Seven Years Later
The door to the buttery slammed open. "A stranger's just come, my lady," said Amauri, the porter, as breathless as if he had run all the way from Carlisle. "He claims he's your husband."
Johanna turned around so quickly the wide cuff of her surcoat tipped over a crock of honey. Fighting back panic, she righted the jar before the sticky contents spilled onto the workbench. Were it not for the fear in the servant's eyes, she would have accused him of teasing her. "He said nothing else?"
Amauri's mouth pinched with disapproval. "Only that he was Drummond Macqueen was all."
Drummond Macqueen was dead, hanged years ago by King Edward I. Although she'd received no formal notice of Drummond's execution, she hadn't expected condolences from the Crown, the ruthlessness of Edward I toward his enemies was legendary. The arrival of this imposter did seem odd timed, since the old king had been laid to rest himself last year. The new king, his son, Edward II, had recently been crowned.
Surely the man played some jest or hoped to profit by posing as her husband. He'd soon learn that the widow Macqueen was no easy mark for tricksters.
"You mustn't worry, Amauri. Show him to the hall. Have Evelyn serve him the everyday ale, but she's not to chat with him. And you're not to carry his luggage."
"Aye, Lady Clare." He bowed and turned.
Johanna had answered to that name for so long it sounded natural. She did not regret losing her own identity; in taking Clares name she kept her sister's memory alive. But more, seven years after the fact, Johanna knew she was fulfilling her own destiny.
The porter stopped. "What shall I do with his elephant?"
"His elephant." The servant put his hands on either side of his head and wagged his fingers. "Massive beast with huge ears, a snout as big as last year's Yule log, and beady eyes."
Johanna glowered at him. "I know what an elephant looks like. I've seen the drawings in Alasdair's books."
Embarrassment turned the servant's complexion pink. He fumbled with the laces on his jerkin. "Sorry, my lady. I meant no offense. Everyone knows you're as bright as the king's own chamberlain."
At any other time she would have scoffed at his praise, but considering the meeting ahead, she needed every scrap of confidence she could muster. "And you're a prince among porters, Amauri. Where is the creature now?"
"Chained to a post in the outer bailey and drawing a crowd. The workmen from Saddler's Dale dropped their plows in the field and swarmed the creature. The cobbler's wife swooned."
Johanna imagined the excitement the beast would cause. She also wondered where the visitor had acquired the odd animal. She had heard of only one elephant in the land, and it was housed in the Royal Menagerie.
Alarm pricked her senses. The Royal Menagerie occupied a part of the Tower of London. Drummond had been taken there for execution. But what, her common sense demanded, would a man posing as a Highland chieftain be doing with an elephant?
Trying to still her racing heart, she dismissed the porter. "Fret not about the beast unless it causes trouble. Its owner won't be here long." Then she carefully rolled down the sleeves of her bliaud and stepped into the afternoon sunshine.
In the castle yard the wheelwright haggled with the blacksmith over the price of nails; the randy potboy bartered with a comely goosegirl over a more personal and earthy commodity. From the laundry shed came the fresh scent of lavender soap. An infant wailed. A horse whinnied. A small herd of sheep fled before a yapping dog.
The familiar sights and sounds soothed Johanna's jangled nerves and inspired rational thought. Once she had lived in fear of discovery, but after seven years she'd grown comfortable with the identity of her twin sister. Everyone, from the lordly sheriff of Dumfries to the poorest cabbage farmer, was loyal to her and protective of Alasdair.
At the thought of her son, she grew fearful again and paused near the rabbit warren. This had been his favorite place to play, until he saw the butcher slaughter an old buck. Alasdair had sworn never to eat rabbit again. Although she hadn't given birth to him, Johanna considered herself his mother. She had paced the floor and comforted him when a budding tooth made him fretful. She had watched with joy in her heart and tears in her eyes when he'd taken his first wobbly steps. She had made mistakes. She had showered him with too much affection. She had, in sum, spoiled him.
What if this stranger tried to take Alasdair? That possibility brought her to the point of panic. Comfort came with the knowledge that Alasdair was absent from the castle. After the midday meal, her son had gone fishing with Bertie Stapledon, but they always returned before dark. Instinct told her to get rid of this stranger before her son came home.
Eager to do just that, she pulled off her soiled coif and picked up the hem of her work dress. Then she hurried across the yard and raced up the steep steps to the hill fort. As she made her way to the upstairs hall, she laid out a plan for dealing with the man who awaited her. She would greet him kindly. She would listen to his preposterous story. She would name him a liar and order him off her land. If he refused she would have her guards subdue him. Then she would send word for the sheriff and insist he earn his retaining fee by sending back the pretender and his elephant from whence they'd come.
But the moment she saw the stranger, even from across the hall, she was forced to rethink her strategy.
In profile, he bore so striking a resemblance to Alasdair that Johanna grew panicky all over again. His straight nose with its high bridge and gently flaring nostrils marked him as a relation. His pitch-black hair reminded her of her son's untidy mane. A sensitive mouth and strong, square jaw confirmed the likeness. But more than his features, his intensity of concentration as he examined the needlework on the fire screen swayed her the most. Bending from the waist, he looked just as Alasdair had when he'd first seen a turtle draw into its shell. This man appeared interested and inquisitive. And breathtakingly handsome.
Without doubt, he was a Macqueen.
Terrified, she could not yet step into the room and announce her presence, but continued to watch him unnoticed. Rather than trunk hose and jerkin, he wore trews of soft leather and a full-sleeved shirt of loosely woven wool. His long legs were lean, his flanks trim, yet his shoulders were as broad as a blacksmith's. In his hand he held a Highland bonnet, ornamented with three tattered feathers and a shiny silver badge bearing an emblem she couldn't make out, but suspected was a wolf rampant, the symbol of Clan Macqueen. The device was repeated on the palmsize brooch that secured his distinctive tartan cape at his shoulder.
Over the years she had created fictional stories about Drummond, tales designed to inspire pride in a fatherless boy. To Alasdair, his sire was a heroic figure, pure of heart strong of will. Would this man, surely a Macqueen cousin or uncle, refute or enlarge upon the legends?
"I see improvement in your needlework, Clare," he said, still studying the framed tapestry.
Startled, Johanna stepped back. Then she caught herself. She would not fear this man neither would she allow his breach of etiquette to go unchecked. "I pray the same is true of your manners, sir, for you haven't the right to address me with so much familiarity."
He stood upright and strolled toward her. With an outwardly casual air, he studied her from head to toe; yet his blue eyes were intense in their inspection. "I haven't the right, Clare? You seem to have forgotten just how many rights I hold where you are concerned."
She felt invaded and clenched her fists to keep from slapping him. "Who are you?"
He tisked and shook his head. "Shame, shame, my dear. Not that I expected you to welcome me with open arms. You preferred to save your embraces for other men."
A pigeon landed on the sill of the open window. Seeking a diversion from the compelling man and his just accusations, Johanna shooed the bird away. Casually, she said, "I asked your name, sir."
One side of his mouth curled up in a smile. "I haven't changed that much. You know precisely who I am. Why pretend otherwise?"
Resisting the urge to call him a knave, Johanna sumw moned patience. "Because Drummond Macqueen is dead. The old king hanged him."
"Not so. Edward the First, rest his soul, chose to be merciful. His son proved benevolent and upon taking the crown, set me free." Anger glittered in his eyes and tightened his jaw. "But then, as I recall, you have intimate knowledge of our new king, do you not? Have you presented him with more bastards?"
He was referring to Clare's affair with the Plantagenet prince who was now the king. With dread Johanna remembered that all the Macqueens knew. Thank God their lands were far away in the Highlands, for her heart wrenched, thinking Alasdair might be scorned for another's sin. Yet how dare this brute be so rude as to bring up Clare's mistake? Johanna had no intention of addressing her sister's indiscretion. She sighed and lifted her chin. "Who are you, and what do you want?"
With no more vigor than a carpenter choosing wood, he said, "You have a brand here -- a wee blunted sword." He pulled his shirt aside and touched the thick muscles above his right collarbone. "'Tis why you wear modest gowns."
Seeing his strong hand and remembering the passion Clare had attributed to her marriage bed, Johanna fought back a surge of longing. She would not risk losing her independence or revealing her true identity, not for the sake of passion. "Your knowledge of the mark proves nothing."
"You cannot possibly have forgotten me." A trace of vulnerability laced his words and his massive shoulders slumped.
Sensing a weakness in him, she took advantage; Clare had risked her immortal soul for her husband, and Johanna had too much to lose. "Forgotten you, an imposter?" she scoffed. "You may be memorable in some circles, but here..." She let the insult trail off.
The troll laughed, a hearty sound that seemed natural. "Very well. I offer you more intimate proof." He plopped down on a bench. Resting his arms on his knees, he stared into the mug. "You suffer dreadful cramps during your menses, which are as regular as Sunday Mass. You used to cuddle beside me in bed or lie awake until I joined you. Who else but a husband could know that?"
Appalled, Johanna felt herself blush. Unlike Clare, she didn't suffer for being a woman. That he knew the particulars of Clare's cycle created the first doubt in Johanna's surety. But she hadn't built a successful life by withering before every man who challenged her. "You are not my husband."
Surprise lent elegance to his rugged good looks. He took a long pull on the ale. "Have you annulled our marriage?"
She wanted to rail at him; instead she began to pace the rush-strewn floor. "How long, sir, will you continue this farce? I am not your wife."
He chuckled, but the sound hold no humor. "You're not a very good wife."
"Enough of your rough talk!" She whirled and marched over to him. "I can see you are a Macqueen. I give you that much."
"Then I've made progress. Hurrah for me."
"Which Macqueen are you?"
He stared at her breasts. "The only one you know in the carnal sense -- at least I believe that is so."
The insult deserved a like reply. "Have you come here for money?"
He almost choked, and his gaze leaped to her face. "Money?"
She'd made him uncomfortable. Hurrah for her. "If so, you've made a useless journey, for I haven't a mark to squander on a man who cannot earn an honest wage."
He craned his neck in an exaggerated examination of the tapestries on the walls, the brass brazier, and the diamond shaped panes in the windows. "You expect me to think you are poor, amid all of this prosperity? The largesse of the Plantagenets, I assume."
To build the keep, she had sold all of her jewelry and Clare's. When that had not been enough, she had indebted herself to the neighboring laird of Clan Douglas. During the construction she and Alasdair had lived in a crofter's hut. She had repaid the debt and to this day, worked as hard as anyone in her demesne. "You know nothing about me or the origins of Fairhope Tower."
"You needn't explain, Clare. 'Twould seem we have the same benefactor." His expression grew hard, and he dammed down the tankard. "But I will not share you again."
His possessiveness gave her pause, for Clare had spoken at length about her husband's jealous nature. Perhaps it was one of many family flaws. Clare had loved Drummond more than life. She might still be alive were it not for his warring ways. The old heartbreak returned. "You have the poisoned brain of a madman."
"An interesting observation," he growled. "Especially from a faithless wife."
Suddenly afraid and desperate to get rid of him, she said, "I'll summon my guards."
He waved her off. "Summon your new king, should it suit you. He bids you well, by the way. But I'm certain you often receive his greetings."
She had seen Edward II only once. He'd been a prince back then. The truth came easily. "I haven't had the honor of seeing His Majesty since I came to this land."
It was the wrong thing to say. His eyes narrowed, accentuating the length of his lashes. "Come now. Our gracious new sovereign cannot say enough about the way in which you honor him. He was particularly verbal about his sojourn last year in Carlisle."
In January of 1307, the old king had convened Parliament in the nearby city of Carlisle, but neither he nor his son had communicated with her. What game did this man play? At a loss for a convincing denial and weary of defending herself to a stranger, she again spoke the truth. "You have been misinformed. Ask anyone here."
"I'll not reap the truth from them. These people will be loyal to you." He gave her a sugar-sweet smile. "But that will change. This land, the keep, and all in it belong to me."
"Mother!" Alasdair's voice boomed through the keep.
Johanna gasped. The stranger lifted his brows.
She heard the slap of boots on the stairs. Her heart hammered in tune with the footfalls. A moment later, Alasdair burst into the room, a buffing Bertie Stapledon on his heels.
Hair in disarray, blue eyes bright with wonder, her son skidded to a halt, scattering the rushes. "There's an elephant in the bailey, Mother." He lifted his arms. "An elephant!"
The stranger looked awestruck. "As the Lord lives," he murmured, "that lad is my son."
Johanna glanced at Bertie, the servant who had accompanied Clare to the Highlands years before. To Johanna's great dismay, he doffed his cap and bowed. "Lord Drummond," he stammered, and shot Johanna a worried frown. "We thought you dead."
"So I'm told. You're Bertie, if I recall."
Johanna went weak with fear. The man was Drummond Macqueen. He had spent seven years resenting his wife's infidelity while languishing in prison. Johanna's demesne had prospered under her care, and Alasdair had grown to a good-natured, precocious boy of whom any father would be proud; Drummond had a right to claim both. Could she convince him that she was the wife he hated and whose body and spirit he knew intimately?
She must entice him into leaving. Either way, she'd do her acting without an audience. "Alasdair, go with Bertie." She tipped her head toward the door.
As if he hadn't heard, the boy approached Drummond Macqueen. His chin up, boyish pride shimmering like a bright mantle, Alasdair said, "Who are you?"
Drummond seemed fascinated by the lad. "I'm your father."
Alasdair peeked behind the man. "Where are your wings, then?"
"My wings? Why would I have wings?"
Flapping his arms, Alasdair sighed dramatically. "Because if you're my father, you must be an angel. Mother said 'twas so."
Surprise and amusement twinkled in Drummond's eyes. "She did?" He shot her a measuring glance. "What else did she tell you about me?"
Alasdair shrugged. "Stories. Hundreds of them. No -- thousands." Turning pleading eyes to Johanna, he said, "Is he my father?"
Her throat as dry as last summer's bracken, Johanna tried to swallow. Gathering courage, she kept her voice even. "We'll discuss it later, Alasdair. You are excused."
"He is my father." He hooted with joy and turned his back on her. "Is that elephant yours?"
Still wonderstruck, Alasdair's father gave the lad a genuine smile. "Aye. He's called Longfellow."
"I want to ride it." Alasdair tucked his small thumbs into his belt. "I ride very well, you know."
Drummond coughed discreetly, but Johanna saw the humor behind it. She needed to talk to him privately, seriously. "Alasdair, leave the room with Bertie."
When the lad didn't budge, Drummond's expression grew fierce. "Do as your mother says."
Alasdair rocked on his heels and grinned slyly. "Will you let me ride the elephant if I do?"
"Let's put it this way," Drummond said with false civility. "Should you harbor any desire of getting within a bishop's mile of that elephant, you'll obey your mother. Now."
Controlling the situation became vital to Johanna. She took Alasdair's arm. "Out with you. You've lessons with Brother Julian."
"But -- "
"Go!" She pointed to the door.
As Bertie led him from the room, her son looked back over his shoulder at Drummond Macqueen. Johanna shivered, just thinking his name.
Clare's husband was here. Wait. Not Clare's husband. Johanna's. No. Oh, goodness.
She knew nothing about being a wife and less about guarding her every word. Perhaps he'd merely come here to taunt her.
"He's not a Plantagenet bastard."
She walked to the dining table and, from a footed bowl, picked up two hazelnuts. Rolling them in her palm, she said, "Nay. He's my son."
Rising, he came toward her, his boots softly crunching the fresh rushes. "My apologies. Rest assured I'll not deny him my name, nor my protection."
His nearness made her uncomfortable, for she felt small beside his towering form. He smelled of leather and warm summer air, and her mind whirled with pictures of the intimacies he would expect, intimacies she had dreamed of but never thought to share. Confused by her own romantic musings, she fought for command of her emotions. "Alasdair has no need of your protection. I've managed quite well."
He took a handful of the hazelnuts. "You've indulged him."
Her temper flared. "How dare you judge me. He's all I have."
Much too reasonably, he said, "Not anymore. You have me...again." He cracked the nuts.
The sound made Johanna jump. "I do not want you. If our new king has indeed set you free, then go back to your Highland kin."
He picked the nut from the shell and put it on the windowsill. "Now why would I do that when I have a prosperous estate, a son, and a comely wife...here?"
Comely wife? The compliment spelled doom, for how could she make him believe that she was his wife and at the same time speed his departure? So daunting a task made her bold. "Do not waste your pretty speeches on me."
"You doubt me?" He feigned innocence, his expression so reminiscent of Alasdair that Johanna despaired.
"I don't even know you," she said.
He slapped his hand over his clan badge. "Never have truer words passed my lips."
How could he be so glib when her future was at stake? "The past doesn't concern me," she said through gritted teeth. "I'll have Evelyn prepare you a room."
Her heart catapulted into her throat. Did he suspect her for an imposter? No, he couldn't; under order of the old king, Clare had not told Drummond she had a twin sister.
Edward I had been explicit in his wish that no one know of Johanna's existence, and Sister Margaret had agreed. The irony of the ruse was a balm to Johanna, for she had called him a pretender. "That's hardly surprising, given your seven-year absence, for I was only fifteen at the start of it."
"You've matured handsomely. And you are different."
Uncurling her fingers, she let the nuts drop into the bowl. Dampness from her palm had turned the shells noticeably darker than the others. "I've changed more than you know."
An understatement, Drummond thought, as his gaze again strayed to her slender waist and generous breasts. A true bounty of wifely assets, especially to a husband who'd been denied those charms for seven years. "Then I await the opportunity to explore the new Clare."
Her brown eyes flashed fire. "You'd fare better exploring a hedgehog, my lord."
By all the sacred relics, she had changed. "What has happened to my malleable bride?"
"Of necessity, she has thrived in your absence."
She'd been naive and convent bred. Now she trembled with indignation. Drummond relished the challenge of peeling off her armor of self-control and gaining revenge for her sins against him. Most men accepted the role of cuckold, especially if a Plantagenet was the one swiving their wife. Not Drummond Macqueen.
With four brothers and twice that many uncles, he'd had little in his youth to call his own, save a drafty room in a Highland stronghold, his weapons of war, and a finely bred horse. Then, in an effort to forestall England's conquest of Scotland, he'd taken the virgin Clare to wife.
The voice of reason intruded and reminded him that she'd borne him a healthy son, for no one would doubt the boy's parentage. She would, by God's grade, give him others.
A noise interrupted his thoughts. The fat gray pigeon again lighted on the sill, cooed, and snatched up the nut. In a flutter of wings, the bird flew off. Drummond was reminded of the noisy crows that inhabited the Tower.
Dark memories intruded: the constant baitings by English guards; an animal, they'd called him, and a wild creature. Early in his incarceration, he'd begun to believe them. They had flaunted their women before him and once brought him a diseased whore.
"She should be to an animal's liking," they had said.
The young and virile Drummond had turned his back on the unfortunate woman. The guards had never brought him another female. At least not a human, and they had never stopped calling him an animal.
He glanced down at his wife and found her studying him. He grew uneasy at her steady, self-assured gaze, felt as if his tongue were tied in knots. Others parts of him, however, reacted in typical, if unwanted, fashion. He pictured his fingers sliding through her silky golden hair. He remembered making love to her and nipping her shoulder at the spot where she bore the mysterious brand. Her compliance in their marriage bed had been any man's dream. A return to those days seemed appealing in the extreme.
His sudden desire for her made him cross. "Then you will surely thrive under my husbandly guidance."
"I do not need a husband."
"Oh, but you do," he spat. "And a lord and master as well."
As confident as a queen at court, she did not waver. "I believe you are Drummond Macqueen, but I cannot imagine what you want with me. The housemaid, Evelyn, will show you to your chamber."
Drummond felt like a troublesome guest, easily dismissed. "What will you do?"
"The same as I always do. I'll manage my estate." She turned to go.
He grabbed her arm and spun her around. "Fairhope Tower is our estate. I'll accompany you."
Copyright © 1994 by Arntte Lamb