Lady Miriam MacDonald comes to Scotland seeking peace between the Scots and the English—instead, she gets the admiration of two men. The kindly, awkward laird of Kildalton Castle becomes a trusted friend, but the dashing and mysterious Border Lord, disguised by midnight’s cloak, becomes much, much more.
Behind Duncan Kerr’s disguise is a lifetime of anguish. Relinquishing his birthright as laird of Kildalton for the role of Border Lord could cost him his future, but Duncan knows that if his true identity is discovered by the beautiful Lady Miriam, he will lose the thing he holds most dear—her heart.
“Arnette Lamb has a tremendous gift for writing genuine, warm, humorous, sensual love stories. Border Lord is stupendous!” —RT Book Reviews
“Fun . . . Paced at breakneck speed. What makes this book special are the main characters . . . A strong liberated lady trying to negotiate for peace between the warring factions [and a hero that’s like] Zorro with a Scots burr.” —Romance Heart to Heart
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"Sweet Saint Margaret," Miriam swore, "he'll be a gout-ridden Scotsman with braids in his hair and beer on his breath."
Her companion, Alexis Southward, laughed. "Does that mean you're finally going to tell me what we're doing here?"
Miriam quelled her anger. "We're going to see a bullheaded Scotsman who can't stay on his side of the wall."
"Let's just pray he's sensible, Miriam. I do so hate it when these bickering men don't take you seriously. 'Tisn't a pretty sight, the way you can strip a stubborn man of his pride."
"Nor do I relish the exercise." Miriam flicked the reins and guided her horse through a gap in Hadrian's Wall. Behind her, the wheels of the luggage wagon creaked under the load. Seated atop the trunks and wig boxes, her twin scribes, Saladin and Salvador chatted in their second language, Español. The carriage, empty but for food and drink, brought up the rear. A dozen cavalrymen, more interested in filling their bellies than performing their duties, guarded the well-stocked conveyance. Where the men stationed themselves mattered little, for the only danger they'd encountered since leaving London had been in the forest near Nottingham.
A pack of hungry wild dogs had crept into camp. Miriam's sleuthhound, a female named Verbatim, had charged the intruders. When faced with a snarling protector that weighed six stone and stood waist high to a man, the trespassers yelped like frightened puppies and scurried into the woods.
Now Verbatim loped ahead, long ears flapping, black nose skimming the ground.
Once clear of the ancient wall, Miriam gazed at the land. Scotland. Her home. Long buried memories, like the mirages she'd seen in the deserts of Araby, shimmered to life. She shivered. No longer a respected diplomat in the court of Queen Anne, Miriam saw herself as a frightened child of four. Instead of the rolling hills of the Border, gilded by the setting sun and kissed by the chill of fall, she saw a frozen glen, blanketed with snow and splattered with the blood of her clan.
She turned. A smile of understanding wreathed Alexis's face. Her pale blue eyes swam with sympathy. She maneuvered her mount close and extended a gloved hand. Miriam took it.
Squeezing gently, Alexis said, "There are no demons here, my friend. Only memories, fond and bad. 'Tis all in the way you choose to see them."
Miriam sighed. Melancholy dragged at her. For twenty years, Alexis had been mother, sister, and consoling aunt, as the situation dictated. She could give advice in nine languages, scold in fourteen. Miriam understood them all. Together they'd traveled from the lavish courts of the czars to the exotic palaces of Persia. Discreet to a fault and as loyal as a true mother, Alexis could be trusted with the most delicate of state secrets. On an hour's notice, she could pack up their household and move them cross country or continent with the skill and speed of the queen's own steward.
"Thank you." Miriam gave the helping hand a last squeeze, then shifted to a more comfortable position in the sidesaddle.
"So," said Alexis, "tell me why Her Majesty would be sending the star of her diplomatic corps to a gouty, drunken Scot?"
"Her Majesty would have sent me to hell, I think, had Lord Shepton not intervened."
In her most motherly voice, Alexis said, "You shouldn't have told her she didn't know what she was doing."
Miriam ground her teeth. "That's not what I said."
"Oh, no? Then the gossips must've been wrong. Let me guess the truth of it. Her Majesty said 'twas time you were wed. You did a merry sett of verbal dancing, but your brilliant effort went for naught, for the queen knows you too well. She commanded you. You grew angry. You must be slipping."
Miriam tensed. Her mount sidestepped. Gathering the reins, she considered telling Alexis the truth about her quarrel with the queen. For years Miriam had asked Anne to bring to justice the Highlanders who'd murdered Miriam's family. For years Anne had refused. This time Miriam had demanded. Anne had become so furious Miriam had feared the sickly monarch might swoon. But Anne had rallied and threatened to betroth Miriam to the minister of Baltic affairs.
Out of loyalty to Alexis, Miriam told a part of the truth. "I had every right to question her. The men in her service do. And if she tried to force one of them to marry a dottering lech, they'd trip over their own tongues in their haste to object."
"True. But losing your temper and arguing with her, not to mention insulting her, no matter how delicately, was foolhardy."
The queen's unfairness gnawed at Miriam. Everyone else on the negotiating team had been excused from court to pursue their private concerns. But not Miriam. "I didn't set out to insult Her Majesty. I only reminded her that negotiating contracts for marriages or peace was my expertise, not hers. She can't have it both ways, Lexie. One moment she orders me to Utrecht to end the War of the Spanish Succession. The next moment she expects me to grovel like a 'tween stairs maid who's grateful that a footman wants to be her beau."
A rueful smile lent a timeless elegance to the older woman's face. "You don't have a beau."
Girlhood dreams shone brightly, then faded. The horses started down another of the rolling hills. Miriam braced herself with a hand on the pommel. "Nor will I ever, it seems."
"There's no disputing that. Five and twenty is a bit long in the tooth for courting."
"Ha! You're eight and forty, and you preened like a virgin when that French count fell off his horse to gain your attention and your favors."
Alexis Southward, onetime duchess of Challenbroke, smoothed the folds of her velvet riding habit. In a throaty voice, she said, "Gervais was a delightful diversion. Need I remind you that his son was ... shall we say eager to divert you as well."
"I'll believe that when the queen conceives her eighteenth child."
"Honte a toi. You should not say such a thing."
"I know. But the cavalier didn't want me, you sly creature. He wanted advance information on the treaty."
"Perhaps," said Alexis, her voice rife with disbelief. "But so long as you pine for a Sir Lancelot who divides his time between defending the poor and domineering his way into your bed, you'll never find a suitable husband."
A gaggle of honking geese flew overhead in a wavering V formation. A lone pair of birds brought up the rear. Mates, thought Miriam. Her girlish dreams might never come true, but she had no intention of wedding a man she couldn't respect. He'd also have to best her at chess and outwit her, but not too often.
"Dreaming of Sir Lancelot again?"
"Oh, bother it, Lexie. It makes no difference anyway."
Alexis chuckled. "Tell me about this gouty Scotsman. It's not like you to be so secretive."
Remembering her disastrous audience with the queen, Miriam upbraided herself again for not choosing her words more carefully. She'd expected gratitude from the queen for the success at Utrecht. An orphan without a dowry, Miriam had earned the queen's generosity. Instead, the angry sovereign had banished Miriam to the Border for another negotiating task.
"And should you fail," the queen had said, "you will forfeit any chance of bringing the Glenlyon Campbells to justice. Although why you're so determined to dredge up the crime, I cannot imagine."
Angry and exhausted, Miriam had replied, "Your parents weren't butchered."
"How dare you!" Seething, Anne threw down her scepter. "Strike a peace on the Border, Miriam, or you'll marry the minister of Baltic affairs."
Even now Miriam cringed at the thought of living in so cold a climate. She breathed deeply of the crisp fall air, ripe with the promise of winter. Perhaps she'd linger awhile in Scotland. The queen wouldn't be the wiser if Miriam dawdled in the Borders. She needed a respite from England's politics. A winter sojourn in Scotland seemed the perfect answer. Could she face the snow?
Aye. The alternative gave her courage. She'd toast her toes before a roaring peat fire, warm her belly with mulled wine, and dream of a hero who could slay dragons and discuss Socrates.
In a nearby vale, a roebuck with a magnificent rack of antlers stalked a flirtatious doe. Verbatim quivered with the need to give chase, but the dog was too well trained. The agile doe dashed away, kicking up fallen leaves in her wake. The prime buck threw back his head and trumpeted his frustration. The doe stopped and twitched her white rump patch. When the male resumed his pursuit, she darted away again.
Verbatim went back to her inspection of Scotland.
"I do so love a courtship, don't you?" said Alexis.
"Courtship? I'm here to settle what might be a war, not to arrange a betrothal."
Alexis rolled her eyes to the heavens and blew out her breath. "I was speaking of the rut going on over there. 'Twas a jest, Miriam."
Humor had always been lost on Miriam. She wanted to join in, to get caught up in the amusing subtleties that others found so entertaining. She could wade through a stream of rhetoric, but couldn't catch an innuendo. She recognized it for the fault it was, but had no idea how one learned how to be jolly.
They were joined by her escort, the leader of Her Majesty's Fifth Regiment of Horse. A gust of wind ruffled the white plume in his cap, and the fading sunlight lent an orange cast to the golden regalia on his uniform.
She nodded. "Captain Higginbotham. Won't you join us?"
He drew himself up in the saddle. Leather creaked. Clean-shaven and as neat as a parson on Sunday, he spent the noon hour polishing his boots and scabbard.
"Almost there, Lady Miriam. I'll send a man ahead to announce you," he said, staring at her breasts.
How common, she thought. How degrading. But she was accustomed to such base behavior. Smiling pleasantly, she said, "That's very thorough of you, Captain. I think, however, that just this once, we shall forego protocol and simply pop in."
When he opened his mouth to protest, she added, "I'll be sure to tell your uncle, Lord Drummond, of your unwavering competence in the field. I have been truly impressed. The czar's personal guard couldn't have done better."
He toyed with the cuff of his gauntlets, and tapped his teeth together. The annoying habits signaled his disapproval.
"Thank you, my lady." He nodded curtly, fell back, and ordered his men to advance. Amid the rattling of swords and the pounding of hooves, the soldiers began moving.
"Well?" prompted Alexis, eyeing the double column of soldiers as they passed.
Over the jingling of harnesses, Miriam said, "Well what?"
"Why are you being so secretive about this mission?"
Mission? thought Miriam. Predicament seemed a more fitting term. "Oh, Lexie. I'm not. I've told you everything I know about the trouble here. The queen said, in so many words, that I overstepped myself. She thinks I've become too world-wise for a mere woman. Sending me here without telling me what's going on was my punishment."
Alexis spat a curse that she'd learned at her father's knee. "How swiftly my royal cousin forgets that you gained your experience in service to her — mere woman or no."
"I know," said Miriam, thinking of the years she'd served the queen. Miriam's apprenticeship had begun when the then Princess Anne had taken in the orphaned Miriam. At the age of five she'd often ferried the sad message to Prince George that yet another of the queen's children had died. Remembered pity softened her next words. "She also said that since I knew her mind so well, she needn't waste a royal breath explaining the participants or the particulars of the problems here."
A whistle escaped Alexis's lips. "She was angry at you." Miriam studied the horizon. "Indeed. The burr in her voice was as thick as the towels in a Turkish bath."
"'Tis a wonder you still have your head. 'Twould be a pity, though, to let all that glorious red hair go to waste."
The compliment brightened Miriam's black mood. But she still couldn't bring herself to tell Alexis what had truly angered the queen. "When she told me that I could either marry the Baltic minister or earn my keep in the usual way, I told her I would sooner join the harem of King Ahmed."
Alexis made the sign of the cross. "She knows how much you hate the cold."
"Aye, she does. I decided to fall back and regroup. I just didn't think I'd be doing it in the Borders."
"You'll make quick work of this dispute. How will you begin?"
Miriam hated being ignorant, but what she knew about the Scotsman wouldn't fill a thimble. "I'm not sure."
"I have every confidence in you, my dear. Now, tell me. What did Her Majesty say about the Englishman?"
"Little. His name is Aubrey Townsend, Baron Sinclair. He was the one who petitioned for assistance, accusing the Scotsman of kidnapping, thievery, etcetera. Oh, and she commanded me to visit the Scotsman first."
"That's odd, even if the Englishman did bring about a complaint. She's always careful not to show favoritism to her countrymen. Maybe she knows the Scot. Or —" Mischief sparkled in her eyes. "He could be a cousin of sorts."
"I wouldn't think so. He leads a clan of Lowlanders. I don't imagine they have any ties to the Stewarts — on either side of the blanket." Realizing the slight, Miriam rushed to say, "Oh, do forgive me, Lexie."
Alexis waved her hand in dismissal. "'Twas nothing. What's the fellow's name?"
"Duncan Armstrong Kerr, the earl of Kildalton."
"Sounds very Scottish ... and promising. Has he a countess?"
"Not anymore. He's widowed, according to the innkeeper back in Bothly Green."
"Very promising indeed, my dear."
Miriam had to shield her eyes from the setting sun to see her friend's face. "For you, me, or the negotiations?"
Alexis wagged her finger. "You, of course." Then she gazed at the rolling hills and rocky terrain. "Perhaps Sir Lancelot waits o'er yonder hill. Him or the legendary Border Lord they spoke of in Bothly Green. Then you'd be preoccupied with matters of the heart. A legend could sweep you off your feet, beguile you with poetry, and cart you away to his bower of love."
At the edge of her vision, Miriam saw Verbatim perched on the hill in question, her long tail arched over her back, her nose in the air. The animal had scented something. She whined in fright.
"Wait here." Miriam kicked her horse into a canter and raced up the hill. At the summit, she gasped, and flooded her lungs with the biting odor of stale smoke.
In the glen below stood the charred timbers and hearthstone of what had been a crofter's hut. On the periphery of the blackened field she saw a freshly mounded grave. She slumped, wondering if the destruction had been the result of a carelessly banked fire or a consequence of the trouble she was here to settle.
If the latter was true, she'd need more than diplomatic flummery to bring about a peace. She conjured a picture of Duncan Armstrong Kerr, and saw a gouty, stubborn Scotsman who would challenge her expertise and try to bully her into taking his side.
But the man she encountered an hour later challenged her in a different way.
Standing in the common room of Kildalton Castle, Miriam was reminded of Louis XIV's least gifted fool the day he had once again failed to amuse his sovereign.
Pity and confusion overwhelmed her.
Dressed in a waistcoat and knee breeches of forest green velvet, a crimped and powdered wig aslant on his head, and spectacles thicker than church glass perched on his nose, the man looked more like a disheveled jester than the lord of the keep.
"Have you brought the peacocks?" he said, hope dancing in green eyes that were distorted by the lenses.
"The peacocks," she repeated, stalling for enough time to form a reasonable reply.
Behind her, Alexis coughed to hide a giggle. Saladin and Salvador stood frozen, their mouths open, their eyes as large as the earl's.
To Lexie, she pointedly said, "You'll want to warm yourself by the fire. Take the twins with you."
Alexis nodded and led the boys to the far side of the room.
Turning back, Miriam said, "Where were we?"
"The peacocks. They haven't molted, have they?" he asked in the clipped speech of a scholar. "If so, I hope you brought the creatures anyway." He held up a contraption of orange-brown feathers attached to a hook. "Can't catch a fish with a pheasant. These are as useless as another coal in Newcastle."
For some reason, he laughed. His wig jiggled and shed a handful of gray powder on the rounded shoulders of his waistcoat. Then he took a faltering step toward her.
That's when she noticed his shoes; they were on the wrong feet.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Border Lord"
Copyright © 1993 Arnette Lamb.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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