The border series, p.91

The Border Series, page 91

 

The Border Series
 



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  When he thought he had her breathless and too weak to protest he drew back again. To his surprise, she took him in her hand and said, “How else do I savor you?”

  Not Clare. Not by a bishop’s mile. “I’ll teach you, later.” He moved her hand aside.

  She pouted prettily and tossed back her hair. Her breasts beckoned, and he gripped her waist and lifted her so he could suckle property and at length. The heather-sweet taste of her nipples whetted his appetite for a more precious delicacy, but he shelved the need for now and moved to feast on her other breast.

  She shivered and moaned and wove her supple fingers into his hair, holding him there, an unnecessary but highly evocative gesture, for not even a clan war could distract him from loving this woman tonight. Her breasts felt pillow soft, a delightful contrast to the pebble-hard tips, and when he drew back enough to blow gently on her dampened skin, she gasped in both joy and shock.

  Eager for greater delights, he eased her onto the blanket and worked his way down her body until his cheek rested on her thigh.

  The hearth fire hissed as flames licked at the dry logs.

  “What are you about, Drummond?” she asked in a breathy, quiet voice.

  “I’m about my husbandly pleasure.” He spread her legs wide and with his fingers, parted the petal-like folds of her treasure. “You’ve lost the freckle you had here on your—”

  “Drummond Macqueen! You’ll rob me of my dignity.”

  “I seek only my favorite trinket.”

  He tasted her, and at the touch of his lips, she moaned, “Oh, Lord.”

  Against her honeyed skin, he murmured, “Try invoking St. Ninian. He’s always served me well.”

  He loved her thusly, until she squirmed and cried out to a dozen saints. Primed and ready, he moved up and over her. Her arms lay limp at her sides, but her fingers still clutched the blanket in a death grip. Her hair fanned out in a golden puddle and the firelight turned her complexion the color of old ivory. He noticed the patch of lighter skin on her shoulder.

  His willpower was sorely taxed, and his manhood unerringly found the place it sought. As he drove into her exquisite softness, he glimpsed an old scar beneath the newly healed skin.

  A tiny blunted sword.

  Chapter 18

  Sitting in the shade of Longfellow’s shelter, Drummond assembled the harness that would secure the elephant’s traveling saddle. Across the yard, his wife conversed with Elton Singer. Like an unsolved riddle, the puzzle of who she was tormented Drummond. In his surety that she was an imposter, he had only looked at the dilemma from one perspective: His own.

  Hundreds of times since seeing the old brand beneath the new scar he had considered asking her outright. The query always died on his lips, for he feared that she would continue with the ruse. Why not? He had called her a whore. He had searched out her faults. He had threatened to take Alasdair away. How could she trust a man who had visited so many wrongs upon her? The answer saddened him, for he knew in his heart he had treated her cruelly.

  As he often did, Drummond thought about the Clare he remembered. He’d last seen her at Hogmanay, three months before her fifteenth birthday and four months before Alasdair’s birth. For a New Year’s gift, he had presented her with a bolt of fine white velvet. She had squealed with glee and spent the evening choosing and discarding dress styles for the fabric. It had been a girlish exercise and typical for one her age. She had no responsibilities at Castle Macqueen, no duties designed to aid in the seasoning of a convent bred Englishwoman. Growth and experience had come later for her, after Drummond’s capture, after her flight from the Highlands.

  Any woman would mature in seven years time, especially so, given the circumstances. Look at her now, Drummond thought with pride, watching her give counsel and encouragement to a former drunkard and reformed wifebeater. Through patience and understanding, she had bettered Singer’s life.

  Could Drummond have been mistaken about her innocence? He didn’t think so, but he hadn’t loved a woman in seven years. No, that was incorrect. He hadn’t lain with a woman in seven years. More to the point, he had never before loved a woman, not the way that he loved her. In their too brief time together, she had taught him to appreciate his freedom and rejoice in even the smallest of life’s gifts. She encouraged him to lead the people of Fairhope and look to the future. In her presence, he felt like a king with the world at his feet and tomorrow at his command.

  He would not risk losing her, yet he must know the truth, and only she could reveal it. He must bide his time, and with each word and every deed, let her know that he merited her trust. Instinctively he knew that much was at stake for her, this woman he could not, would not, live without.

  He smiled as he finished the preparations for their journey to Dumfries, for he knew just the way to gain her confidence.

  On the way to Douglas Castle, Evelyn refused to ride a horse or to climb aboard Longfellow, so a carter had been hired. Between broken wheels and the necessity to choose the best and longest roads, the trip had been lengthened by two days. Tempers grew short, but Drummond diplomatically soothed the men each night while Bertie cared for the horses. With a fire on one side and a wall of elephant on the other, everyone had slept warm beneath the stars.

  At Douglas Castle, Johanna settled Alasdair in a room with Bertie, then returned to Drummond. She found him staring out the window of their chamber. His freshly cut hair drew attention to the breadth of his shoulders, but corded neck muscles testified to the tenseness he felt. He wore a leather jerkin and brown trunk hose beneath his tartan cape. Moving to the bed, he picked up a red velvet jerkin emblazoned with the Macqueen family symbol. Johanna knew he planned to wear the garment for his audience with the king, and she was surprised when he tossed it into a corner.

  “You’ll look unkempt tonight,” she said.

  He leaned against the casement. “Who’ll notice a few wrinkles when a Highland chieftain falls to his knee?”

  She couldn’t answer. To avoid fidgeting, she strolled the room, pretending interest in the crucifix on the wall and the tassels on the bed hangings. The silence grew heavy.

  In desperation, she finally said, “Then you’ve decided to swear fealty to Red Douglas and the king?”

  Drummond pushed away from the wall and walked to the foot of the bed. “If I do not, will you come with me to Scotland?”

  She drew in a sharp breath and stared at the pads of her fingers. The question risked his life. She could easily tell Red Douglas that Drummond planned to escape. His chance, and possibly his life, would be forfeit, for Douglas would detain Drummond until the scheduled audience. Edward II could return the man she loved to prison, or he could carry out the dire punishment that Red Douglas had described.

  When she dared raise her gaze, she found Drummond watching her, his beguiling eyes luminous with vulnerability. The chieftain of the Macqueens had handed her his life. The latter chased a chill up her spine, but she held out her hand to him.

  He took it and raised it to his lips. “Will you go where I go, lass?”

  Love filled her, and she threaded her fingers through his. “What of the people of Fairhope?”

  He gave her a crooked smile. “You haven’t a care for yourself or the hardships that await us in the Highlands. Your first thought is always for others.”

  “I will survive the Highlands.”

  “Because you are my hale and hearty wife.”

  Like a captive struggling for freedom, the truth she must tell strained within her. She opened her mouth, but long practice gave her pause.

  He raised his brows, as if willing her to speak her mind. Squeezing her hand, he softly said, “I love you.”

  Her heart filled with short-lived joy. He loved her, he wanted to take her with him wherever he went. Their lives together were secure. She could no longer conceal her true identity. If Drummond could trust her with his life, she must trust him with her own. “I am not your wife.”

  “I know.” Giving her a
crooked smile, he added, “Thank you for the gift of your innocence.”

  Taken aback, she didn’t know whether to rail at him for not telling her sooner that he knew, or fly into his arms and worry over it later. His quizzical expression ended her indecision. “I’m Clare’s sister.”

  He seemed to nudge her with an expectant look. “Your name is …”

  “Oh.” She almost wilted at her own lack of insight. “I’m Johanna. Johanna Benison.”

  That confused him, for he tilted his head to the side. “Alasdair believes you dead.”

  “As does everyone else in the world, save Bertie and Sister Margaret and Meridene, of course.”

  He took a deep breath. “Where is Clare?”

  Johanna crumbled. He caught her and pulled her against his chest. She hadn’t shared her grief in so very long, and living with Drummond had brought back all of the memories.

  “In a grave that bears my name.”

  He rocked her from side to side. “How did it happen?”

  Between sobs she told him about their sisterly relationship, Clare’s death, and Johanna’s promise to care for Alasdair.

  “Poor lass.”

  His chest quivered, and she suspected he held back his own grief. When the storm of sadness passed, Johanna looked up at him. “I had the chance to build a life for myself and Alasdair. Can you forgive me for deceiving you?”

  He reached into his pouch and handed her a scarf. “Dry your tears—Johanna.”

  The soft caress of his words made her sob again.

  “What is it?” he entreated, blotting her eyes and bestowing a kiss to take the place of each tear.

  She struggled for composure. “I dreamed of hearing you call me by my name. I thought never to hear it on your lips.”

  “Shall I say it a dozen times? Johanna, Johanna, Johanna.” His crooning, lilting voice made a poem of her name.

  Smiling through her sadness, she said, “That will do, my lord.”

  He led her to the bed and sat down beside her. “Why did you burn yourself? You bear the same brand as Clare.”

  “Not the same. Although we were twins, my brand is upside down. I thought you would notice.”

  His face went still and white. “Twins?”

  “Yes. Does that make a difference?”

  He stared at the far wall, squinting, as if trying to remember something important. At length, he said, “You were born on the nineteenth of March in twelve eighty-six.”

  “Yes.”

  He touched her scarred shoulder, then his hand cupped her cheek. “Do you know who branded you and why?”

  As always, she grew defensive. “No, nor do I care to know who my parents were. They gave Clare and me away. I have nothing to give to them. If the mark or my lack of lineage troubles you, then I am truly sorry, but I will never seek out my family.”

  He fell back on the mattress and closed his eyes. “Fret not about your heritage, Johanna, for I have enough relatives and family tradition for the both of us.”

  “Will you swear fealty?”

  “Aye, I will and gladly now. I have two bonny reasons to make my home at Fairhope.”

  “Oh, Drummond.” She lunged at him, and he hugged her tightly.

  She felt like heaven in his arms, and Drummond couldn’t help whispering her name over and over. Johanna—one of a pair of twin daughters born on the night that Alexander, the last king of Scotland, met his death.

  The enormity of her identity robbed Drummond of breath and filled him with awe. Edward I of England had found the lassies, scarred them with his infamous blunted sword, and spirited them to Scarborough Abbey. Years later, in an act of supreme cruelty, he’d paired a daughter of the royal house of Dunkeld to the chieftain of the mighty Clan Macqueen. He’d put one of the Scottish princesses right under their noses, and he probably intended to hold Johanna for blackmail. Only Clare’s death and Johanna’s determination had foiled the second part of his plan.

  Drummond rejoiced for his people, then quickly grew sober with the weight of a new responsibility. If news of Johanna’s existence reached the Highlands, there’d be bloody hell to pay. The clans would rally round her and rattle their swords of war. Alasdair could look forward to a future of political intrigue. Their daughters would become alliance makers, pawns on the great chessboard of European nobility.

  But not if Drummond kept their birthright a secret, a privilege and a burden he must bear alone.

  “Drummond Macqueen!”

  From her angry tone, he knew he was in for trouble.

  She squirmed free of his embrace and scrambled off the bed. Anger narrowed her eyes, and she propped her clenched fists on her hips. “You taunted me with Clare’s faults.”

  Lashed by regrets, Drummond pleaded with his eyes. “She truly grieved for wee Evander. I’m deeply sorry, and said as much in my prayers.”

  “And the other accusations?”

  He sighed. “I confess I colored them up to suit my purposes. I wanted to find out who you were.” Lowering his voice, he said, “She was unfaithful to me.”

  As he watched, her anger melted. “I know. She told me so. But she had good reason, Drummond. The prince, Edward, promised her that he would intervene on your behalf. Now he’s king of England. The beef-witted troll.”

  Drummond chuckled, but without humor. “Better him than me.”

  “I swear I’ll make you a good wife.”

  She still seemed so troubled, and Drummond hoped to end her melancholy. He knew just the way. “Impossible.”

  That caught her attention. “What do you mean?”

  “’Tis simple. We have not said words before a priest, so you cannot be my wife.”

  Fire glittered in her eyes. “I’ll not be your mistress.”

  “Nay. You’ll be my lifelong mate—as soon as we find a priest.”

  Her gaze searched his, and he thought she had never been more lovely, more companionable. “I do not understand,” she whispered.

  Tamping back excitement he took her hand. “You, Clare Johanna Macqueen, will say your vows.”

  Enlightenment sent her flying into his arms. “Oh, Drummond. You’re too clever for words and for bad kings.”

  He drew her against him. “And you’re too alluring to resist.”

  She swallowed and glanced toward the door. “You’d love me now?”

  “I will love you always.” Cupping his hand around her nape, he held her still and lowered his mouth to hers. It was a kiss of fulfillment of belonging, and a passion neither place nor time could alter. Knowing he’d succumb to the lustful demands of his body, Drummond pulled back. “We’ll invite Sister Margaret to serve as witness when we reaffirm our wedding vows.”

  “That’s what everyone will think. That we are reaffirming our troths.”

  He also planned to confer with Sister Margaret and confirm Johanna’s heritage. “You’re brighter than an Oxford scholar, my delicious love, but you must continue to style yourself ‘Clare,’ for we know not who else knows that she had a sister.”

  “’Tis no real burden, for I loved her well.”

  “Then it’s settled.”

  She folded her arms at her waist, hugging herself, holding a secret within. “How ever will I face Edward again?”

  Drummond had thought the last surprise behind him. “Again?”

  A troubled frown marred her perfect brow. “He came with his father to fetch Clare to the Highlands and to you. The old king commanded me to stay out of sight during their visit. Why, I do not know. Late one night, I went to the pantry to check the next day’s provisions—I managed the commerce of the abbey.”

  Fond memories filled Drummond with hope. “Capable, dependable Johanna. ’Tis what Clare said of you. What else of Edward?”

  “I saw him in the kitchen. It was odd beyond belief.”

  “What was odd?”

  “He was with another youth, a swarthy fellow, not much taller than me, and only a few years older than me. They were speaking French, but
too quickly, and the dialect was unusual. I know the language is romantic in sound, but it seemed to me they were conversing much too fondly.” She shrugged, obviously at a loss for an explanation.

  Even in the Tower of London, Drummond had heard rumors of the new king’s unnatural affection for the Gascony knight Piers Gaveston. Had Johanna actually witnessed what so many others speculated about?

  That prospect made Drummond warm with fear. “Did they see you?”

  “Yes, but I told them I was Clare.”

  Like a spike of lightning, the truth behind Clare’s unfaithfulness flashed in Drummond’s mind. Young Prince Edward believed she had witnessed his unholy affection for Piers Gaveston. For no other reason than to discredit her, the prince had coerced her into an affair. If she had exposed him, no one would take the word of a known adulteress. How clever and typically Plantagenet. And how sad for Clare, who had been totally innocent of the knowledge young Edward had feared.

  “What’s wrong, Drummond?” She knelt at his feet, her best green gown pooling on the floor, her eyes wide with concern.

  “’Tis nothing. Do not fret.” But his heart felt broken for the young woman, his wife, who had sold her fidelity to a perverted prince for the promise of her husband’s release. Drummond had been blessed among men, for he knew both of the Scottish princesses as wife, and they had both loved him well. He silently swore to protect the remaining princess with his life and his false fealty to an unworthy king.

  “Drummond, I will not shame you. I’m not at all like Clare.”

  Saddened that she had misinterpreted his silence, he cupped her face. “Aye, Johanna, you are, for she was a bonny lass.”

  “But I meant—”

  “I know.” Sliding his hands under her arms, he pulled her onto his lap. “’Twas not her fault.”

  “Then you forgive her?”

  Indeed he had. He owed Clare much, yet his soul felt lighter. “Aye. I shall say a prayer for her at Vespers.”

  Johanna’s heart flowered with joy, and she cuddled into him. “Just do not say it to St. Ninian.”

 
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