The border series, p.86

The Border Series, page 86

 

The Border Series
 



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  Out of the side of his mouth, he said, “Doing what thing?”

  Drummond wanted to shake his son, but violence would rob him of his pride. From experience, Drummond knew that a shamed man could not order his thoughts, let alone express affection, and Clare needed reassurance before she could forgive Alasdair. “’Tis up to you to choose,” Drummond said. “You know the things she favors.”

  “Perhaps,” she said, her voice stiff with dignity, “Alasdair should spend some time phrasing his apology.”

  The lad looked up at her, but glanced quickly away. “I’m the only one who knows where the white heather grows—except father. May I be excused?”

  “Aye, and put on a jerkin before you go a-fielding.” Drummond watched him go.

  “What are you thinking?” she asked.

  “How simple was my father’s method of child rearing.”

  “The flat of his hand just so?” She laid the back of her hand against her cheek.

  The comparison seemed odd, for her cheek was smooth and her hand soft and supple. His father’s hand had been clublike in both size and texture, and his aim had been forever true. “Just so.”

  She stared after Alasdair as he made his way up the steps to the keep. Drummond felt bound to say, “’Tis natural for him to go his own way and to misbehave.”

  Sadness ringed her mouth, and he’d wager his last plaid that her heart was breaking. “I was thinking that very thing.”

  “He’s making a poor job of growing up.”

  She nodded, but her breathing had turned choppy and her nostrils flared. Drummond grew desperate to cheer her. “We could pledge him to the church.”

  She swallowed. “They’d pay us not to.”

  “Aye. The Pope’d yield up his last fine raiment for the cause.”

  Even as he watched, she rallied. Interest sparkled in her eyes and her hands grew still. “For how long shall we punish him?”

  “You mean depriving him of his war weapons?”

  “Yes.”

  She shouldn’t look so beautiful, not when he burned to possess her. Not when she’d lain with a king. Not when she kept important secrets. “Lying is a serious matter, Clare. And a poor quality in a son or a wife.”

  She did not mistake his meaning, but whatever her reasons she guarded them well. “Especially your wife?”

  Pray God she would offer an explanation. “Especially so, since I only have the one.”

  On a half laugh, she said, “Then let me assure you, your wife did not burn herself apurpose.”

  She spoke as if his wife were someone else. She had changed, and the greatest difference seemed her ability to separate herself from the past. Neither in carriage, nor attitude did she seem like an adulteress. Rather, she appeared innocent in the ways of intimacy. Where had she acquired the skill, and where could he find the means to ferret out the truth?

  A direct approach seemed best. “Aye, you did set out to burn yourself. Why?”

  “Fatherhood suits you well.”

  Her attempt at flattery was so artless, Drummond laughed. “At best, I muddle through.”

  She tilted her head to the side and smiled. “Modesty becomes you. I, on the other hand, was a wretched mother from the start.”

  The diversion didn’t fool Drummond; it made him curious. “You?”

  “More than wretched.” A self-effacing grin lit up her face. “The first time I gave him a taste of plum sauce, he cooed and giggled for more. He was just learning to crawl. I gave him as much of it as he would eat. I never stopped to think it would make him sick. Glory and I walked the floor with him for two days. I thought I’d killed the poor mite.”

  In a heartbeat, Drummond’s animosity fled. She suffered a poor memory, but, by the grail, she’d mastered diplomacy and the art of disarming conversation.

  “Another time,” she went on, looking completely at ease, “I took him with me to Carlisle to find buyers for our first harvest. It was a glorious summer day, and we rode in the hay wagon. The sun blistered Alasdair’s plump cheeks and nose, and I was too selfish and inexperienced to notice.”

  Blistered. Burned. How, Drummond wondered, could he have been distracted by her winsome ways? Because she possessed the rare ability to charm and deceive in the same breath. “You’ve become an expert on burns, have you not?”

  She blinked, but could not disguise her disappointment. An instant later, she cheerfully said, “How came you to befriend Longfellow?”

  The change of topics was so obvious, Drummond almost challenged her. Better to wait, he thought, and observe her, for he knew with certainty that she’d give herself away. Deceivers always did. “His keeper died, and his quarters were next to mine.”

  Shock sharpened her features. “You were kept with the…”

  A chill went through him. “Animals.”

  “Oh, Drummond. I’m so sorry.”

  In her clear gaze and her heartfelt tone, she radiated truth. He committed the impression to memory. He had patience aplenty and time to sleuth out her lie. Then he would reap the bountiful harvest of her feminine charms. “As you say, I have a friend in Longfellow to show for it.”

  “You also have your freedom and a prosperous keep,” she said reasonably.

  And a faithless, lying wife. Like a raw wind, the reminder cut him to the bone and dashed his lovestruck ideals.

  She must have read his thoughts, for she said, “Better to count your blessings, Drummond, than to dwell on your misfortunes. You have Alasdair, who is a mix of both, and he needs you.”

  He fought back a smile. He would not allow her to diffuse his anger, if he let down his guard, she would slip into his heart again. “A veritable bounty.”

  “Just so. Shall we celebrate your bounty?”

  Was the question a sly attempt at seeking his forgiveness? She’d not so easily gain a pardon from Drummond Macqueen. But he was intrigued; how far would she go? “You mean to toast our success as parents?”

  Suddenly eager, she said, “Why, that’s a splendid idea, Drummond. We’ll do it tonight.”

  So, immediacy did hold appeal for her. In that case, he would stall, for he rather liked being the object of her attention. He would, of course, keep his ambitions on a short rein. “Aye, ’tis,” he said. “You may have the alewife start a batch of sennight mead.”

  “Sennight?” She stepped so close he could smell the heather on her skin. “But would not wine do as well?”

  His mouth watered, and he clutched the gauntlets in his hands to keep from touching her. The bodice of her bliaud hugged her breasts, and the dusty rose color of the garment matched the enticing shade of her lips. Lips that could intoxicate. “Think you to get me drunk, Clare?”

  She huffed with indignation, an expression that accentuated her regal bearing and reminded him of Alasdair. The sunlight played on her skin and gave her brown eyes a cinnamon hue. He longed to see them darken with passion again. But he would see honesty first.

  “Why would I give you too much drink, Drummond?”

  A number of answers came to mind, but they all seemed groundless. She had never practiced seduction; this new Clare was too forthright. Did she think to pry forgiveness from him? An interesting prospect, but far too naive, even for the old Clare Macqueen. Thinking to turn her plans around, he said, “What if you get drunk and reveal to me why you burned off that brand?”

  “I have nothing to reveal, but we have much to celebrate. You were wonderful with Alasdair.”

  There it was again, a statement of praise that felt like a loving caress. Her confidence spurred him on. “In this I shall be relentless.”

  And relentless he was.

  He knelt beside her at Vespers and whispered, “Did you grow ashamed of the mark?”

  Head bowed, she touched her shoulder to his. “No, but I’m ashamed of you.”

  As innocent as the Virgin Mary, he said, “But I’ve only begun.”

  He stood over her as she fabricated bedtime stories for Alasdair. Leaning down, he
said, “Did you think I would grow ashamed of the mark?”

  Looking up, she said, “Rather, I prayed that you would come home and care for me yourself.”

  As if struck, he jumped back.

  If kindness would counter his insistence, he was in for a flood of generosity.

  He accompanied her to greet important guests. Behind his hand, he said, “Did you think to gain my sympathy?”

  “The devil with your sympathy, Drummond. It’s your heart I’m after.”

  His surprised gaze had settled on her mouth. Borrowing one of Glory’s bold moves, Johanna licked her lips. On a manly groan of frustration, he excused himself.

  She wanted to race after him, but he was forever in the company of Alasdair or Bertie or Amauri. Never alone with her. If anything, Drummond seemed determined to avoid chance meetings like the one in the pantry. He slept on the battlement and barred the door. To outward appearances they were lord and lady, parents, a family.

  But they were not man and wife.

  Since the departure of Sween and Glory, Drummond had often been occupied with training and leading the huntsmen. He even lingered at the bog an extra night to find a fat frog because he knew she favored the meat.

  But he was not her devoted husband.

  She tallied the nut harvest. She inventoried the stores. She pruned the kitchen garden until no decent weed would dare take root. Just yesterday, she accompanied Drummond to the tailor and watched as he was fitted for new clothing. He had even suggested they visit the dressmaker so she could have a new gown for their journey to Dumfries.

  “Something with a cowl at the neck to hide your self-inflicted burn,” he’d whispered.

  Patience gone, she murmured back, “Perhaps I’ll choose black to remind me of my happy days as a widow.”

  With his thumb and forefinger, he had grasped her chin. “Another win to you, Clare.”

  “Then I demand a boon.”

  “In exchange for the truth?”

  She’d lost the bigger battle, for no matter how often or shamelessly she tempted him, he avoided her seduction.

  But she was a woman with a mission, and at week’s end, when the sennight mead had fermented, Johanna seized her opportunity.

  Chapter 15

  Excitement lightened her step and buoyed her confidence. Wearing a berry colored bliaud and a new surcoat of pink velvet, Johanna made her way to the hall. Outside the entryway, she stopped before the polished shield to check her appearance. She had braided her hair and coiled it at the crown of her head. Over a whisper thin veil that framed her face and flowed down her back, she wore a garland of fresh white heather.

  Alasdair had thrown mud in Curly Handle’s face yesterday. As punishment, he’d been denied dessert and ordered to pick flowers for Curly. He’d also brought some to Johanna.

  “For the next time I’m bad,” he had said sagely. “That way your heart won’t break.”

  “How came you to know about breaking my heart?”

  “Father told me.”

  Drummond’s influence on Alasdair showed in many ways; more often than not, the lad made decisions for himself. Although some were mistakes, Alasdair was learning to accept his setbacks with good grace. Had she planned a friendship between father and son, she could not have imagined better for them, and if Drummond excelled at the begetting of children as he did at fatherhood, he’d give her a score of lads and lassies.

  “Shall I tell you what Father said?” Alasdair had asked.

  “Of course.”

  “He said, ‘Your mother’s heart is made of glass, Son. Have a care that you do not break it.’“ Proud of himself, Alasdair had squirmed as he twisted the white heather into a garland. “Morgan Fawr says Father’s doing a lurk and waiting for the right turn of a head.”

  Johanna laughed. “Do you know what he means?”

  “Nay.” He had shrugged. “But no one else does, either. Heckley says Morgan himself doesn’t even know his own mind.”

  Now Johanna smiled at the memory. Gazing at her reflection in the shield, she adjusted the garland, then stepped into the hall.

  Evelyn knelt before the hearth and banked the fire. Drummond was nowhere about.

  Over her shoulder, the maid said, “Good evening, my lady. His lordship’ll make a fancyman’s bow when he sees you.”

  Johanna had taken extra care in her toilet. Tonight was the most important of her life. “Thank you, Evelyn. Where is Lord Drummond?”

  The maid stood and deposited the banking rake in an iron bucket. “He’s waiting for you at the alehouse.”

  The alehouse? Johanna’s temper flared. After a week of toe-stepping out of her reach, the blackguard had tonight resorted to hiding in a crowd! Was there ever, she pondered, a man more resistant to seduction than Drummond Macqueen? Yes, a cloistered monk.

  But he wanted her, of that she was certain. He talked of Spanish beef and next year’s crops, but the expression in his eyes spoke of husbandly need and banked passion. He was trying to wait her out, but his patience was no match for her conscience. She would win, and tonight he would make her his wife.

  That happy thought in mind, she sailed down the steps and let the noise lead her to the alehouse. Tucked into a long, narrow space between the brewhouse and the cooper’s shed, the tavern entrance was marked with twin barrels and jackjaw lanterns. Inside, the hard-packed earthen floor and thick wooden tables with long benches gave the room a cozy feel.

  Drummond sat at the table against the far wall with Morgan Fawr, the butcher, a dozen huntsmen, and Bertie. The latter whistled at her arrival. Like peas rolling off a knife, they slid from the bench so she could sit beside Drummond. Cornered and against the wall. Could she manage a graceful exit for them? Yes, she could.

  Sidestepping, she moved between the bench and the table. Drummond followed her progress, his brows lifted in appreciation. Waving her forward, he rested his arm on the window casement. To everyone at the table it would appear that he’d wrapped his arm around her. A loving couple. Man and wife.

  Tonight, her dwindling patience screamed. Tonight.

  As innocent as a newly christened babe, he grinned. “Did I disremember a special occasion?”

  So close she could count his feathery black eyelashes, she said, “You know perfectly well you did. We were to tap the sennight mead and celebrate our success as parents.” And get too tippered to notice that his wife was a virgin, she thought.

  “’Tis hardly fitting today. Your son lopped off the donkey’s tail.”

  From her perch on her father’s lap, Curly Handle yelled, “Alasdair’s a wretched lad!”

  Johanna would not be deterred. “Rest assured, Curly, he’s paying the price. He’s cleaning Longfellow’s harness.”

  “Dawn’ll fly in his face does he grab a wink,” said Morgan Fawr. He sat across from her, his long red beard tucked into the placket of his jerkin, his hands cupping a battered pewter tankard.

  Accustomed to his undecipherable speech, everyone went about their conversations. Meg set a brimming mug before Johanna and handed another to Morgan Fawr.

  “To my lady.” Drummond held up his tankard. “A goddess of grace and beauty.”

  “And a heart good and true,” said Bertie.

  Drummond wiggled his brows. “Just so.”

  They all toasted her. She demurred, her mind fixed on the man beside her, the gleam in his eye, and the event to come. As always, her mouth went dry at the thought. She sipped the mead, and almost choked.

  “Have a care, Clare,” Drummond said.

  “You made a rhyme,” chirped Curly. “Flutter, flutter, the sparrow’s in the butter.”

  “’Tis a hearty brew,” he said.

  Hearty? Even the breath she inhaled turned to potent fumes. But the mead would serve her purpose, and the taste was sweet with honey. The second swallow went down easier. “I like it, my lord? Do you?”

  “’Tis as hale as the king’s own ale,” he said, which set Curly to giggling again. Then he gr
inned, looking like a man with the answer to the first great mystery. Her mystery.

  He leaned close. “You wouldn’t want to get tippered and spill your secrets, lass.”

  Lass. He hadn’t called her that before. She rather liked the endearment, but then, even if her name was goose grease, she’d love the sound of it on his lips.

  Catching his gaze, she murmured, “Just watch that you don’t get tippered, my lord, lest you reveal your secrets.”

  To the table in general, he said, “I’m a blank and waiting slate where my lady’s affection is concerned.”

  The men guffawed. Curly’s hands flew to her cheeks, and her childish laughter rang through the room.

  For a week, Drummond had often spoken flattering words to Johanna in public. Tonight she would repay the favor. “Shall I write you a story, my lord?”

  He lowered his arm and dropped his wrist over her shoulder. “Only if I’m the knight in shining armor and you’re the damsel in distress.”

  Happiness rippled through her, for tonight he’d carry through with that sentiment. He’d rescue her from the chains of innocence. Please, God, let her conceive. “You play the gallant well, my lord. Just remember that you ceased rescuing other women when we wed. My distress is your only concern.”

  Bertie hooted. “My lord’s got a sally for that, do you see.”

  In salute, Drummond tipped his mug toward Bertie. “My lady’s good humors are a pursuit I verily relish.”

  Murmurs of approval rumbled around the table.

  Basking in his attention, she touched her mug to his. “To my stalwart angel and silver-tongued devil.”

  The others chortled.

  Mirth softened his profile, and tiny lines of laughter fanned the corners of his eyes. Handsome didn’t begin to describe him. Lovesick couldn’t touch her feelings.

  He gulped. She sipped. And wondered if the physical aspects of marriage inspired affection. Eager to find out, she leaned into him.

  The ever efficient Meg took his tankard to the server and returned it, then flitted off to a group of huntsmen at a table near the door.

 
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