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Cullen stared at Biddy, watching her lips move as she spoke, but not really hearing her. He was too busy trying to figure out how to keep her from continuing on to her room. He'd managed to forestall her by asking if she had any suggestions on how he could remove the burn marks on the solar floor. Biddy had followed him back into the solar and been talking ever since. But he knew she would stop giving her various suggestions soon, and he would have to find another way to keep her from going into her room.
"That should work," Biddy finished finally, then glanced briefly toward the corner of the room where the wooden chandelier used to hang before forcing her gaze away and turning to the door. "I should return to the kitchens. I was just going to my room for a clean apron. Cook says we are out of pasties, and I thought I'd bake up a fresh batch."
"Nay," Cullen said firmly, stepping in front of her when she went to walk around him.
Biddy paused, eyebrows rising. "Nay?"
"Nay," he repeated, searched his mind frantically, then blurted, "I'm wanting ye to come to Comyns with me today."
"Comyns?" she asked with surprise.
"Aye. Someone's trying to kill me wife, and I'm wanting to get to the bottom of it. I need some questions answered about Jenny and Darach, and I hope that between you and Ellie Comyn, I can get those answers."
Biddy's head went back as if he'd slapped her. She also paled sickly. She didn't say a word, however, but hurried around him and out into the hall. Eyes wide with alarm, Cullen followed, but the woman moved surprisingly quickly for her age. She'd crossed the few steps to the door of her room and opened it before he could grab her back.
Cullen froze as the door slid open, waiting for Biddy to begin yelling, but all she said was, "I'll get me wrap for the trip."
The door closed behind her with a thud, and Cullen hesitated, uncertain whether to open it and go in, but there was no sound from inside to indicate that Evelinde had been discovered. There wasn't even a whisper. Frowning, he stepped closer to the door, listening intently, and that was how Biddy found him when she opened the door.
Straightening guiltily, he backed away.
"Afraid I was going to try to flee?" Biddy asked dryly as she stepped out of the room, then she shook her head as she donned her wrap and started up the hall toward the stairs. "I'm getting too old to bother with such nonsense, nephew. 'Tis time it all came out."
Cullen stared after her wide-eyed, those words sending a chill down his back. He had always liked his aunt Biddy. The woman made the best damned pasties in Scotland and used to sneak them to him and Tralin when they were younger. But her words just now weren't encouraging. He very much feared there really was something to Evelinde's theory.
Reminded of his wife, Cullen turned back to Biddy's door. Obviously, she'd hidden when she'd heard the door open. Thank God she'd had the sense to do that. He'd get Evelinde out of Biddy's chamber and back to their room before he gave her hell rather than risk his aunt returning and finding them in there. Afterward he would take her below and hand her over to Gillie and Rory to watch with the express order that they were not to let her out of their sight under threat of death… or at least some sort of horrible punishment. He would decide what when he was actually speaking to them, Cullen thought as he reached for the lever on the door.
"Are ye coming or not?"
Cullen let his hand drop and turned to see that his aunt hadn't continued downstairs as expected but had paused at the top and was now waiting impatiently for him to follow. He hesitated briefly, but then decided Evelinde would be safe enough making her way back to their room on her own, especially if his aunt was the culprit, as she seemed to be suggesting.
Turning away from the door, he followed Biddy below. Leaving her to walk to the stables without him, he paused just long enough to tell Gillie and Rory to guard his wife when she came below. And then, before he followed Biddy out to the stables, he explained quickly to Fergus that he was heading to Comyns and that Fergus would be in charge until he got back.
"What is this?"
Evelinde stopped brushing her hair and turned. Her eyes widened with alarm when she saw the paper her maid was taking out of the hanging pocket that was inside her skirt.
"Nothing," she said quickly, setting down her brush and crossing the room to retrieve the letter. Evelinde had returned to the chamber after leaving Biddy's room, grateful to find the hall empty of her usual guard. She'd heard voices from the solar as she'd passed and seen her husband in there talking to Biddy. Wishing to speak with her alone when she confronted her, Evelinde had decided to wash and change before seeking out her explanations, hoping that by then Cullen would have finished the discussion he was having with his aunt and left for his daily duties.
She'd made it safely back to the chamber and been undoing the laces of her gown when Mildrede had entered to help her dress and fix her hair. The maid had frowned at the gown Evelinde was wearing, thinking she was dressing rather than undressing. The woman had immediately begun to help Evelinde undress, chattering the whole while about her thinking to wear the gown from the day before and hadn't she folded and set the gown aside when she'd helped her disrobe last night? The nattering had only gotten worse when Evelinde had confessed that she hadn't even washed yet. Mildrede had then subjected her to a lecture about taking on the heathen ways of these Scots as she quickly got her out of her chemise and over to the basin of water to wash herself.
Evelinde had briefly debated explaining what she had been up to and why she was wearing her gown from the day before, but she really found herself reluctant to reveal what she'd found in her search of Biddy's room, at least until she'd spoken to the woman. She felt she owed her that much at least.
"Shall I put up your hair for you?" Mildrede asked.
Evelinde opened her mouth to say yes, then shook her head instead. She had washed and dressed while Mildrede had tended her clothes but felt her hair was fine down. She couldn't be bothered to take the time to fuss with it. Evelinde was eager to get the talk with Biddy over with.
"Nay, I shall wear it down today, I think."
Mildrede nodded, and said, "Come along then. You need to break your fast."
The letter gripped in her hand, Evelinde allowed her maid to usher her out of the room.
"You are late enough everyone has eaten and gone," Mildrede commented, as they descended the stairs. "Do you wish to eat at the table, or by the fire, where I can keep you company while I embroider?"
Evelinde's gaze slid to the tables where Gillie and Rory sat watching her descend the stairs, then to the two chairs that sat by the cold hearth and didn't even have to think about her answer.
"By the fire with you, but I shall fetch it, Mildrede," she added. "I should like a word with Aunt Biddy anyway,"
Mildrede nodded silently and headed for the chairs by the fireplace as Evelinde headed for the door to the kitchens. She pushed into the steamy room, fully expecting to find Biddy there as usual, but the woman was absent.
"Oh, me lady! Ye'll be wanting to break yer fast."
Evelinde glanced toward the cook and offered a smile. The woman was red-faced and sweating and looking harassed, but then she had looked like this every time Evelinde had seen the woman since her return from her visit. Truly, Biddy appeared to run the kitchens much better than Cook, who seemed forever to be struggling under the burden.
"Go sit yerself down, and I'll send one of the lasses out with something," Cook said, waving her out of the kitchen.
"Thank you," Evelinde murmured, but didn't leave right away, instead pausing to ask, "Where is Biddy?"
Cook frowned and shrugged. "She was talking about making some of her fine pasties when she broke her fast, but hasna been here since. She'll be along betimes, I'm sure."
Nodding, Evelinde backed out of the kitchen and turned away, her gaze sliding to the men at the table. If they had been seated at the table since Cullen had gone below, no doubt they knew where Biddy had gone. At that, she was rather surprised that they had waited below at the tables rather than making their way above stairs to oversee her activity. It made her wonder if her husband had actually listened to her last night when she'd berated him about ordering the men to stay in the same room with her when she had personal things to do such as bathe, use the privy, and such. Cullen hadn't appeared to be listening at the time. He'd merely kissed her until she forgot what she was angry about and distracted her with other lovely diversions.
And then this morning he'd told her he loved her, she recalled, a smile tugging at her lips.
A burst of laughter drew her gaze to the men at the table, and she recalled the task she'd set herself. She needed to find and speak to Biddy, and the sooner the better. Shoulders straightening, she crossed to the tables. It was no longer just Rory and Gillie. While she'd been in the kitchen, Fergus had joined the two men, and they were all laughing softly at something as she approached.
"Have you seen Biddy?" Evelinde asked once she'd reached them.
The three men turned to peer at her.
"She left the keep just before the laird," Gillie informed her helpfully.
Evelinde was frowning over that when Fergus said quietly, " 'Tis Jenny's day."
She raised her eyebrows, shifting guiltily as she noted his curious gaze on the letter in her hand, then asked uncertainly, "Jenny's day?"
"The anniversary of her sister's death," he explained, his gaze shifting from the letter to her face. "Biddy always goes to take flowers to her grave on this day."
"Oh. Thank you," Evelinde murmured, and turned away, moving toward the chairs by the fire where she'd last seen Mildrede. The woman wasn't there anymore, but she'd left her embroidery behind, so should return soon Evelinde supposed a bit absently, her thoughts on Biddy. Evelinde was eager to talk to the woman, but not so eager she was willing to hunt her down at the cliffs. That was the last place she wanted to meet Cullen's aunt. His father and first wife had already died there, and Evelinde had no desire to chance making her own the third death on the spot.
She would just have to wait for Biddy to return, Evelinde supposed. Were she foolish enough to go out there and get herself killed, no doubt the blame for her own death would somehow land at Cullen's feet as well, Evelinde thought on a sigh. She paused as she suddenly realized that perhaps she could go looking for Biddy at the cliffs. After all, unlike Cullen's father and first wife, she would have Rory and Gillie to escort her. They should be able to keep her safe.
Pleased that she would not have to wait to confront the woman after all, Evelinde turned back to the tables, but her smile faltered when she saw that Fergus was alone at the table now. Her gaze slid to the doors of the great hall in time to see Rory and Gillie slip outside and the doors swing closed.
"Where are Gillie and Rory going?" she asked, moving back to the table.
"I'm no sure," Fergus admitted. "They just asked me if I'd keep an on ye for a few minutes. Why? Is there something ye need?"
Evelinde hesitated, unsure she should risk going out to the cliff with only one man, but then she felt rather silly. Biddy was an old woman. She might have taken Cullen's father by surprise, and might have won out against Maggie by herself, but surely both she and Fergus would be able to manage her?
"I killed Darach."
Cullen reined in sharply and glanced at his aunt at those softly spoken words. They hadn't been riding long and had done so in silence until she'd spoken that confession. The words had come out of the blue and hit him like a stone to the head. He stared at her with incomprehension for a moment, then asked, "Why? Ye loved the man. I ken ye did. Everyone knew it. Ye forgave him every slip with other women, every-"
"Aye well, he finally did something even I could not forgive," she said bitterly.
"Jenny?" Cullen asked, recalling Evelinde's suggestion that morning.
Biddy nodded, sorrow mingling with anger on her face before she turned away to peer over the hills ahead of them. "I didna have any idea at the time. Oh, I knew he flattered and teased her like the others, and perhaps I should have seen, but I never imagined… My own little sister." She said the words with bewildered disgust.
"How did ye find out?" Cullen asked quietly.
"I didna until it was too late," she admitted. "I truly thought she'd killed herself rather than marry the Campbell, as everyone else thought. For two weeks I mourned. And all that time, Darach-" She shook her head. "He was so sweet. Always there to comfort me, always murmuring reassuring words that the lass was beyond Campbell's reach now and she was safe at least from that. I truly thought that was the proof of how wonderful he really was despite his wandering ways."
Biddy let her breath out on a little sigh, and added, "And then I found Jenny's letter. It must have been in the solar all that time, but I did not find it until I finally ventured back into the room to find the embroidery I'd been working on before she died. I read what Darach had done… to my own sister! 'Twas bad enough watching him sniffing after every other female around, but my sister?"
She ground her teeth and shook her head. "He ruined her. Jenny was a child, and he treated her like a common whore. In her naivety she thought it was love, until the last time they were together he said some very cruel things, and she fled Donnachaidh." Biddy turned furious eyes to Cullen, and said, "The night she left, Darach actually had the spine to tell me that she'd taken all his teasing and flirting seriously and that he'd had to set her straight and explain to her that he loved me," she added bitterly. "He forgot to mention that he deflowered her first and bedded her several times more."
Cullen let his breath out on an unhappy sigh at her acid words.
"Jenny was so ashamed of what she'd done, she planned to keep the whole matter to herself," Biddy said sadly. "But when she realized she was with child-Darach's child-she knew there was no way to hide it from the Campbell. She fled here scared witless and desperate for Darach's help." Her mouth tightened, and she said, "Do ye ken what that heartless bastard did?"
Cullen shook his head.
"He said 'twas not his problem and that he would deny it was his if she tried to drag him into her shame. Her shame," she said furiously. "He said if she tried to come tell me the truth, he'd get three or four of his men to claim they were her lovers, and she was nothing more than a common whore."
Biddy took several deep breaths, obviously trying to calm herself, then continued sadly, "Jenny did not know what to do. She knew the church said taking her own life would see her in hell, but felt sure she was headed there anyway for betraying me, and so she killed herself."
"I'm sorry, Biddy," Cullen said quietly, and the face she turned to him was stark.
"I forgave him for so much Cullen, for so many women… But I could not forgive him Jenny. I would not, not after I read that letter."
Biddy fell silent for a minute as she apparently reflected on the devastation Darach had wrought, then she sighed.
"I stormed below stairs, determined to confront the bastard, but you had all gone out to hunt boar." She ground her teeth. "I grabbed me bow and quiver, and rode out. I had no difficulty finding ye all. I trailed the hunting party, and when ye rode up on the boars and chaos broke out, I took me opportunity. I shot Darach as he fell, got him with the first try, and felt such peace when 'twas done."
Her expression was almost rebellious as she admitted that, but then Biddy sighed again, and continued, "It did not last long. By the time I got back to the keep the guilt had set in. It was almost a relief when ye men arrived back, and I learned he was no dead. I vowed I'd mend him, and at first he seemed to be improving, but…" She shook her head unhappily, and added, "In the end, I wasna able to save him."
Cullen stared at his aunt as the silence fell around them again. His feelings were a mixture of many emotions; pity for Jenny, grief at her abuse and wasted life, rage at his uncle for acting in such a callous and heinous way with his own wife's sister, and even pity for Biddy. Had he been the one to find that letter and read it, Cullen could not be at all sure that he himself might not have shot the bastard with an arrow. Surely, Darach had deserved to die for ruining Jenny and probably many other young noblewomen and others over the years. If her being so young and his sister-in-law-his responsibility while visiting-had not stopped him, then no woman had been safe from his unspeakable ways.
In that moment, Cullen might have assured his aunt she had done right and that they need never speak of the matter again… Except that Darach wasn't the only one dead. There were his father and little Maggie to consider, as well as the attempts on Evelinde's life.
Clearing his throat, he sat up a little straighter in the saddle, and asked, "And me father?"
"Liam?" Biddy glanced at him with confusion, then understanding crossed her face, and she shook her head. "I had nothing to do with that. I killed Darach, but I never would have harmed a hair on yer father's head. Liam was a good man. An honorable man. He loved yer mother. He never behaved as Darach did. Nay," she repeated firmly. "I did not kill him. I truly thought his death was an accident."
"Ye thought?" Cullen prompted.
"It was Maggie's death that made me wonder. She started asking questions about the deaths of yer father and Darach, and when she was found at the bottom of the cliffs, I wondered if Liam's death had been an accident after all," she admitted. "I wondered if perhaps it had been murder, and her questions made someone nervous. It seemed too much of a coincidence that they both died from plunging off the cliff where Jenny was laid to rest."
Cullen nodded silently. That was exactly what Evelinde had said that morning.
"And then," Biddy continued, "when the accidents began happening to Evelinde, I could not but worry. I have been trying to think who could have killed Liam and little Maggie."
"Did you come up with anyone?" Cullen asked, but she shook her head.
"Nay. I simply do no understand why anyone would have killed Liam. Ye're the only one who benefited from his death."
He was just stiffening at those words when she hurried to add, "But I ken ye loved yer father, Cullen. Ye would ne'er have killed him. Ye were fond of little Maggie, too, and wouldna have harmed her either. But even if I had doubted that, I ken beyond a shadow of a doubt that ye love yer Evelinde and most surely would not be trying to kill her."
Cullen relaxed, but asked, "How did ye ken I love Evelinde?"
Biddy smiled faintly. It was a small smile, but the first she'd worn since he'd encountered her in the hall. "Lad, yer love is plain to see in yer eyes every time ye look at the lass."
He smiled faintly now himself and nodded, his mind turning to the question of who could be behind his father's and Maggie's deaths as well as the attacks on Evelinde.
"Do ye believe me? "
Cullen glanced to his aunt in question.
"That I didna kill Liam or Maggie and am not responsible for Evelinde's accidents," she explained. "I know ye thought I was when ye brought me out here, but do ye believe me now that I-"
"I believe ye," he interrupted, and it was true. Cullen did believe her. Biddy was not the sort of woman who could kill in the normal course of events. He suspected that had she had a chance to think after reading her sister's letter, she would not have killed Darach then. But she had done so in a fit of passion. There wouldn't have been that same rage and passion with his father, and certainly not with little Maggie. Nay, she hadn't killed Liam or Maggie… which meant there was still a killer at Donnachaidh trying to make him a widower.
"Come," Cullen said, and turned his horse back the way they'd come. He suddenly wanted to get back and make sure Evelinde was safe. While he had solved a part of the puzzle that was the past and found one killer, there was another more dangerous one yet about.
The firm tone of her voice made him rein in and glance back. Biddy was eyeing him solemnly, and asked, "What will ye do with me now?"
Cullen hesitated, a frown claiming his lips. He wanted to tell her that he would do nothing, that Darach had reaped what he'd sown, but he had a responsibility as laird to uphold justice and wasn't sure he could do that.
"I am no sure," he admitted finally. "I need to think on it."
Biddy peered at him silently for a moment, then nodded and urged her horse forward.
"Yer a good laird," Biddy told him quietly as she rode past him back toward the keep. "Ye'll sort it out, and I shall accept yer decision. In truth, 'twill be a relief finally to be punished fer what I did."
Cullen didn't say anything as they rode back, but it occurred to him that Biddy had been punishing herself for the past seventeen years for killing her husband. She'd withdrawn from those she loved, banished herself to the kitchens, and refused any and all of the little luxuries that had been her right all those years. It hadn't gone without his notice that her bedroom was small and cramped and that she'd put away all her fine linens and pillows long ago, sleeping in a small, hard bed in a room as austere as a monk's cell. She also rarely purchased cloth to make new gowns, and when she did, what she chose was never the more luxurious weaves or fiber, but cloth as coarse and cheap as a lady could dare wear without shaming her family.
Aye, Cullen thought, Biddy probably would be relieved to be punished. Then, she could stop doing it herself. He just wished he was not the one who had to decide what that punishment should be. It was times like these he wished his father were still alive to take on the burden of laird.
They rode back to the keep much more quickly than they'd ridden out. Cullen had set a slow and steady pace on the way out, thinking that they would have the long ride to Comyn and back to contend with and not wishing to tax his aunt by racing there and back. But now that the long ride was unnecessary, he urged his mount to travel at speed, checking every once in a while to be sure that Biddy was having no difficulty keeping up.
Once in the bailey, he steered his mount to the stables, and Biddy followed. However, in his eagerness to reach the keep and check on Evelinde, Cullen left his mount for Scatchy's daughter to tend while Biddy stayed behind to see to her own horse.
He crossed the bailey at quickly, but Cullen's thoughts were distracted enough that he had nearly reached the keep before he noted Gillie and Rory talking to Mac at the foot of the steps. He gave a nod of greeting to the old man as he came to a halt, then turned a scowl on the two younger ones. "What are ye two doing here? Yer supposed to be watching me wife."
"Rory and I were beginning to fall asleep in the great hall so Fergus said we could take a turn out here. He said he'd watch her if we wished to stretch our legs for a few minutes. It gets fair boring sitting in there all the time, so we took the opportunity," Gillie explained apologetically.
Cullen scowled at this news but could hardly fault them. Fergus was his first, and he'd left him in charge while he was gone. Part of the man's job was giving the men rest if they appeared to be lagging. A man would hardly be alert when he was falling asleep, and 'twas better an alert man on guard than a weary one, slow to notice trouble and equally slow to react.
Nodding, he turned to continue on to the keep.
Cullen paused and glanced back. "Aye?"
The men exchanged a glance, then Rory asked, "Did Biddy's sister no die in autumn?"
"Biddy's sister?" he asked, startled to hear them mention the woman he'd just spent so much time talking about. Gillie and Rory were ten years younger than he. He was surprised they even recalled the woman.
"Aye," Rory said. "I helped Biddy take some flowers out to the cliff last autumn because she said it was the anniversary of her Jenny's death. But Fergus told Evelinde that Biddy was at the cliffs and that today was the anniversary of her death."
"He's mistaken. Yer right, Jenny died in the fall, no summer," Cullen said, and shook his head with exasperation. He was sure he'd mentioned to Fergus that he was taking Biddy with him to Comyns. Apparently, the man had forgotten that.
"I thought so," Rory said with satisfaction, and elbowed Gillie. "I told ye the old man was losing his wits to age."
Cullen grimaced, worried that he'd soon have to find himself a new first if the man's memory was slipping away. Did he not have enough problems at the moment? he thought with irritation, then shrugged the worry away and-eager to see his wife-continued on his way up the stairs.
Mildrede was coming out of the kitchen as Cullen entered the keep, but other than that, the great hall was empty. Frowning, he glanced at the maid. "Where is me wife?"
Mildrede's eyebrows rose-probably at his sharp tone of voice rather than the question itself-and she gestured back the way she'd come. "She left through the kitchen door some moments ago. She is not alone," the woman added quickly. "Fergus is escorting her."
Cullen frowned. "Escorting her where?"
"I am not sure," she admitted uncertainly. "I did not get the chance to speak to her. Fergus was ushering her out the door and into the back courtyard as I entered the kitchen."
When Cullen continued to frown, she added, "I know she was looking for Lady Elizabeth earlier. Perhaps they have gone in search of her."
"Who's looking for me?"
Cullen turned to the doors behind him as Biddy let it swing closed and started across the great hall toward them.
"Evelinde," Mildrede answered.
"Well, here I am. What's she wanting?" Biddy asked, as the keep doors opened again, and Gillie, Rory, and Mac trailed Travis inside.
Mildrede shook her head with bewilderment. "I do not know."
"Fergus told her ye were at the cliff," Cullen muttered. "But I told him ye were coming with me to Comyns."
Cursing, he headed for the door to the kitchens.
"What is wrong?" Mildrede asked, following on his heels, worry evident in her voice as she added, "Is not the cliff where your father and first wife died?"
"Aye," he bit out, fear racing through him now.
"Surely it canna be Fergus behind the accidents and deaths?" Biddy asked, but her tone told him she very much feared it might be.
"Fergus?" Tavis echoed the name with surprise as he and the other men began to follow as well. "It canna be Fergus, Cullen. There's no profit for him in these deaths. What would he have to gain from killing me da? Or yours? Or even Maggie?"
"Some of the deaths might have been accidents," Gillie pointed out.
"Aye," Rory agreed. "But 'tis curious he's taking the lass to the cliffs if he kens Biddy isna there."
That comment caused a silence to fall over the group as they hurried out of the kitchens and along the path to the back of the curtain wall. Cullen almost wished they'd continue their blathering. At least it kept him from thinking about what might be happening to his wife right that moment. If Fergus hurt her, he would kill the man with his bare hands. He was not going to lose Evelinde.
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