Beguiled, p.9

Beguiled, page 9

 

Beguiled
 


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  Even cloaked in polite words, the message was clear: Agnes MacKenzie would keep her own counsel when it suited her. He balked at being closed out, and words of challenge begged to be spoken. In a sentence he could strike their disagreement anew. Or he could learn something about her. “Trust comes hard by you, does it not?”

  “In these time, aye.” She waved her unbound hand. “We have children in this house to protect.” Making a fist, she pounded the windowsill. “We have an enemy—an assassin—to rout.” Almost at a march, she moved toward him, her eyes glittering with confidence. “We cannot make light of what has happened or wish it away.”

  “We? Speak for yourself.”

  “Very well, I will. Give me three days, and I’ll make your home so secure, a hungry midge couldn’t find its way inside.”

  With expert subtlety, she had turned the disagreement into conversation and ebbed the flow of strong emotions between them. He’d have none of it.

  The sound of workmen tromping down the hall added irony to the discussion and fueled his resolve. He folded his arms. “Midges I can tolerate. Tis the other comings and goings that I resent.”

  “Such as?”

  “In the east receiving room there’s a human ladder who calls himself Gabriel. He carries a child on his shoulders. The boy is attaching hooks to the wall. I find that odd.”

  “As well you should, my lord,” she chirped, as proud as could be. “Those workmen are following my orders. ’Tis an idea of my own invention. We’ll thread sturdy string through the hooks, tie one end to the doors and the windows and the other end to a bell. Each bell will ring in a different tone and sound. If a door or window is opened . . .” The lift in her voice invited him to finish the thought.

  Her mind worked in the strangest, most clever way. Granted they were speaking of dangerous matters, but she managed to make Edward feel as if he were playing a game. Bemused, he said, “If the door is opened the bell rings.”

  “Alas! Every home should have such an alarm.”

  Alarms were going off in Edward, and the warning had nothing to do with strings and windows and bells. “Another of your special talents?”

  “His grace of Burgundy thought so.” She appeared positively coy, with her pretty mouth pursed and her attention focused on the smoothly buffed fingernails of her free hand.

  He ached to touch her and discover if her excitement were tangible. “Mrs. Johnson believes you mean to occupy the tower.”

  “Why not? Tis the safest place to be. There’s only the one ground entrance, and the fishtail slits are too narrow for a bowshot from any angle, any place, save midair in the courtyard.”

  So much for wooing and winning.

  “Please, my lord, hear me out.” At his nod, she continued. “I still believe the children should be told about the danger, and I’ve a partial remedy—should you remain decided that they should not.”

  His children were too young to deal with an assassin. “I remain so decided.”

  “A move into the tower will take away the advantage of surprise when we are most vulnerable—at night. We’ll only sleep there.” She touched his arm. “Hannah and Christopher will have a merry time of it. Auntie Loo will help. We’ll even dress for a day in surcoats and tunics and have a plain meal at the hearth.”

  She made it sound adventurous and practical at once. He liked the idea of seeing her in a tightly laced bliaut, her hair unbound in maidenly fashion. “Must I grow a beard?”

  Startled, she blinked in surprise. “You’ll join in? You’ll play the medieval lord?”

  “Of course. Why should you have all the fun?”

  She grew serious. “You’re wise to give yourself this peace of mind, my lord, unless you’ll tell the children about the danger?”

  “Nay. I’ll not have them know.”

  “In that event—” She fished into the sling once more. “Let’s give them these.” She pulled out a pair of whistles, one strung on pink ribbon, the other on a strip of leather. “We cannot watch them every moment of every day, or they will grow suspicious, especially Christopher. He’s very bright.”

  Nearing total bafflement, Edward marched to the firescreen and touched the MacKenzie brooch. The metal retained her warmth. “Any other precautions we should take?”

  “A pair of peacocks in the courtyard?”

  Curse the Highlands that bred her, for Edward was beginning to understand the way her mind worked. “To serve as watchdogs?”

  She fairly bubbled. “Pretty ones without fleas.”

  Life in the old wing offered a closeness to her, and he liked the idea well. But he must first establish boundaries. “My laboratory stays as it is. I want no changes there. No alarms. No bells. No meddling. No snooping, and no cleverly worded excuses after the fact.”

  She tucked the whistles back into the sling. “How can I change a place I have not seen?”

  He gave her a big grin. “Precisely.”

  Her expression grew wary. “Have you medical experiments down there?”

  Laughter almost choked him. “I design new machines and try to better the ones we have. I am a scientist, not a practicing doctor.”

  “I could argue that point.” She demurred beautifully. “You’re a very good doctor.”

  “In search of a very good patient.”

  “And meeting with futility?”

  “I couldn’t have put it better.”

  She opened her mouth to respond, but hesitated. At length she grew serious again. “What in your laboratory would interest the assassin?”

  Edward missed the playful side of her, but it would return. She was too friendly to keep a distance for long. “My pursuit in the design and building of machines is a private one, apart from my university work.”

  “Then your experiments involve your mill?”

  “Yes, but ’tis better said that the whole of industry will benefit when I’ve perfected my work.”

  “Who will not benefit?”

  “No one. ’Tis simply progress.”

  “Your mill will become more prosperous.”

  “Of course. ’Tis not missionary work I do, or the dabblings of an eccentric nobleman.”

  “I know that, my lord. Even my father, when his temper left him, praised your work. Will you take me to the mill?”

  “If I do not, will you go on your own?”

  “What do you think?”

  “I know that concession is becoming my watchword.”

  “ ’Twill not be for long, I promise. Then you can return to your peaceful life.” She extended her hand. “Now come and see what progress we’ve made in the tower.”

  He thought she had a good point, but he wasn’t about to admit it. He couldn’t remember when she’d gained the advantage or how; yet the discussion was over, and he’d conceded to all of her plans but one. He would not, however, be led down his own hall.

  As he guided her toward the old wing, he broached a subject that fit the congenial mood. “Will you accept the mayor’s invitation to dinner?”

  She stopped and let go of his hand. “Have you read the invitations that came to me today?”

  Her expression could melt ice and blister stone at once. The right to inspect her correspondence was his by law. The rule of common courtesy called for better behavior. Respect for her urged him to offer an explanation. “Nay, I did not intercept your messages. The mayor’s wife sent me a note to say that she was quite eager to have you to table. To that end, she encouraged me to use any influence I may have with you.”

  “So you’re trying to persuade me on her behalf.”

  Looking down at the crown of her head, he noticed that golden pins secured the heavy coil of her hair. Each of the precious ornaments was embellished with a tiny thistle and enameled in lavender.

  “Are you encouraging me, my lord?”

  She had thistles in her hair. The traditional symbol of Scotland, worn by a very untraditional woman. “ ’Tis the neighborly thing to do . . . in the Lowlands.”
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  “Do you wish to escort me?”

  He knew better than to answer that. “Do you wish to be escorted?”

  “Only if you promise to take no other meaning from it.”

  Other meaning. Straightforward Agnes MacKenzie was dallying with words. An interesting occurrence, having her yield the conversation to him. With relish, he accepted the task. “You mean will I assume that you harbor an affection for me if we do all of the normal things that accompany an evening out together.”

  “Aye, that is what I mean.”

  Now she was direct again, but she’d waited too late, and he intended to put her on the run. Urging her to begin walking again, he said, “That will include handing you to and from the carriage. Am I to assume that I’d be required to perform that small service?”

  Grudgingly, she said, “Yes, and you’re a troll to belabor it so.”

  He felt lively inside and fought the urge to skip down the hall. “Part of my duties would also require me to help you on and off with your cloak.”

  “A gentleman would perform that simple courtesy out of habit.” She sounded grumpy.

  He felt divine and couldn’t resist putting an innocent twist on his next words. “Will you want me to fetch punch for you?”

  Her mouth pursed with humor. “I despise punch.”

  “What of cutting your meat? You cannot wield both knife and fork with one hand.”

  “I’ve managed so far.”

  “And lost half a stone of your weight.”

  “I am not gaunt, nor am I a cripple.”

  “Good!” He made a show of being relieved, but his mind was momentarily lodged on the body beneath that alluring dress.

  “You’re wearing an interesting expression, my lord. What are you thinking?”

  Savoring lustful thoughts about her was becoming a habit. “I’m thinking that I should suggest that the mayor’s wife serve a stew.”

  “Stop making a jest of me.”

  “Me? You’re doing a fair job of it on your own.”

  “We are newly met, and a woman cannot be too careful.”

  “Nor too prissy.”

  “Prissy or not, may I remind you of the bell on the east door, so you won’t wake the household, should you return late from a visit to your mistress.”

  The line between right and wrong with her became hazy. They should not discuss his mistress. It was wrong in any man’s rules. But with an insight that gave him great joy, Edward knew his association with Agnes MacKenzie would be like no other he had shared.

  “I’ll be so quiet when I return from visiting my mistress, even you will not notice.” Actually he had not planned to see her until the assassin had been found. Now he thought of ending the association completely. Could he make love to one woman with another on his mind? He didn’t think so.

  “Shall we make a wager of it, my lord? Ten pounds?”

  “Not money. For my forfeit, I expect you to explain that business about scolding in your family.”

  “Done, and if you visit your mistress and forget about the bell on the door to the east wing, you must show me your laboratory.”

  He had intended to show it to her anyway, not that he thought his scientific endeavors would be of interest to her.

  “We have a bargain.”

  The pounding of hammers grew louder as they approached the old wing. “Did Burgundy allow you to disrupt his household in this fashion?”

  “His grace did not share a residence with his children.”

  Edward noted the slight scorn in her tone. “A practice you disdain?”

  “Yes, but regardless of my opinion, ’twas better than draping his estates in mourning for the loss of his son.”

  She could bite, and Edward smarted. “That’s a wretched thing to say, Agnes MacKenzie.”

  “The truth often is.” Satisfied at his reaction, she walked faster. “Please remember that the bowman reached Glasgow hours before us.”

  “What makes you think I’ve forgotten it? My house is under guard for intruders, and you’ve brought in a dozen strangers—hardly an act of prudence.”

  “I hoped you would trust me to hire honest workmen and maids. Gabriel and the others came highly recommended.”

  He remembered the farrier in Whitburn, a man soon to be in Edward’s employ. “In that regard, I do trust you.”

  “Good. We must take away the assassin’s every advantage and lessen his opportunities.”

  The woman was relentless. “Will you please remember in whose home you reside? Jamie said he drove you to the docks. What were you doing there?”

  She stopped in the Elizabethan wing. “Asking questions of anyone who might have information on the whereabouts of my sister. I do so in every port city I visit, because—well, that’s the best place to look.”

  “What if you had located her?”

  Her smile was bittersweet. “Then I would now be offering my apologies and saying farewell to you.”

  What had her father said? That she shouldered a guilt too great for ten men to bear. Edward understood, but that would not prevent him from speaking his mind. Holding the dust curtain that had been draped over the door, he said, “You overstepped yourself by ordering the carpet without my permission.”

  Pausing on the threshold, she said, “The stairs are dangerous, and Hannah bragged about skipping down them. If he hasn’t already, Christopher will eventually discover the fun to be had sliding down the rail. The laundry maid could slip, any of the servants could have an accident.”

  “I insist on reimbursing you.”

  “I assumed you would.” Again she delved into the sling. “Here’s an accounting of the materials and wages for the workmen. If you like, you can put the money into Carrick’s bank on my behalf.”

  Edward took the list. She had saved him time. With her help, he could return to his work. The contracts with suppliers in India who furnished spooled cotton to his mill must be renewed soon, unless he perfected the new engine. When that occurred, he could buy raw cotton and spin it here in Glasgow, thereby saving an enormous amount of money and time.

  In the old wing, all of the furnishings had been moved against the walls and covered with heavy cloths. The tapestries had been taken down, revealing the corridor that led down to his laboratory. The door in the convex wall that led into the tower stood ajar, and light poured through the opening. In his childhood the tower had been his favorite place to play, and the prospect of occupying it again brought back fond memories.

  The smell of freshly cut wood filled the air, and a layer of sawdust coated everything, even clung to the damp stone walls.

  “Starting at the topmost level, the carpenters are building staircases to replace the ladders.”

  He couldn’t help saying, “I hope you thought to order carpet—for safety’s sake.”

  “Mockery will be repaid in kind, Lord Edward. ’Twas a good idea, and only nicked pride keeps you from crediting me for it.”

  “I’ll save my pride for greater issues, if you please. Did you climb the ladders in the tower?”

  She grew still. “Ladders, as in more than one? Nay. I touched only the one ladder.”

  But the tower had two levels above this one and a battlement on top. He’d wager ten hours of time working on the steam engine that she’d lied or at least stretched the truth. He knew the way to find out. “I presume my telescopes were removed from the roof.”

  “Telescopes?” She frowned. “I saw only pigeons and wayward gulls up there. The cobwebs were so thick—”

  “Aha!” He pointed a finger at her. “So you did climb the other ladders.”

  She knew exactly when to retreat. “Well, to your way of thinking, I’m certain I was foolhardy. Believe what you want, but I was careful. I do not relish injuries.”

  She moved beneath the hole in the ceiling and peered at the workmen on the floor above. A saw grated loudly and hammers banged like flat drums.

  “Have you decided who will sleep where?” He could offer a
suggestion that was sure to make her blush again.

  “I think that Hannah and Christopher should occupy the middle chamber, with a partition between them for privacy. Auntie Loo and I will take this chamber. You’ll have the uppermost room, to be close to your telescopes.”

  Lord, there was sauce in her tongue. Much as it pained him, he held to the intimate subject of sleeping arrangements. “The children will take the top chamber. You and Auntie Loo will take the middle. We’ll have our meals and such in here. I’ll sleep on the cot in my laboratory.”

  “Will you be comfortable there? Can you rest well on a cot?”

  “Aye, I’ve done so many times.”

  “Shall we summon Auntie Loo and the children and tell them the good news?”

  A crash sounded above, and before Edward could reach for her, a block of wood plunged through the opening and crashed into her shoulder. As he pulled her out of the way, her knees buckled.

  “I’ve got you, Agnes.”

  “I’m fine, truly.” She tried to pull away but didn’t have the strength. “You needn’t make a fuss.”

  As he watched, she valiantly fought a swoon. Lowering her to the floor, he removed the sling. With half his attention on her eyes, he pulled the bodice of her gown off her shoulder. The bandage was clean, unbloodied. She hadn’t torn a stitch, but the crown of her shoulder would be bruised anew on the morrow.

  “Now you will rest.” Tossing the fabric sling at her, he said, “Cover yourself.” Then he swept her into his arms and hurried out the door.

  “You needn’t carry me,” she said through her teeth.

  “Haud yer wheesht!” he said, and headed for the main staircase.

  “I cannot grasp why you must continually be so tiresome—especially in Scottish. I’m fine.”

  “And I’m the bellman of Glasgow. Take notice, you and your special abilities are going to bed for what remains of the day.”

  Her eyes narrowed. “Are you always such an ungrateful wretch?”

  “Nay, on occasion I’m grateful.”

  “Ha! A twist of my words.”

  Now that she was out of harm’s way, he let himself grow angry. “Spoken by a true novice of the sport of twisting words.”

 
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