Drummond rather enjoyed seeing her assert herself, even though he always prevailed. She had been agreeable and pleasant. Too much so to Drummond’s way of thinking. What was she about?

  They had just begun to eat when a feminine yet compelling voice whispered, “Sween! Wake up.”

  He recognized Glory’s husky tones.

  “Shush.” Drummond stepped lightly to the door and went down on one knee. Through the arch of the open hearth, he could see into the hall. Glory knelt beside Sween’s pallet and jostled his arm.

  The huntsman stirred and sat up. “What do you here, woman?”

  She spoke so softly, Drummond couldn’t make out the words, but he couldn’t mistake the question in her voice.

  Sween looked around. “He must be sleeping on the battlement.”

  “Or with his woman,” Glory said. “Which is where you should be.”

  Rubbing the sleep from his face, the huntsman stood. Drummond took his wife’s hand and pulled her with him behind the door that opened into the pantry. He flattened himself against the wall with her beside him, just as Sween moved into the kitchen. Pewter clanged, liquid sloshed.

  “Will you share your ale with me?” Glory said.

  “Nay,” Sween growled.

  “Why not?”

  “When last I saw you, you called me a dung-ugly monster and cursed me to Spanish hell.”

  “I meant it not, Sween. I was angry, as you often are with me.”

  Drummond leaned close and whispered in Clare’s ear. “Know you how to play at being a flea in the rushes?”

  She buried her face in his chest to smother a giggle. He wrapped an arm around her, but loosely, still concerned about her injured shoulder. Holding her and snickering like wayward children felt natural, and the joy he found in the moment overrode any guilt he felt at eavesdropping.

  “I have just cause to be angry, Glory. Stop that!”

  Glory fairly purred. “You lay with Mary Heckley and gave her a stillborn babe.”

  “There’s none to say the babe was mine. Everyone took their pleasure of Mary.”

  “Everyone laughed at me.” Her voice was thick with tears. “I was ten and five, Sween, and I thought you loved me. But you went to her.”

  “So you went to another man.”

  “I felt unwanted. But not now.”

  “What are you doing?”

  Clare had grown still against Drummond, and he knew that she was comparing her circumstances to Glory’s. He wanted to soothe her but couldn’t bring himself to offer comfort. She had willingly lain with another man. Even when confronted, she had not denied her sin. Look for trouble and you’ll find it. He’d look for trouble in Dumfries; then he would know what to do about his wife and his future.

  “Kiss me, Sween.”

  In the ensuing silence, Drummond tried and failed to marshall his randy body. Tucked against his side, his wife was also affected, for her breathing grew labored and she pressed closer.

  “Stop just there, girl,” Sween said, but the command held little authority. “Someone could come upon us.”

  “They’re all abed. You like my breasts. I know you do.”

  “What have you done to your nipples?”

  “I stained them with berry juice. Will you have a taste?”

  “Glory, if you take off those trews I’ll do more than fondle you, and you’ll be sorry tomorrow.”

  The rustling of clothing told an erotic tale. “I’m sorry now, Sween, and I want you. Touch me here. And here.”

  A manly groan vibrated on the still air and settled in Drummond’s groin.

  Glory sighed. “Oh, yes, Sween.”

  Christ.

  “You’ve the body of an angel.”

  “Then be my devil, Sween. You cannot deny that you want me. The proof swells in my hand.”

  “You’ll have my seed in your palm, too, do you keep that up.”

  “Hum. I want to kiss you there and take you into my mouth.”

  Clare gasped, but the sound was muffled against Drummond’s chest.

  “By the saints, no!”

  “Shush! Can you
not be a man about this?”

  “Not with so much woman in my arms.”

  “Your woman?”

  In a groan rife with surrender, Sween said, “My woman.”

  They were kissing again or moving on to more intimate pleasures, and imagining the reasons for their sighs and moans proved a powerful aphrodisiac to Drummond. Seeking a diversion from the lustful torment, he wondered what his wife was thinking.

  Since her accident, she’d been agreeable, even cheerful, as if she’d made a decision and was greatly pleased with herself. Upon questioning she had said, “I’ve decided to follow your advice and Glory’s. If you are calling me to task for it, I shall resume my duties.”

  She had been complimentary of his plan to grow oats and millet in the field she’d sacrificed to Red Douglas. She had applauded Drummond’s idea of harvesting the nuts and selling them to the swineherds to fatten up their stock rather than letting the beasts forage at will in the forest.

  “The children can participate in the harvest and earn a penny of their own.”

  She had dubbed the next Friday Foraging Day and set Evelyn and Bertie to passing the word through the village: All were invited, especially the children.

  Sween grunted and Glory moaned, and they panted as if they were running uphill. Were they actually coupling on the kitchen floor? Driven to know, Drummond peered through the crack between the door’s leather hinges. And held his breath, for Sween leaned against the wall, a naked Glory standing before him, her hand wrist deep in his trunk hose.

  His face a grimace of either pain or pleasure, Sween grasped her upper arms and set her away from him. “Get your clothes, Glory.”

  “Where are we going?”

  “To the buttery.”

  “Will you take me with you to Spain?” Looking like a wood nymph, Glory crouched before him. “Please.”

  “Will you accept me as your lord and master?”

  “My husband.”

  “Lord and master,” he insisted.

  “You’re cruel, Sween Handle.”

  “Nay, Glory. I’m desperate for peace between us.”

  “Lord and master,” she conceded. “But only in the privacy of our home.”

 
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