Illicit Union_Sanctuary, page 4
He glanced up to see if his small witticism had struck true to find Margaret staring at his bared chest. Never had Gillie felt more exposed. Trying to look casual, he reached for the shawl, but she abruptly turned about, saying, “Go on. Hurry.”
His pants joined the shirt and over shirt. He pulled the shawl up to his chin and his knees up to his chest so that only his head stuck out of the green woolen cocoon. Clearing his throat, Gillie invited, “Ye can go back to warming whatever that is now.”
As she returned to her cooking with her eyes demurely fixed on the flames, his forgotten tam began to drip. Making sure of her inattention, he jerked down the shawl and tucked it under each arm to hold it in place then whipped the tam off. Nonetheless she was watching, for she tossed him what looked like a pillow case bidding, “Dry your hair.”
Feeling his face heat, he obeyed murmuring, “Thank ye, Lady Margaret.” To break the awkward moment he decided to converse, “Ye surprised me. Aye, ye caught me totally off guard. I never dreamed ye would be setting up such a nice little . . . nest? Is that what ye call it?”
Finally granting him eye contact, Margaret conceded, “I suppose it is a nest of sorts. I think of it as a campsite.”
Rubbing the water from his hair, he took in the details of her ‘camp’ The little tin pan she held over the flames, was but one of a set, each nesting within the other. He now noticed several votives tucked into chips and crevices in the wall. A book, and bottle of wine and some knitting certainly bestowed a homey touch. Bemused by her clever preparedness, he congratulated, “So ye came prepared to camp, did ye?”
“Always. Being with the royal household teaches foresight. One might have to travel at any time to who knows where. Whatever the season, the summons can come to join the court wherever the court has assembled.” She reached the little pan toward him, saying, “Here this might help cut the chill. Be careful, it’s hot.”
Padding his hand with the pillow case, he took the vessel, “What is this?”
She held up a bottle of wine, “Mulled and spiced wine made from the bottle I brought from breakfast.”
He sipped the concoction and decided that manna from heaven could not possibly be more heartening. With both hands freed, she rummaged through her valise coming out with tied bundles. One contained the rolls from her breakfast, another over half the chicken which had graced the table. She looked up and chided, “What? I paid for it. Why leave it behind?” With her bare hands she twisted loose a drumstick and thigh. Dropping it into the largest pan.
Still caught up the miracle of the wine, Gillie could scarcely believe his ears when she announced, “You’ll love this chicken. So often people brag that this inn or that one has the finest food, and they are lying through their teeth. But this chicken is superior in flavor and tenderness.”
This generous drumstick and thigh were for him? Imagine that. Margaret Chilliam the haughtiest snob he had ever met was fixing his supper. If some gypsy had ever foretold one day he would be dining with Alfreda’s snippy sister dressed only in a woman’s shawl? He would have demanded his piece of silver back.
Reminded of his state of undress, Gillie knew he must bring up: “Ye are sitting on my kit. I have some clothes and another plaid in there.”
Without comment, she leaned up to give him access. Reaching around her to tug the ties loose, he chanced to brush against her cloak. “Yer a fine one to talk. Ye could wring water out of that cloak. Are yer clothes beneath wet too?”
Her hand squeezed a wad of the thick woolen cloth, “Damp but not frozen like yours.”
Whipping his spare plaid from his bundle, Gillie pointed out, “Still the plaid beneath ye is getting all the more wet. Slip yer cloak off, and ye can cover up with this.”
Her face showed she knew he was right, and yet she hesitated. Then carefully she turned her back, saying, “Yes, I should have taken it off before, but it was so cold in here.”
“Aye, but thanks your curtains and candles, tis a good bit warmer now.” He held out the blanket, and she slid off the cape tossing it toward the back. Next she leaned back into the plaid before seizing it to bury herself within. Gillie had thought they might share the plaid. Had he not said, “His blanket?”, “his plaid?” He could not make up his mind whether this selfishness was an English trait or particular to Margaret.
Still with the candles in between them, sharing the blanket would be hazardous, so she could have it for now. Ignoring her, he fished out his clean dry shirt, and was just rummaging about for his spare socks when Margaret began to chill. “Margaret? Is your dress wet?”
“Yes, before I thought it was the cape. It’s not bad merely clammy.”
“Clammy? I dinnae think ye ought to lie down in wet clothes.”
She fumed, “If you think I’m taking . . .”
“I am.” Reminded Gillie.
“Consider this: I can sit here clothed only in a shawl yet safe in my person, because ye are not some murdering, thieving bawd, but a good and decent person.”
“Yes, but you are . . .”
“Nae to be trusted?” His brows lifted in challenge. “Why then did ye set out into the wilderness with the likes of me?”
Now this was a matter Margaret had not yet decided. She threw out the most obvious reason, “Of course, if Alfreda’s husband trusts . . .”
Nodding eagerly he completed, “Trusts me to come stay with them at Whitehall at the seat of power. With so much at stake, you can rest assured Lyall knew I would do him proud before he issued the invite.”
“Yes, I suppose that is why.” Admitted Margaret. She mused aloud, “And the fact you haggled so hard over the price.”
Puzzlement contorted his face, so Margaret revealed, “If you had a mind to isolate, murder, and rob me, you would have easily agreed to any price.”
“Aye, that I would . . . I mean if were a brigand, but I’m not.” His eyes bore into her soul as he solicited, “So you see, ye must trust me. We’ve got to survive this night. We’ll work on restoring dignity and modesty tomorrow. Ye ken?” And he tossed the shirt to her.
Instead of an answer, Margaret handed him the warmed leg quarter. While he ate, like a man starved for many days, she considered his proposition. Propriety dictated he should leave the tent to her. At the very least, they should devise a partition. She certainly lacked the cruelty to put MacGillivray out into the freeze and snow when he had single handedly built this structure. Partitioning this tiny space would render it all the more uncomfortable. As he licked the grease from his finger, she decided that if MacGillivray were a rapist, he could have ravaged her at the stable right there in Inverness. Why first hike for miles in this foul weather?
She turned to assure him of her trust, when he said, “So, I’m going out . . . to do as nature insists. I’ll nae go far since I’ll be wrapped in this shawl of yers.”
Solemnly Margaret nodded at his reddening face.
Looking down at the green shawl, he snorted, “Thank God, Alfreda demanded these be large – ample she called them.” With a mirth dancing in the depths of his bottomless eyes, he suggested, “And while I’m out facing the raging tempest, could ye rearrange our campsite – setting the candle aside and all, so we can snuggle down to sleep before the heat from the candles fades.” In fluid movement, he ducked out of the tent wrapping the shawl tight around his chest.
How odd he looked clothed in only a wooly fringed shawl, a tam, and tall boots. His bared shoulders were broad and muscled. Those same muscles corded his neck. With his great coat and the plaid wound about him, one could not wager a guess at the physique underneath. Nor did she recall being overly impressed with his brawn or wit in London, but then she was preoccupied at the time. Still in all, she presumed MacGillivray had not gained tremendous bulk or increased intellect in the seven months since. Had it really been only seven months since her life went insane?
In a mad dash fueled by fro
All this he memorized in a momentary glance before falling right back out of the tent into the snow on his bare ass. Sudden application of snow to ones privates will foil the most promising erection. He leapt up hissing in horror, for he had somehow left his shawl in the tent.
Boldly he reached an arm through to blindly seek the cloth. A hand thrust the wool into his. Oh, so she saw, but how much? Surely she did not know what he saw. Surely? Her head had been covered by the shirt, he thought but could not swear. He’d had eyes only for those beautiful orbs.
He reentered sheepishly lying, “I lost my shawl as I came in.” With a dry laugh, he explained, “And to think I just gave ye a pep talk about being trustworthy.”
“Yes, and I think you are. I mean, you did leap right back out into cold when you realized your shawl had fallen off.”
Great. She had no idea what he had spied. Now if only he had not seen it at all. Gillie dared not look in her direction for fear of staring at her bosom. He diverted himself by struggling out of his boots and into clean socks. Trying to smooth the awkwardness, he chatted, “I’m glad ye decided to don the shirt. Otherwise ye would be chilled to the bone all the night long.”
“Worry not. I’ve been chilled the bone for some weeks now.” Lying down with her back toward him, she murmured, “I haven’t been able to feel my feet since we started walking.”
Margaret gasped as he yanked her arm whipping her over to face him to demand, “What was that? Did ye say ye haven’t been able to feel your foot?”
Defensively, she gathered the plaid to armor her midriff. “No, not for a while now.”
Mesmerizing her with his fathomless eyes, he instructed, “Let me see those feet.”
Turning her nose up, Margaret stated, “Certainly not.”
“Absolutely” His hand hovered in mid-air, as if she would lift her leg that high.
He sighed, “I had hoped not to use this, but ye gave me yer oath.”
“If my life were endangered . . .”
He spit out each word, “Have ye never heard of gangrene from frostbite?” Taking several deep breaths, he continued in a calmer vein, “Gangrene killed Lyall’s brother. Many a person who suffers frost bite lose toes and fingers, feet and hands, and sometimes their very lives when the wound becomes infected. Give me your feet.”
She corrected. “Foot, I can feel the other now.”
“Good, then let me see your foot.” Still the hand reached. “Or within a day or so ye will nae have two feet.”
Seemingly of its own volition her foot crept nearer to the waiting hand. He encouraged, “Come on. Let nae time go to waste.”
Just as her foot peeped out from under the plaid, Gillie grabbed it warning, “Pray God tis nae too late now.” Appalled by her stiff frozen shoe, he ranted, “Bah . . . tis lined with ice. Margaret, Margaret, how could ye . . .”
Cringing in the face of his anger, she nervously asked, “How could I what?”
He peeled off her stiff sock. “Nae tell me ye had lost feeling in yer feet? We could have stopped then and there.”
For just a moment he considered the dainty foot he had revealed. Broad for its length with a high arch and devoid of callouses, hers was quite the loveliest foot he had ever seen. Far too pretty to be sawed off and tossed aside. The skin’s utter lack of warmth sent a chill to his very core.
He turned her foot to and fro lecturing, “Slippers! How could ye think to travel the Highlands in winter with mere slippers?”
Margaret shot back, “You might recall I had thought to hire a carriage . . . or simply ride the whole way. I did not . . . could not have known . . .”
“Aye, fair enough, but any time ye travel ye have to anticipate having to walk a wee bit.” Again he heaved a heavy sigh, “There’s plenty blame to go around, but let’s try to do something about this.” He tightly squeezed her ankle asking, “Can ye feel this.”
With eyes wide, she nodded in the affirmative.
He wrapped his hand around her instep to flex the rigid foot, “And here?”
“Not so good. Tis like there’s a layer of heavy cloth between . . .”
He announced, “We start there then,” and started vigorously rubbing top and sole between his strong hands. “I dinnae think ye will lose more than a toe or two at worst.”
At her sharp intake of breath, Gillie relented, “But maybe not, if I can but warm this up a bit.”
Her expression was so piteous, her eyes so worried, Gillie decided to keep a stream of encouragement going. “Surely it will be all right in the end.”
“Should I let you know if the feeling comes back?”
“Oh, I ken ye will, for when it thaws tis painful.”
“The best kind of pain because it means yer nae going to lose whatever part aches and burns.”
Her reply, “Oh”, lacked enthusiasm, but she did seem less fearful.
“So if ye start yelping, I’ll know I’m doing some good.” He gave her his most reassuring smile, “So feel free to cut loose.”
Really the man had the most beguiling ways about him. His expressive face so readily displayed anger, mirth, aggravation, or admiration. The poor man had undoubtedly been lost at Whitehall where no one tips his hand and everyone has a hidden agenda. MacGillivray’s emotions played out for all to see or rather for the alert to discern.
Right then such a blast of pain hit her foot: throbbing and burning. She bit her hand to stifle her scream and would have wrenched her foot from his clutches.
He held on tight his smile growing wider, “Och, but we’ve saved yer foot. Now let’s work on the toes.” His massage shifted to the base of her toes. “Ye can walk without toes, but tis nae graceful. With God’s help, ye’ll be joining Alfreda in the dance.”
Margaret tartly informed MacGillivray and not for the first time, “I don’t dance.”
“Ah, yes, I remember now. Ye gave me quite a set down when I foolishly asked ye to take the floor with me.” He fell silent. The squeezing and kneading of her toes increased in intensity.
“Yes . . . I think dancing is frivolous and . . . unseemly . . . rather wanton if you know what I mean.”
Tweaking each toe individually, he asked, “Are ye sure ye are Alfreda’s sister?”
Before she could answer, he squeezed her big toe, “Can ye feel this?”
All the way across, he tested each digit but she felt only tugging on her foot. Trying to steady her voice, she confessed, “Nothing.”
Just when Gillie had given up all hope, her big toe curled in upon itself and Margaret cried out, “Oh . . . oh oh.”
He congratulated, “Good for ye, lady. You’ll at least have a big toe. Let’s get the rest of them now. Applying himself with renewed determination, Gillie reclaimed one by one those cute little nubbins with their glossy pink nails.
While he worked, to distract her until the next wave of pain hit, he asked about life as a part of the royal household starting with, “So ye made it a custom to keep yer valise prepared to camp, hey? I would have thought those legions of servants would take care of all that.”
“One would think so.” Affirmed Margaret shaking her head in doleful amazement, “But not always. Some of the great houses provide the finest rooms with ample fare, others cater only to the royal family and great lords caring little if we lesser beings have porridge three meals a day.”
He teased, “So ye were a lesser being?”
“Och, but that’s rude and downright unhospitable.”
“I suppose their budgets are strained to the breaking point by the royal visit . . . Oh! Lord God that hurts.”
“Aye but we’ve only one tiny toe to go.” He wriggled the smallest toe. “Can ye feel this?”
“I presume that while ye might find yourself stranded without a goodly meal or heat ye never had to simply walk.”
“No, twas foolish of me not to realize I might have to walk, but always someone squeezed me into a carriage or I had my own mount.”
“Did the royal progress ever go to Ammavale?”
“No! Never. God forbid.” She jerked and again bit down on her hand. “There it is. Oh Lord, the feeling is back.”
Gillie shifted to rub the entire foot, provoking, “Why is Ammavale nae grand enough?”
“I offered to persuade Princess Elizabeth, but my father forbade it.” She laughed, and Gillie spied a dimple he had never noticed before. She lowered her voice, “He said, ‘Tis enough we can go to Whitehall. My purse is too shallow to feed a multitude whilst they kill off half our deer population. If I need the royal ear, I’ll send Alfreda. She’ll get the job done.”
Laughter over took Gillie, but he gasped out: “Och, but I’d send Alfreda too. I took a liking to yer father. He’s a practical man, he is.” He spontaneously kissed her foot. “There ye go: one restored foot.” Congenially he bade, “Let’s see the other one.”
Immobile Margaret stared at him - mouth pursed in the expression he most loathed. She needed to say nothing for Gillie to realize his faux pas. With what he hoped was a contrite bow, Gillie carefully and formally “I do apologize for my presumption. I was just so overjoyed yer foot willna’ be maimed. Forgive me, Lady.”
Margaret felt herself melt. How could she fault the man for celebrating her well-being? After he worked to drive the chill from her flesh? Now from beneath his lush dark lashes, he peered at her contrite but expectant. “Oh I suppose . . . twas not ill meant. Frankly, if I could have reached my foot, I would have kissed it too.”