(Джулия Гарвуд - "Роковое сокровище")
England, in the reign of King Richard I
Bad things always happen during the night.
In the dark hours of the night Gillian's mother died struggling to bring a new life into the world, and a young, unthinking servant, wishing to be the first to impart the sorrowful news, awakened the two little girls to tell them their dear mama was dead. Two nights later, they were once again shaken awake to hear that their infant brother, Ranulf, named in honor of their father, had also passed on. His frail body hadn't been able to take the strain of being born a full two months early.
Gillian was afraid of the dark. She waited until the servant had left her bedroom, then slid down from the big bed on her stomach to the cold stone floor. Barefoot, she ran to the forbidden passage, a secret hallway that led to her sister's chamber and also to the steep steps that ended in the tunnels below the kitchens. She barely squeezed behind the chest her papa had placed in front of the narrow door in the wall to discourage his daughters from going back and forth. He had warned over and over again that it was a secret, for the love of God, only to be used under the most dire of circumstances, and certainly not for play. Why, even his loyal servants didn't know about the passageways built into three of the bedchambers, and he was determined to keep it that way. He was also extremely concerned that his daughters would fall down the steps and break their pretty little necks, and he often threatened to paddle their backsides if he ever caught them there. It was dangerous, and it was forbidden.
But on that terrible night of loss and sorrow, Gillian didn't care if she got into trouble. She was scared, and whenever she got scared, she ran to her older sister, Christen, for comfort. Managing to get the door open only a crack, Gillian cried out for Christen and waited for her to come. Her sister reached in, latched onto Gillian's hand and pulled her through, then helped her climb up into her bed. The little girls clung to each other under the thick blankets and cried while their papa's tormented screams of anguish and desolation echoed throughout the halls. They could hear him shouting their mama's name over and over and over again. Death had entered their peaceful home and filled it with grief.
The family wasn't given time to heal, for the monsters of the night weren't through preying on them. It was in the dead of night that the infidels invaded their home and Gillian's family was destroyed.
Papa woke her up when he came rushing into her chamber carrying Christen in his arms. His faithful soldiers William-Gillian's favorite because he gave her honeyed treats when her papa wasn't watching-and Lawrence and Tom and Spencer followed behind him. Their expressions were grim. Gillian sat up in bed and rubbed her eyes with the backs of her hands as her father handed Christen to Lawrence and hurried to her. He placed the glowing candle on the chest next to her bed, then sat down beside her and with a trembling hand gently brushed her hair out of her eyes.
Her father looked terribly sad, and Gillian thought she knew the reason why.
"Did Mama die again, Papa?" she asked worriedly.
"For the love of… no, Gillian," he answered, his voice weary.
"Did she come back home, then?"
"Ah, my sweet lamb, we've been over this again and again. Your mama isn't ever going to come home. The dead can't come back. She's in heaven now. Try to understand."
"Yes, Papa," she whispered.
She heard the faint echo of shouts coming from the floor below and then noticed that her father was wearing his chain mail.
"Are you going to battle now, for the love of God, Papa?"
"Yes," he answered. "But first I must get you and your sister to safety."
He reached for the clothes Gillian's maid, Liese, had laid out for tomorrow and hastily dressed his daughter. William moved forward and knelt on one knee to put Gillian's shoes on her.
Her papa had never dressed her before, and she didn't know what to make of it. "Papa, I got to take my sleeping gown off before I put my clothes on, and I got to let Liese brush my hair."
"We won't worry about your hair tonight."
"Papa, is it dark outside?" she asked as he slipped the bliaut over her head.
"Yes, Gillian, it's dark."
"Do I got to go outside in the dark?"
He could hear the fear in her voice and tried to calm her. "There will be torches to light the way and you won't be alone."
"Are you going with Christen and me?"
Her sister answered. "No, Gillian," she shouted from across the room. " 'Cause Papa has to stay here and fight the battle, for the love of God," she said, repeating her father's often used expression. "Don't you, Papa?"
Lawrence told Christen to hush. "We don't want anyone to know you're leaving," he explained in a whisper. "Can you be real quiet now?"
Christen eagerly nodded. "I can," she whispered back. "I can be awful quiet when I got to, and when I…"
Lawrence put his hand over her mouth. "Hush, golden girl."
William lifted Gillian into his arms and carried her out of the chamber and down the dark hallway to her father's room. Spencer and Tom guided the way, carrying bright candles to light the corridor. Giant shadows danced along the stone walls keeping pace with them, the only sound the hard clicking of their boots against the cobbled floor. Gillian became fearful and put her arms around the soldier's neck, then tucked her head under his chin.
"I don't like the shadows," she whimpered.
"They won't harm you," he soothed.
"I want my mama, William."
"I know you do, honey bear."
His silly nickname for her always made her smile, and she suddenly wasn't afraid any longer. She saw her papa rush past her to lead the way into his chamber, and she would have called out to him, but William put his finger to his lips, reminding her that she was to be quiet.
As soon as they were all inside the bedroom, Tom and Spencer began to slide a low chest along the wall so that they could open the secret door. The rusty hinges groaned and squealed like an angry boar whose mouth was being pried open.
Lawrence and William had to put the little girls down in order to soak and light the torches. The second their backs were turned, both Christen and Gillian ran to their father who was down on his knees leaning over another chest at the foot of the bed and sorting through his belongings. They flanked his sides and stretched up on tiptoes, their hands on the rim of the chest so they too could peer inside.
"What are you looking for, Papa?" Christen asked.
"This," he answered as he lifted the sparkling jeweled box.
"It's awful pretty, Papa," Christen said. "Can I have it?"
"Can I have it too?" Gillian chimed in.
"No," he answered. "The box belongs, to Prince John, and I mean to see that he gets it back."
Still down on his knees, their father turned toward Christen and grabbed her arm, pulling her close as she tried to wiggle away.
"You're hurting me, Papa."
"I'm sorry, love," he said, immediately lessening his grip. "I didn't mean to hurt you, but I do need you to pay attention to what I'm going to tell you. Can you do that, Christen?"
"Yes, Papa, I can pay attention."
"That's good," he praised. "I want you to take this box with you when you leave. Lawrence will protect you from harm and take you to a safe place far away from here, and he'll help you hide this evil treasure until the time is right and I can come for you and take the box to Prince John. You mustn't tell anyone about this treasure, Christen."
Gillian ran around her father to stand next to Christen. "Can she tell me, Papa?"
Her father ignored her question and waited for Christen to answer.
"I won't tell," she promised.
"I won't tell no one neither." Gillian vehemently nodded to prove she meant what she said.
Their father continued to ignore his younger daughter for the moment because he was intent on making Christen understand the importance of what he was telling her. "No one must ever know you have the box, child. Now watch what I'm doing," he ordered. "I'm going to wrap the box in this tunic."
"So no one will see it?" Christen asked.
"That's right," he whispered. "So no one will see it."
"But I already seen it, Papa," Gillian blurted out.
"I know you did," he agreed. He looked up at Lawrence then. "She's too young… I'm asking too much of her. Dear God, how can I let my babies go?"
Lawrence stepped forward. "I'm going to protect Christen with my life, and I'll make certain no one sees the box."
William also rushed to offer his pledge. "No harm will come to Lady Gillian," he vowed. "I give you my word, Baron Ranulf. My life to keep her safe."
The vehemence in his voice was a comfort to the baron and he nodded to let both soldiers know that his trust in them was absolute.
Gillian tugged on her father's elbow to get his attention. She wasn't about to be left out. When her papa wrapped the pretty box in one of his tunics and gave it to Christen, Gillian clasped her hands together in anticipation, for she assumed that since her sister had been given a present, she would be getting one too. Even though Christen was the firstborn and three years older than Gillian, their father had never shown favoritism for one over the other.
It was difficult for her to be patient, but Gillian tried. She watched as her father pulled Christen into his arms and kissed her forehead and hugged her tight. "Don't forget your papa," he whispered. "Don't forget me."
He reached for Gillian next. She threw herself into his arms and kissed him soundly on his whiskered cheek.
"Papa, don't you have a pretty box for me?"
"No, my sweet. You're going to go with William now. Take hold of his hand-"
"But Papa, I got to have a box too. Don't you have one for me to carry?"
"The box isn't a present, Gillian."
"I love you," he said, blinking back the tears as he fiercely clasped her against the cold chain mail of his hauberk. "God keep you safe."
"You're squishing me, Papa. Can I have a turn holding the box? Please, Papa?"
Ector, her father's chief reeve, barged into the room. His shout so startled Christen she dropped the treasure. The box rolled out of the tunic onto the floor and clattered across the stones. In the firelight from the flaming torches, the rubies and sapphires and emeralds imbedded in the case came to life, glistening and twinkling brightly like sparkling stars that had fallen from the sky.
Ector stopped short, startled by the dazzling beauty that tumbled before him.
"What is it, Ector?" her father said.
Intent on giving his baron the urgent message from Bryant, the baron's commander in arms, Ector seemed barely to be paying attention to what he was doing as he scooped up the box and handed it to Lawrence. His focus returned to his leader. "Milord, Bryant bade me to come and tell you that young Alford the Red and his soldiers have breached the inner bailey."
"Was Baron Alford seen?" William blurted out the question. "Or does he continue to hide from us?"
Ector glanced back at the soldier. "I don't know," he confessed before turning to the baron once again. "Bryant also bade me tell you that your men are calling for you, milord."
"I shall go at once," the baron announced as he gained his feet. He motioned for Ector to leave the chamber, then followed him, pausing in the doorway to gaze upon his beautiful daughters one last time. Christen, with her golden curls and cherub cheeks, and little Gillian, with her mother's brilliant green eyes and pale skin, looked in jeopardy of bursting into tears.
"Go now, and God keep you safe," the baron ordered harshly.
And then he was gone. The soldiers hurried to the passage. Tom went ahead to unlatch the door at the end of the tunnel and make certain the area hadn't been breached by the enemy. Lawrence held Christen's hand and led the way into the dark corridor with his fiery torch. Gillian was right behind her sister, clinging to William's hand. Spencer followed them, then reached through the opening to drag the chest back before he closed the door.
"Papa didn't tell me he had a secret door," Gillian whispered to Christen.
"He didn't tell me neither," her sister whispered back. "Maybe he forgot."
Gillian tugged on William's hand to get his attention. "Me and Christen got a secret door too, but it's in our bedrooms. We can't tell nobody about it though 'cause it's a secret. Papa says he'll paddle us good if we tell. Did you know it was a secret, William?" The soldier didn't answer her, but she wasn't deterred by his silence. "You know where our passage goes? Papa says when we come out of our tunnel, we can see the fish in his pond. Is that where we're going?"
"No," William answered. "This tunnel will take us underneath the wine cellar. We're getting close to the steps now, and I want you to be real quiet."
Gillian kept a worried eye on the shadows following her along the wall. She moved closer to William and then turned her attention to her sister. Christen was clasping the jeweled box against her chest, but an edge of the tunic was dangling down below her elbow, and Gillian couldn't resist reaching for it.
"I got to have a turn holding the box. Papa said."
Christen was outraged. "No, he didn't say," she cried. She twisted toward Lawrence so Gillian couldn't get near the box, and then tattled on her. " Lawrence, Gillian told a lie. Papa said I was supposed to have the box, not her."
Gillian was determined. "But I got to have a turn," she told her sister as she once again tried to grab hold of the tunic. She pulled back when she thought she heard a sound behind her. She turned to look. The stairway was pitch-black, and she couldn't see anything, but she was certain that there were monsters lurking in the shadows waiting to grab her, maybe even a fiery dragon. Frightened, she held tight to the soldier's hand and squeezed up against his side.
"I don't like it here," she cried. "Carry me, William."
Just as the soldier bent down to lift her up with his free arm, one of the shadows against the wall leapt out at her. Gillian screamed in terror, stumbled, and fell into Christen.
Her sister shouted, "No, it's mine," and swung toward Gillian as the shadow barreled into William. The blow struck William behind his knees and threw him into Lawrence. The steps were slick with moisture dripping down from the walls, and the men were too close to the edge to brace themselves. They plunged headfirst into the black hole with the girls. Sparks from the torches flew about them as the fiery balls cascaded down the stairs ahead of them.
William desperately tried to enfold the child as their bodies plummeted down the jagged steps, but he couldn't shield her completely, and Gillian's chin struck the sharp stone.
Stunned by the blow, she slowly sat up and looked about her. Blood poured onto her gown, and when she saw the blood on her hands, she began to scream. Her sister lay beside her, facedown on the floor, not making a sound.
"Christen, help me," Gillian sobbed. "Wake up. I don't like it here. Wake up."
William struggled to his feet with the hysterical child and, holding her tight against his chest, ran through the tunnel. "Hush, child, hush," he whispered over and over again.
Lawrence followed with Christen. Blood trickled down from the cut high on her forehead.
"Lawrence, you and Tom take Christen on to the creek. Spencer and I will meet you there," William shouted.
"Come with us now," Lawrence urged over Gillian's screams.
"The child's in a bad way. She needs stitches," William called back. "Go now. We'll catch up with you. God's speed," he added as he rushed ahead.
"Christen," Gillian screamed. "Christen, don't leave me."
When they neared the door, William cupped his hand over Gillian's mouth and pleaded with her to be quiet. He and Spencer took her to the tanner's cottage on the edge of the outer bailey so that Maude, the tanner's wife, could sew the injury. The underside of Gillian's chin was completely flayed open.
Both soldiers held the child down while Maude worked on her. The battle raged dangerously close, and the noise became so deafening they had to shout to be heard.
"Finish with the child," William ordered the woman. "We must get her to. safety before it's too late. Hurry," he shouted as he rushed outside to stand guard.
Maude tied a knot in the string, then clipped the threads. As quickly as she could manage, she wrapped a thick bandage around Gillian's neck and chin.
Spencer lifted the little girl and followed William outside. The enemy had set fire to the thatched roofs of several of the huts with their flaming arrows, and in the bright light, the three ran toward the hill where their mounts waited.
They were halfway up the incline when a troop of soldiers came swarming over the crest. More of the enemy cut off their retreat at the bottom. Escape was impossible, but the two valiant men still held steadfast to their duty. With Gillian on the ground between them, their legs the only barrier shielding her from the attack, they stood with their backs to each other, raised their swords high, and rendered their final battle cry. The two noble soldiers died as they had lived, with honor and courage protecting the innocent.
One of Alford's commanders, recognizing the child, carried her back to the great hall. Liese, Gillian's maid, spotted her when she came inside with the soldier and boldly broke away from the group of servants huddled together in the corner under the watchful eye of the enemy's guard. She pleaded with the soldier to let her take over the care of the little girl. Fortunately, the commander considered Gillian a nuisance and was happy to be rid of her. He ordered Liese to take Gillian upstairs and then ran back outside to join in the fight.
Gillian appeared to be in a stupor. Liese grabbed her and raced up the stairs and across the balcony toward the child's room to get away from the massacre. Panic seized her as she reached for the door latch. She was clawing at it and silently crying when a sudden crash made her jump. She turned just as the heavy oak doors leading to the great hall burst open and soldiers poured inside with their bloody battle axes raised and their swords drawn. Crazed with power, they swung their weapons against the weak and the defenseless. The unarmed men and women held their hands up as shields in a pitiful attempt to ward off the enemy's razor sharp swords. It was a needless slaughter. Horrified, Liese fell to her knees, closed her eyes, and covered her ears so she wouldn't see or hear her friends' desperate pleas for mercy.
Gillian stood passively next to Liese, but when she saw her father being dragged inside, she ran to the banister rail and knelt down. "Papa," she whispered, and then she saw a man in a gold cape raise his sword over her father. "Papa!" she screamed.
Those were the last words she spoke. From that moment, Gillian retreated into a world of numb silence.
Two weeks later, the young man who had seized control of her father's holding, Baron Alford the Red of Lockmiere, called her before him to decide what was to be done with her, and without speaking a single word, she let him know what was in her mind and her heart.
Liese held Gillian's hand and walked into the great hall to meet the monster who had killed the child's father. Alford, barely old enough to be called a man, was an evil, power-hungry demon, and Liese was no fool. She knew that with the snap of his fingers or a wave of his hand, he could order both their deaths.
Gillian jerked away from Liese just inside the entrance and walked forward alone. She stopped when she reached the long table where Alford and his young companions dined. Without a hint of expression on her face, and with her hands hanging limply at her sides, she stood motionless, staring vacantly at the baron.
He had a pheasant leg in one hand and a wedge of black bread in the other. Specks of grease and meat clung to the red scraggy stubble on his chin. He ignored the child for several minutes while he devoured his food, and after he had tossed the bones over his shoulder, he turned to her.
"How old are you, Gillian?" Alford waited a full minute before trying again. "I asked you a question," he muttered, trying to control his rising temper.
"She cannot be more than four years old," one of his friends volunteered.
"I'd wager she's past five," his cohort suggested. "She's small, but she could even be six."
Alford raised his hand for silence while his eyes continued to bore into the little girl. "It's a simple question. Answer me, and while you're at it, tell me what you think I should do with you. My father's confessor believes you can't speak because the Devil has taken possession of your soul. He pleads the right to force the demon out, using very unpleasant methods. Would you like me to tell you exactly what he would do?" he asked. "No, I don't suppose you would," he added with a smirk. "Torture will be necessary, of course, for it's the only way to get the demons out, or so I'm told. Would you like to be strapped down to a table for hour upon hour while my confessor works on you? I have the power to order it done. Now answer my questions and be quick about it. Tell me your age," he demanded in a snarl.
Silence was her response. Chilling silence. Alford could see that his threats didn't faze her. He thought she might be too simpleminded to understand. She was her father's daughter after all, and what a naive, stupid fool he had been to believe that Alford was his friend.
"Perhaps she isn't answering you because she doesn't know how old she is," his friend suggested. "Get on with the important matter," he urged. "Ask her about the box."
Alford nodded agreement. "Now, Gillian," he began, his tone as sour as vinegar, "your father stole a very valuable box from Prince John, and I mean to get it back for him. There were pretty jewels on the top and sides of the case. If you saw it, you would remember it," he added. "Did you or your sister see this treasure? Answer me," he ordered, his voice shrill with his frustration. "Did you see your father hide the box? Did you?"
She didn't give any indication that she had heard a word he'd said. She simply continued to look at him. The young baron let out a sigh of vexation, then decided to stare her into timidity.
In the space of an indrawn breath, the child's expression changed from indifference to loathing. The hatred burning bright in her eyes quickly unnerved him and made the hair on the back of his neck stand up and the gooseflesh rise up on his forearms. It was unholy for a child of such tender years to show such intensity.
She frightened him. Infuriated by his own bizarre reaction to the girl who was little more than a baby, Alford resorted to cruelty once again. "You're a sickly looking child, aren't you, with your pale skin and drab brown hair? Your sister was the pretty one, wasn't she? Tell me, Gillian, were you jealous of her? Is that why you pushed her down the stairs? The woman who sewed you up told me you and Christen both went down the stairs, and one of the soldiers who was with you told the woman you pushed your sister. Christen's dead, you know, and it's all your fault." He leaned forward and pointed a long, bony finger in her face. "You're going to live with that black sin for the rest of your life, however short that might be. I've decided to send you to the end of the earth," he added offhandedly. "To the bitter, cold north of England where you will live with the heathens until the day comes that I have need for you again. Now get you out of my sight. You make my flesh crawl."
Trembling with fear, Liese stepped forward. "Milord, may I accompany the child north to look after her?"
Alford turned his attention to the maid cowering near the entrance and openly cringed at the sight of her scarred face. "One witch to look after another?" he scoffed. "I don't care if you go or stay. Do what you will, but get her but of here now so that my friends and I will not have to suffer her fetid stare a moment longer."
Hearing the tremor in his own voice sent Alford into a rage.
He picked up a heavy wooden bowl from the table and hurled it at the child. It sailed past her head, narrowly missing her. Gillian neither flinched nor blinked. She simply continued to stand where she was, her green eyes glistening with hatred.
Was she looking at his soul? The thought sent a shiver down Alford's spine.
"Out," he screamed. "Get her out of here."
Liese dashed forward to get Gillian, and then ran out of the hall.
As soon as they were safely outside, she hugged the little girl to her bosom and whispered, "It's over now and soon we will leave this foul place and never look back. You'll never have to see your father's murderer again, and I'll never have to look upon my husband, Ector. The two of us will make a new life together, and God willing, we'll find some peace and joy."
Liese was determined to get away before Baron Alford changed his mind. Permission to leave Dunhanshire liberated her, for it meant she could leave Ector behind as well. Her husband had gone over the edge of sanity during the attack on the castle and was too befuddled to go anywhere. After witnessing the slaughter of most of the soldiers and the household staff and narrowly escaping with his own life intact, his mind had snapped and he had turned as crazy as a rabid fox, roaming the hills of Dunhanshire during the days with his dirty knapsack filled with the rocks and clumps of dirt he called his treasures. Each night he made his bed in the southeast corner of the stables, where he was left alone to stew in his own nightmares. His eyes had a glassy, faraway look to them, and he constantly alternated between muttering to himself about how he was going to be a rich man, as rich as King Richard himself, and shouting obscenities because it was taking him so long to get his due. Even the infidels and their leader, Alford, who now claimed Dunhanshire for themselves in the absent king's name, were superstitious enough to give Ector a wide path. As long as the demented man left them alone, they ignored him. Some of the younger soldiers, it was observed, dropped to their knees and made the sign of the cross whenever Ector passed by. The holy ritual was a talisman to ward off the possibility of catching the crazy loon's affliction. They didn't dare kill him, for they firmly believed that the demons controlling Ector's mind would leap into them and take control of their thoughts and actions.
Liese felt that God had granted her a dispensation from her marriage vows. In the seven years that they had lived as man and wife, Ector had never shown her as much as an ounce of affection or spoken a kind word to her. He believed that it was his duty as a husband to beat her into submission and humility so that she would be assured a place in heaven, and he took on his sacred responsibility with a gleeful vengeance. A hard, angry man who as a child had been coddled and shamefully spoiled by doting parents, Ector presumed that he could have anything he wanted. He was convinced that he should live the life of leisure, and he let greed control his every thought. Just three months before Gillian's father was killed, Ector had been promoted to the coveted position of chief reeve because of his clever way with figures. He then had access to the vast amount of money collected in rents from the tenants and knew exactly how much the baron was worth. Avarice took hold of his heart, and with it came a bitterness as rancid as bile because he hadn't been rewarded with what he believed was his share.
Ector was also a coward. During the attack, Liese witnessed her husband grab hold of Gerta, the household cook and Liese's dear friend, and use her as a shield against the arrows hailing down on them in the courtyard. When Gerta was killed, Ector had dragged her body over his and had pretended to be dead.
The shame was unspeakable, and Liese could no longer look at her husband without hatred. She knew she was in jeopardy of losing her own soul, for to despise another of God's creatures the way she despised Ector was surely sinful. She thanked God for giving her a second chance to redeem herself.
Concerned that Ector might take to the notion of following her, Liese, on the day she and Gillian were scheduled to leave, took the child with her to the stables to say good-bye. Clutching the little girl's hand in her own, she marched into the stall where her husband now made his home. She spotted his dung-and-blood-spattered knapsack hanging on the peg in the corner and turned her nose up in disgust. It smelled as foul as the man pacing about in front of her.
When she called out to him, he flinched, then ran to grab his knapsack and hide it behind his back. His eyes darted back and forth as he crouched down almost to his knees.
"You old fool," she muttered. "No one's going to steal your knapsack. I'm here to tell you I'm leaving Dunhanshire with Lady Gillian and I'll not ever see you again, praise the Lord. Do you hear what I'm saying to you? Stop your mumbling and look at me. I don't want you coming after me. Do you understand?"
Ector let out a low snicker. Gillian squeezed closer to Liese and grabbed hold of her skirt. The woman immediately set about soothing her. "Don't you let him scare you," she whispered. "I won't let him do you any harm," she added before turning her attention and her repulsion to her husband again.
"I'm meaning what I say, Ector. Don't you dare try to follow me. I don't ever want to look upon you again. As far as I'm concerned, you're dead and buried."
He didn't appear to be paying any attention to her. "I'm getting my reward soon now… it's all going to be mine… a king's ransom," he boasted with a raucous snort. "Just like I deserve… his kingdom for a ransom. It's going to be mine… all mine…"
Liese tilted Gillian's head up so she would look at her. "Remember this moment, child. This is what cowardice does to a man."
Liese never looked back. Baron Alford refused to order his soldiers to escort the pair north. It amused him to think that the two witches would have to walk. The young brothers Hathaway came to their rescue, however. Waldo and Henry, tenants to the northwest, used their plowing horses and their cart to take them the distance. Both men were heavily armed, for there was also the threat or marauders lurking in the countryside waiting to pounce upon unsuspecting travelers.
Fortunately, the trip was uneventful, and they were both welcomed into the household of the reclusive Baron Morgan Chapman. The baron was Gillian's uncle by marriage, and though he was in good standing with the realm, he was considered an outsider and was therefore only infrequently invited to court. There was Highland blood running through his veins, and that made him untrustworthy and somewhat tainted.
He was also somewhat of a fright to look upon, for he was well over six feet two inches tall, had frizzy black hair, and wore what seemed to be a permanent scowl. Alford sent Gillian to this distant relative as punishment, but her exile to the end of England proved to be her salvation. Though her uncle was outwardly gruff and unapproachable, beneath the exterior beat the heart of a saint. He was a gentle, loving man who took one look at his pitiful little niece and knew that they were kindred spirits. He told Liese he wouldn't allow a child to disrupt his peaceful life, but immediately contradicted himself by devoting his full time to the duty of helping Gillian heal. He loved her as a father and made it his mission to get her to speak again. Morgan wanted to hear the child laugh, but worried that his hopes were too high.
Liese also made it her duty to help Gillian recover from the tragedy that had befallen her family. After months and months of patient coaxing and comforting without any results, the lady's maid was close to despair. She slept in the chamber with the little girl so she could soothe her and quiet her when the nightmares sent Gillian into fits of screaming.
Bits and pieces of that horrific night when her father died were firmly locked inside the child's mind. Because of her tender years, it was difficult for her to separate truth from imagination, but she did remember fighting over the sparkling jeweled box and trying to grab it out of her sister's hands so she could have a turn holding it, then plunging down the stone steps that led to the tunnels underneath the castle. The jagged scar under her chin was proof she hadn't imagined it. She remembered Christen screaming. She also remembered the blood. In her hazy, confused memories, both she and Christen were covered in it. The nightmares that haunted her during the dark hours of the night were always the same. Faceless monsters with red glowing eyes and long, whiplike tails were chasing her and Christen down a dark tunnel, but in those terrifying dreams, she never killed her sister. The monsters did.
It was on one such night during a terrible thunderstorm that Gillian finally spoke. Liese awakened her from her nightmare, and then, as was her ritual, wrapped her in one of her uncle's soft Scottish plaid blankets and carried her across the room to sit by the fire.
The heavyset woman cuddled the little girl in her arms and crooned to her. "It ain't right the way you carry on, Gillian. You don't say a word during the day and then you howl like a lone wolf all night long. Is it because you've got the pain all stored up inside you and you need to get it out? Is that the way of it, my little angel? Talk to me, child. Tell me what's in your heart."
Liese didn't expect an answer and very nearly dropped the little girl on her head when she heard her whisper.
"What did you say?" she asked, a bit more sharply than she intended.
"I didn't mean to kill Christen. I didn't mean to."
Liese burst into tears. "Oh, Gillian, you didn't kill Christen. I've told you so over and over again. I heard what Baron Alford said to you. Don't you remember that, as soon as I carried you outside, I told you he was lying. Why won't you believe me? Baron Alford was just being cruel to you."
"No, she isn't dead."
Gillian looked up at Liese to see from her expression if she was telling the truth or not. She desperately wanted, and needed, to believe her.
"Christen's alive," Liese insisted with a nod. "You listen to me. No matter how terrible the truth might be, I will never, ever lie to you."
"I remember the blood."
"In your nightmares?"
Gillian nodded. "I pushed Christen down the steps. Papa was holding my hand, but then he let go. Ector was there too."
"You've got it all mixed up inside your head. Neither your father nor Ector was there."
Gillian put her head down on Liese's shoulder. "Ector's daft."
"Aye, he is that," she agreed.
"Were you in the tunnel with me?" she asked.
"No, but I know what happened. While Maude was sewing you back together, one of the soldiers who was in the tunnel with you told her. You and your sister were awakened and carried to your father's chamber."
"William carried me."
"It was dark outside."
Liese felt Gillian shiver and hugged her. "Yes, it was the middle of the night, and Alford and his soldiers had already breached the inner walls."
"I remember the wall opened in Papa's room."
"The secret passage led to the steps down to the tunnel. There were four soldiers with your father, four men he trusted with your welfare. You know them, Gillian. Tom was there, and Spencer and Lawrence and William. Spencer's the one who told Maude what happened. They led the way down the secret corridor and carried torches to light the way."
"I'm not supposed to tell about my secret door."
Liese smiled. "I know you have one in your bedroom too," she said.
"How did you know? Did Christen tell you?"
"No, she didn't tell," she replied. "I would put you to bed in your room every night, but most mornings you were sleeping in Christen's room. I guessed there was a passageway because I know you don't like going into dark places, and the hallway outside your bedroom door was very dark. You had to have found another way."
"Are you going to paddle me for telling?"
"Oh, heaven's no, Gillian. I'll never strike you."
"Papa would never paddle me neither, but he always said he would. He was just fooling me, wasn't he?"
"Yes," she answered.
"Did Papa hold my hand?"
"No, he didn't go with you into the passage. It wouldn't have been honorable for him to run away from the battle, and your father was an honorable man. He stayed with his soldiers."
"I pushed Christen down the steps and there was blood on her. She didn't cry. I killed her."
Liese sighed. "I know you're too young to understand, but I still want you to try. Christen did fall down the steps and so did you. Spencer told Maude he thought William lost his footing and slid into Lawrence. The stone floor was slippery, but William insisted someone had pushed him from behind."
"Maybe I pushed him," she worried out loud.
"You're too little to make a grown man lose his balance. You don't have the strength."
"You aren't responsible," Liese insisted. "It's a miracle none of you was killed. You needed stitches, however, and so Spencer and William took you to Maude. William stood guard outside the cottage until the battle came too close. Maude said he was desperate to get you to safety, but unfortunately, by the time she was done sewing you back together, Baron Alford's soldiers had surrounded the yard, and escape was no longer possible. You were captured and taken back to the castle."
"Did Christen get captured?"
"No, she was taken away before the tunnel was discovered."
"Where's Christen now?"
"I don't know," Liese admitted. "But perhaps your Uncle Morgan can tell you. He might know. Tomorrow you must go and ask him. He loves you like a daughter, Gillian, and I know he'll help you find your sister. I'm sure she misses you too."
"Maybe she's lost."
"No, she isn't lost."
"But if she's lost, she'll be scared."
"Child, she isn't lost. She's somewhere safe from Baron Alford's clutches. Do you believe me now? In your heart, do you believe your sister is alive?"
Gillian nodded. She began to twine Liese's hair around her finger. "I believe you," she whispered with a yawn. "When will Papa come and take me home?"
Liese's eyes filled with tears again. "Ah, love, your papa can't come for you. He's dead. Alford killed him."
"He put a knife in Papa's belly."
"Dear God, you saw it happen?"
"Papa didn't cry."
"Oh, my poor angel…"
"Maybe Maude can sew Papa up, and then he can come and take me home."
"No, he can't come for you. He's dead, and the dead can't come back to life."
Gillian let go of Liese's hair and closed her eyes. "Is Papa in heaven with Mama?"
"He surely is."
"I want to go to heaven too."
"It isn't your time to go. You have a long life to live first, Gillian, then you can go to heaven."
She squeezed her eyes shut so she wouldn't cry. "Papa got dead in the night."
"Yes, he did."
A long while passed in silence before Gillian spoke again. In a tiny whisper she said, "Bad things happen during the night."
Scotland, fourteen years later
The fate of the entire MacPherson clan rested in the hands of Laird Ramsey Sinclair. With the recent birth of Alan Doyle and the peaceful passing of Walter Flanders, there were exactly nine hundred and twenty-two MacPhersons, and the vast majority of those proud men and women desperately wanted and needed Ramsey's protection.
The MacPhersons were in a bad way. Their laird, a sad-eyed, mean-tempered old man named Lochlan, had died the year before, and by his own hand, God forgive him. His clansmen had been stunned and appalled by their laird's cowardly act and still could not talk openly about it. None of the younger men had successfully challenged for the right to lead the clan; though, in truth, most didn't want to fill Lochlan's shoes because they believed he had tainted the position by killing himself. He had to have been mad, they reasoned, because a sane man would never commit such a sin, knowing that he would spend eternity burning in hell for giving God such an insult.
The two elders who had stepped forward to temporarily lead the MacPherson clan, Brisbane Andrews and Otis MacPherson, were old and worn-out from more than twenty years of off-and-on fighting with the land-hungry clans to the east, south, and west of their holding. The fighting had intensified tenfold after the death of their laird, for their enemies knew their vulnerability with the lack of leadership. Desperate times called for cunning measures, however, and so Brisbane and Otis, with their clan's approval, decided to approach Laird Ramsey Sinclair during the annual spring festival. The social opportunity seemed the ideal time to present their petition, as it was an unspoken rule that all the clans leave their animosity at home and join together as one family for two full weeks of competition and goodwill. It was a time when old friendships were renewed, harmless grudges were stirred up, and most important, marriage contracts were sealed. Fathers of young daughters spent most of their days frantically trying to protect their offspring from unwanted suitors while at the same time trying to make the best possible match. Most of the men found it a thoroughly invigorating time.
Because the Sinclair land bordered the MacPherson holding on the southern edge, Ramsey assumed that the MacPherson leaders wanted to talk to him about a possible alliance, but as it turned out, the old men wanted much more. They were after a union-a marriage, so to speak-between the two clans and were willing to give up their name and become Sinclairs if the laird would give them his solemn word that every MacPherson would be treated as though he had been born a Sinclair. They wanted equality for every one of their nine hundred and twenty-two clansmen.
Ramsey Sinclair's tent was the size of a large cottage and spacious enough to accommodate the gathering. There was a small round table in the center with four chairs and several mats strewn around the ground for sleeping. Ramsey's commander in arms,
Gideon, and two other seasoned Sinclair warriors, Anthony and Faudron, his trusted leaders, were present. Michael Sinclair, Ramsey's younger brother, fidgeted in the shadows while he waited for permission to rejoin the festivities. The child had already been rebuked for interrupting the meeting and kept his head bowed in embarrassment and shame.
Brisbane Andrews, a cantankerous old man with a piercing gaze and raspy voice, stepped forward to explain why the MacPhersons sought a merger.
"We have young soldiers, but they are poorly trained and cannot defend our women and children against our aggressors. We need your strength to keep the predators at bay so that we may live a peaceful life."
Otis MacPherson, a legend in the Highlands because of his remarkable though highly embellished feats as a young man, sat down in the chair Ramsey offered, clasped his hands on his knobby knees, and nodded toward Michael. "Perhaps, Laird, it would be best if you would listen to your brother's request and allow him to be on his way before we continue this discussion. Children often repeat secrets by accident, and I wouldn't like anyone to know about this… merger… until you have either accepted or denied us."
Ramsey agreed and turned to his brother. "What is it you want, Michael?"
The boy was still terribly timid around his older brother, for he barely knew him, having seen him only a couple of times in his short life. Ramsey had been living at the Maitland holding as an emissary after his mandatory years of training to become a fit warrior and had returned to his Sinclair home when their father had called for him on his deathbed. The brothers were nearly strangers to one another, but Ramsey, though somewhat inept at dealing with children, was determined to rectify that situation as soon as possible.
"I want to go fishing with my new friend," Michael stammered, his head still bowed low, "if it's all right with you, Laird."
"Look at me when you ask your question," Ramsey instructed.
Michael quickly did as he was ordered and repeated his request, adding the word "please" this time.
Ramsey could see the fear in his brother's eyes and wondered how long it was going to take for the boy to get used to having him around. The child still mourned their father, and Ramsey knew that Michael felt as though he had been abandoned. The boy didn't remember his mother-she had passed away when he was just a year old-but he had been extremely close to their father and still had not recovered from his death. Ramsey hoped that with time and patience Michael would learn to trust him and perhaps even remember how to smile again.
"You won't go near the falls, and you'll be back in this tent before sunset," he ordered quietly.
"I'll be back before sunset," Michael promised. "Can I leave now?"
"Yes," Ramsey answered, then watched in exasperation as his brother tripped over his own feet and knocked a chair over in his haste to join his friend.
"Michael," he called as his brother was rushing out the entrance, "haven't you forgotten something?"
The child looked puzzled until Ramsey nodded to the visitors. Michael immediately ran to the two men, bowed to his waist, and blurted out, "May I take your leave?"
Otis and Brisbane gave their permission, smiling as they watched the child bolt outside.
"The boy resembles you, Laird," Brisbane commented. " 'Tis the truth he's your very image, for I well remember you as a lad. God willing, Michael will also grow into a fine warrior. A leader of men.
"Yes," Otis agreed, "with proper guidance, he could become a great leader, yet I couldn't help but notice that the child fears his brother. Why is that, Laird?"
Ramsey wasn't offended by the question, as the old man spoke the truth and was simply making an observation. I'm a stranger to the boy, but in time he'll learn to trust me."
"And trust that you won't leave him?" Otis asked.
"Yes," he answered, realizing how perceptive the old man was.
"I remember when your father decided to marry again," Brisbane remarked. "I thought Alisdair was too old and set in his ways to take another wife. Your mother had been dead over ten years, but he fooled me, and he seemed very content. Did you ever meet Glynnes, his second wife?"
"I attended their wedding," he said. "Because she was so much younger than my father, he was certain he would die first and he wanted to be sure she was well provided for," he explained.
"And he asked this of you?" Otis inquired, smiling.
"I am his son," Ramsey responded. "I would do whatever he asked."
Otis turned to his friend. "Laird Sinclair would never turn his back on anyone in need."
Ramsey had wasted enough time talking about personal matters and turned the discussion back to the primary subject. "You have said you want my protection, but could you not achieve this with a simple alliance?"
"Your soldiers would have to patrol our borders night and day," Otis said. "And in time they would grow weary of the duty, but if you owned the land…"
"Yes," Brisbane eagerly agreed. "If the Sinclairs owned the land, you would protect it at all cost. We have-" He suddenly stopped, for he was so stunned by the fact that Ramsey had moved forward to pour wine into their empty goblets, he lost his train of thought. "You are laird… yet you serve us as though you are our squire. Do you not know the power you hold?"
Ramsey smiled over their bewilderment. "I know that you are guests in my tent," he answered, "and my elders. It is therefore my duty to see to your comfort."
The men were honored by his words. "You have your father's heart," Otis praised. "It is good to see Alisdair lives on in his son." The laird accepted the compliment with a nod and then gently led the men back to the topic he most wanted to discuss. "You were saying that I would protect your land at all costs if I owned it?"
"Aye," Otis agreed. "And we have much to offer in return for this union. Our land is rich with resources. Our lakes are glutted with fat fish, our soil is rich for planting, and our hills are filled with sheep."
"Which is why we are being constantly attacked on all our borders by the Campbells and the Hamiltons and the Boswells. They all want our land, our water and our women, but the rest of us can go to hell."
Ramsey didn't show any outward reaction to the passionate speech. He began to pace about the tent with his head bowed and his hands clasped behind his back.
"With your permission, Laird, I would ask a few questions," Gideon requested.
"As you wish," Ramsey told his commander. Gideon turned to Otis. "How many soldiers do you count among the MacPhersons?"
"Nearly two hundred," he answered. "But as Brisbane explained, they have not been properly trained."
"And there are one hundred more of an age to begin training," Otis interjected. "You could make them invincible, Laird," he said. "As invincible as Laird Brodick Buchanan's Spartans. Aye, it's possible, for they already have the minds and hearts of warriors."
"You call Brodick's soldiers Spartans?" Gideon asked, smiling. "We do, for that is what they are," Otis replied. "Haven't you heard the stories about the Spartans of times past from your fathers and grandfathers as we have?"
Gideon nodded. "Most of the stories have been exaggerated."
"Nay, most are true," Otis replied. "The stories were written down by the holy monks and retold countless times. They were a barbaric tribe," he added with a frown. "Sinfully proud but extremely brave. It was said they would rather die by the blade than lose an argument. 'Tis my opinion they were a stubborn lot."
"We wouldn't want our soldiers to be as ruthless as the Buchanan warriors," Brisbane hastily interjected.
Ramsey laughed. "Aye, Brodick's soldiers are ruthless." His smile faded as he added, "Know this, gentlemen. Though we are often at odds, I count Brodick as one of my closest friends. He is like a brother to me. However, I will not take exception to what you have said about him, for I know Brodick would be pleased to know that you think him ruthless."
"The man rules with passion," Otis said.
"Yes, he does," Ramsey agreed. "But he is also fair to a fault."
"You were both trained by Iain Maitland, weren't you?" Brisbane asked.
"Laird Maitland rules his clan with wisdom."
Ramsey concurred. "I also count Iain as my friend and brother."
Otis smiled. "Brodick rules with passion, Iain with wisdom, and you, Laird Ramsey, rule with an iron hand of justice. We all know you to be a compassionate man. Show us your mercy now," he pleaded.
"How can you know what kind of leader I am?" he asked. "You call me compassionate, but I've only been laird for six months and I've yet to be tested."
"Look at your commanders," Brisbane said with a nod. "Gideon and Anthony and Faudron led and controlled the Sinclair clan when your father was ill, and after he died and you became laird, you didn't do what others in your position would have done."
"And what would they have done?"
"Replace the commanders with men you know would be loyal to you."
"We are loyal to our laird," Gideon blustered. "You dare to suggest otherwise?"
"Nay," Brisbane countered. "I'm merely saying that other lairds would be less… confident… and would rid themselves of any competitors. That is all. Laird, you showed compassion by allowing them to stay in their important positions."
Ramsey didn't agree or disagree with the old man's judgment. "As I just mentioned, I've been laird for a very short time, and there are problems I must solve within the Sinclair clan. I'm not certain that now is the time to-"
"We can't wait any longer, Laird. The Boswells have declared war and there's talk that they'll align themselves with the Hamiltons. If that happens, the MacPhersons will all be destroyed."
"Would your soldiers willingly pledge themselves to Ramsey?" Gideon asked.
"Aye, they would," Otis insisted.
"All of them?" the Sinclair commander persisted. "There are no dissenters?"
Otis and Brisbane glanced at one another before Otis answered. "There are but a few against this union. Before we came to you with our proposal, we put it to a vote four months ago. Everyone, man and woman, was included."
"You let your women vote?" Gideon asked, incredulous.
Otis smiled. "Aye, we did, for we wanted it to be fair, and our women will also be affected by the union. We wouldn't have thought to include them if Meggan MacPherson, granddaughter of our past laird, hadn't insisted on it."
"She is a most outspoken woman," Brisbane added, though the glint in his eye indicated he didn't see that as a flaw.
"If you voted four months ago, why are you just now making this request to Ramsey?" Gideon asked.
"We've actually voted twice now," Otis explained. "Four months ago we put the vote to the clan and then allowed a period for everyone to consider the matter again. The first vote went in favor of the union, but by a smaller margin."
"We didn't want it to be said that we rushed such an important issue," Brisbane added. "So we gave them time to consider all the ramifications. Then we voted again."
"Yes," Otis said. "Many who were at first against the union changed their minds and voted in favor."
"We shouldn't have waited so long to come to you, Laird, because now our situation has become critical."
"What was the result of the second vote?" Ramsey asked. "How many of your soldiers are still against the union?"
"Sixty-two are still against, and all of them are young, very young," Otis said.
"Pride has colored their judgment," Brisbane volunteered.
"They're led by a stubborn-headed rebel named Proster, but all the others were in favor of the union, and the majority rules."
"Will the dissenters go along with the decision?" Ramsey asked.
"Yes, but grudgingly," Otis admitted. "If Proster can be won over, the others will come with him. There is a simple way to gain their loyalty… a very simple way."
"And what might that be?"
"Marry Meggan MacPherson," Brisbane blurted out. "And unite us by marriage."
"Men have married for far less than what we offer you," Otis interjected.
"And if I choose not to marry Meggan?"
"I would still plead with you if that is what it will take to get your agreement to let our clan unite with yours. Marriage to a MacPherson would only make the union stronger. My clan… my children… need your protection. Just two weeks ago, David and Lucy Douglas were murdered, and their only sin was that they ventured too close to the border. They were newly wed."
"We cannot lose any more of our good people, and if you do not take us in, one by one we will be hunted down. What will happen to our children?" Brisbane asked. "We have boys your brother's age," he added in an attempt to sway the laird.
Ramsey couldn't turn his back on their cry for help. He knew the lengths the Boswells would go to in order to claim more land. None of their soldiers would think twice about killing a child.
"The Boswells are jackals," he muttered.
Gideon knew his laird well and had already guessed what his answer was going to be. "Ramsey, will you put this matter to our clan before you give these men your decision?"
"I will not," he answered. "The matter isn't open for discussion."
Gideon held his frustration. "But will you think about this before you decide?"
Knowing his commander was trying to caution him to wait and was wanting a private discussion before any commitment was made, Ramsey gave Gideon a brisk nod before addressing the MacPhersons again.
"Gentlemen, you will have my answer in three hours' time. Does that suit you?"
Otis nodded as he stood. "With your permission, we will return then to hear your answer."
Brisbane latched onto his friend's arm. "You've forgotten to tell him about the competition," he whispered loudly.
"What competition?" Gideon asked.
Otis visibly colored. "We thought… to save our soldiers' pride, that you would agree to compete in a series of games. We can't possibly win, but it would be easier to give up our name and take the Sinclair name if we were soundly beaten in games of strength."
Gideon stepped forward. "And if you should win?"
"But we wouldn't," Otis insisted.
"But if you did?"
"Then the Sinclairs give up their name. You would still rule as laird, Ramsey, but you would become a MacPherson, and the man who bested you would become your first in command."
Gideon was outraged, but Ramsey had the opposite reaction. So absurd was the request, he felt like laughing. He forced himself to maintain his stern expression as he said, "I have a commander and am well pleased with him."
"But, Laird, we thought only-" Otis began.
Ramsey cut him off. "My commander stands before you, gentlemen, and you insult him mightily with your proposal."
"What if you were to put the question to your clan?" Brisbane asked. "The games have only just started and there are still two full weeks. You could compete at the end of the games."
"Then I, like you, would want every man and woman to have a say, and since most are not attending the festival, I assure you it would take months before everyone had voted. We would have to wait until next year to compete."
"But we cannot wait that long for a decision," Otis said.
"I will be completely honest with you and tell you I wouldn't give the matter to my clan to decide anyway. The mere suggestion is obscene. The Sinclair name is sacred. However, since you say you wish only to save your soldiers' pride, if I decide on this union, then I will also suggest they compete for positions within my ranks under my commander. Those MacPherson soldiers who show strength and courage against my soldiers will be personally trained by Gideon."
Otis nodded. "We'll return then in three hours to hear your answer," he said.
"God guide you in making this momentous decision," Brisbane added as he followed his friend outside.
Ramsey laughed softly. "We've just been led down a crooked path," he remarked. "Otis believes the MacPherson soldiers could beat us and then he would have it all. Our protection and his name."
Gideon wasn't amused. "They come to you with hat in hand, begging, but then they have the audacity to put conditions on you at the same time. They are outrageous."
"What say you, Anthony?" he asked Gideon's second in command.
"I'm against this union," the yellow-haired soldier muttered. "Any man who would willingly give up his name disgusts me."
"I feel the same," Faudron interjected, his hawk-like face red with anger. "Brisbane and Otis are despicable."
"Nay, they're simply cunning old men who want the best for their clan. I've known for some time now that they were going to come to me, and I've had time to contemplate the matter. Tell me, Gideon, are you in favor of such a union?"
"I know you are," he replied. "Your heart is too soft, Laird. It's a troubling flaw, that. I see the problems involved in such a union."
"So do I," Ramsey said. "But Otis is right; they have much to offer in return. More important is their cry for help, Gideon. Can you turn your back on them?"
His commander shook his head. "Nay, the Boswells would slaughter them. However, I'm most concerned about Proster and the other dissenters."
"They've had time to come to terms with this union," Ramsey reminded him. "You heard what Otis said. They first voted four months ago. Besides, we'll keep a close eye on them."
"Your mind's made up, isn't it?"
"Yes, I'll welcome them into our clan."
"There'll be problems with our soldiers…" Ramsey slapped Gideon's shoulder. "Then we'll deal with them," he said. "Don't look so bleak. Let's put the matter aside for now and join the festivities. Iain and Judith Maitland have been here since yesterday afternoon and I've still not spoken to them. Let's hunt them down."
"There is one more pressing matter you must attend to first." he said.
Ramsey dismissed Anthony and Faudron and then said to Gideon, "I can see from your grin the matter isn't serious."
"To your faithful soldier, Dunstan Forbes, the matter is very serious. You might as well sit down, Laird, for Dunstan has requested permission to marry Bridgid KirkConnell."
Ramsey was suddenly weary. "How many does this make now?"
Gideon laughed. "Including me, I count seven proposals in all, but Douglas swears there have been eight."
Ramsey sat down and stretched his long legs out in front of him. "Does Bridgid know about this latest suitor?"
"Not yet," he answered. "But I have taken the liberty of sending for her. She's waiting outside, and you will at last meet the thorn in your side." After making the comment, he burst into laughter.
Ramsey shook his head. "Do you know, Gideon, all this time I believed that when I challenged you tor the position of laird, I beat you fairly."
Gideon instantly sobered. "But you did beat me fairly."
"Are you certain you didn't let me win just so you wouldn't have to deal with Bridgid KirkConnell?"
Gideon laughed again. "Perhaps," he said. "I'll admit I like being in her presence, for she's a beautiful woman and a true delight to observe. She has a spirit few other women possess. She's quite… passionate… but alas, she's also as stubborn as a Buchanan. I'm glad now she turned me down, for I have no wish to marry such a difficult woman."
"How is it that I have had to deny three proposals on this woman's behalf while I have been laird but I have yet to meet her?"
"She sent her refusals from her uncle's home in Carnwath. I specifically remember telling you that I had given her permission to help her aunt with the new bairn. They, too, are here at the festival."
"If you told me, I've forgotten," he said. "I do remember her rejections though. She always sent back the same message."
"I've a feeling she'll say those very words today and Dunstan will join the rapidly growing ranks of the brokenhearted."
"My father is to blame for this nuisance duty I'm now saddled with because he was the one who gave his promise to Bridgid's father that she could choose her husband. It's unthinkable to me that she alone will decide her future."
"You don't have a choice in the matter," Gideon said. "You must honor your father's word. Bridgid's father was a noble warrior, and he was on his deathbed when he forged this promise. I wonder if he knew how stubborn his daughter was going to be."
Ramsey stood and then suggested Gideon call Bridgid inside. "And stop grinning," he ordered. "This is an important matter to Dunstan, and we shall treat it as such. Who knows? She may say yes to his proposal."
"Aye, and it might rain pigs this afternoon," Gideon drawled as he folded back the flap of the tent. He hesitated, turned back to his laird, and in a soft voice asked, "Have you ever had your head turned by a lady?"
The question exasperated Ramsey. "No, I haven't."
"Then I'd brace myself if I were you. I swear your head's going to spin."
A moment later, Gideon's prediction almost came true, as Bridgid KirkConnell walked into the tent and literally knocked the wind out of her laird. She was an astonishingly pretty young lady, with fair skin, sparkling eyes, and sinfully curly, long honey-colored hair that floated beyond her shoulders. Her gentle curves were in all the right places, and Ramsey was surprised that there had been only eight proposals.
She made a curtsy, smiled ever so sweetly up at him, and said, "Good day to you, Laird Ramsey."
He bowed. "So we meet at last, Bridgid KirkConnell. I've had to break the hearts of several suitors on your behalf without benefit of knowing why those good men were so anxious to wed such an obstinate woman. Now I understand the reason my soldiers are so persistent."
Her smile vanished. "But we have met before."
He shook his head. "I assure you that if I had met you, I would not have forgotten."
"But it's true, we did meet," she insisted. "And I remember our encounter as though it had taken place just yesterday. You had come home for your cousin's wedding. While my parents were attending the celebration, I decided to go swimming in the lake beyond the glen. You fished me out."
He clasped his hands behind his back and tried to concentrate on what she was telling him. Gideon hadn't exaggerated. She was an extraordinary woman.
"And why did I fish you out?"
"I was drowning."
"Didn't you know how to swim, lass?" Gideon asked.
"Much to my surprise, I didn't."
She smiled again, and Ramsey's heartbeat began to race. He was stunned by his own reaction to the woman, for he couldn't seem to get past the fact that she was so damned pretty. It wasn't like him to behave like this-he wasn't a boy and he had certainly been in the presence of comely women before. It was her smile, he decided then. It was really quite infectious.
He wondered if Gideon was experiencing a similar response to the lass, and just as soon as he could find the discipline to stop gawking at her, he'd look at his commander.
"If you didn't know how to swim, why did you go in the lake?" Gideon asked, trying to make sense out of such an illogical act.
She shrugged. "Swimming didn't look difficult, and I was sure I could figure it out, but alas, I was mistaken."
"You were a bold lass," Gideon commented.
"Nay, I was stupid."
"You were young," Ramsey offered.
"You must have turned your parents' hair white," Gideon said.
"I was accused of doing just that on several occasions," she replied before turning her attention to Ramsey again. "I understand why you don't remember. I've changed in my appearance and it has been a long while. I'm grown up now, but I'm not obstinate, Laird. Truly I'm not."
"You should have married by now," Ramsey said. "And it would seem to me that you are being difficult. All of the men who have proposed marriage are fine and worthy soldiers."
"Yes, I'm certain they are good men," she agreed.
Ramsey took a step toward her. She took a step back, for she knew what was coming and wanted to be close to the opening of the tent so she could make a quick exit.
Ramsey noticed her glancing over her shoulder and thought she might be judging the distance to freedom. He maintained his serious demeanor, but it was difficult. Her panic made him want to laugh. Was marriage that repulsive to her?
"Now another soldier has stepped forward to ask for your hand in marriage," he said. "His name is Dunstan. Do you know him?"
She shook her head. "No, I don't."
"He's a good man, Bridgid, and he would certainly treat you well."
"Why? "she asked.
"Why what?" he countered.
"Why does he want to marry me? Did he give you a reason?"
Since Ramsey hadn't spoken to Dunstan personally, he turned to Gideon. "Did he give you a reason?"
The commander nodded. "He wants you."
Ramsey could tell from the hesitation in Gideon's voice that he wasn't telling her the full story. "Give her his exact words," he ordered.
Gideon's face colored. "Surely the lass doesn't wish to hear every word, Laird."
"I think she does," Ramsey countered. "And Dunstan expects us to speak for him."
The commander scowled to cover his embarrassment. "Very well then. Bridgid KirkConnell, Dunstan swears his love for you. He treasures your beauty and worships the very ground you… float upon… As God is my witness, those were his very words."
Ramsey smiled, but Bridgid wasn't the least bit amused. Insulted by the declaration, she tried to hide her feelings, knowing that her laird wouldn't understand. How could he? He was a man and, therefore, couldn't possibly know what was in her heart.
"How can this be?" she asked. "I have not even met this man, yet he declares his love for me?"
"Dunstan is a good man," Gideon told her. "And I believe he means what he says."
"He's clearly infatuated with you," Ramsey added. "Would you like time to consider his proposal? Perhaps if you were to sit down with him and discuss this matter-"
"No," she blurted out. "I don't want to sit down with him, and I don't need time to consider his proposal. I would like to give my answer now. Would you please tell Dunstan that I thank him for his proposal, but…"
"But what?" Gideon asked.
"I won't have him".
Those were the identical words she had used to deny eight other men.
"Why not?" Ramsey demanded, his irritation obvious.
"I don't love him."
"What does love have to do with a marriage proposal? You could learn to love this man."
"I will love the man I marry or I won't marry at all." After making her vehement statement, she took another step back.
"How do I reason with such an absurd belief?" Ramsey asked Gideon.
"I don't know," he replied. "Where could she have gotten such notions?"
Their rudeness in openly discussing her as though she weren't even there angered and frustrated her, but she tried to control her temper because Ramsey was her laird and she should respect his position.
"You won't change your mind about Dunstan?" Ramsey asked.
She shook her head. "I won't have him," she repeated.
"Ah, Bridgid, you are a stubborn lass to be sure."
Being criticized a third time stung her pride, and she found it impossible to keep silent any longer.
"I have been in your presence less than ten minutes, but in that short while you have called me obstinate, difficult, and stubborn. If you are through insulting me, I would like to join my aunt and uncle."
Ramsey was astonished by her burst of anger. She was the first woman ever to speak to him in such a tone. Her behavior bordered on insolence, yet he couldn't fault her because he had said those very words to her, and they were insulting.
"You will not speak to your laird with such disrespect," Gideon commanded. "Your father would turn in his grave if he could hear you now."
She lowered her head, but Ramsey saw the tears in her eyes. "Let's leave her father out of this," he said.
"But, Laird, at the very least she should apologize."
"Why? I insulted her, though not deliberately, and for that I apologize."
Her head snapped up. "You apologize to me?"
Her smile was radiant. "Then I must tell you I'm sorry for being so contrary." She bowed, then turned and ran outside.
Gideon frowned after her. "She's a difficult woman," he remarked. "I pity the man who does marry her, for he will have a fine battle on his hands."
Ramsey laughed. "But what an invigorating battle it would be."
Gideon was surprised by the comment. "And would you be interested in pursuing a-"
A shout stopped his question and he turned to the entrance just as a young soldier came running inside the tent. He was Emmet MacPherson's son, Alan, and he looked as though he had just seen the ghost of his father.
"Laird, come quickly. There's been a terrible accident… terrible… at the falls," he stammered, panting for breath. "Your brother… oh, God, your little brother…"
Ramsey was already running outside when Alan's next words hit him.
England, in the reign of King John
He was hanging by a thread. In his desperation to hide from his enemy, the little boy had wrapped the old discarded rope he'd found in the corner of the stables around and around the jagged boulder, then tied a tight triple knot the way his Uncle Ennis had taught him to do, and quickly, before he became plagued with second thoughts, slithered over the lip of the canyon on his belly with the rope twined around his left arm. Too late, he remembered he should have looped the rope around his waist and used his feet to brace himself the way he'd seen the seasoned warriors do when they worked their way down Huntley Cliffs to their favored fishing spot.
The boy was in too much of a hurry to climb back up and start all over again. The rocks were as sharp as needles against his tender skin, and his chest and stomach were soon scraped raw and bleeding. He was sure that he would end up with scars, which would make him a real warrior, and while he thought that was a very good thing for a boy of his age to accomplish, he wished it didn't have to hurt so much.
He wouldn't cry though, no matter how fierce the sting became. He could see speckles of bright red blood dotting the rocks he'd already squirmed over, and that scared him almost as much as his precarious position. If his papa could see him now, he'd surely ask him if he'd gone and lost his senses, and he might even shake his head in disappointment, but he'd also be hauling him up and making everything all right and safe too, and… oh, Papa, I wish you were here now. Tears came into his eyes then, and he knew he was going to forget his own promise and cry like a baby.
He wanted to go home and sit on his mama's lap and let her muss his hair and hold him close and make a fuss over him. She'd help him find his senses too-whatever those were-and then Papa wouldn't get upset.
Thinking about his parents made him so homesick he began to whimper. His fingers dug into the rope until they, too, were raw and bleeding, making his grip less sure. His arm ached, his fingers throbbed, and his belly burned, but he tried to ignore the pain, for panic had taken hold and all he could think about was getting away before the devil discovered he was missing.
Lowering himself into the gorge was much more difficult than he'd supposed it would be, but he continued on, not daring to look into the yawning mouth of the abyss that was surely as deep as purgatory. He tried to pretend he was climbing down from one of the big old trees back home, because he was a good, nimble tree climber, even better than his older brother. His papa had told him so.
Exhausted, he stopped to rest. He looked up and was surprised at how far he'd come, and for an instant he felt pride over his achievement. But then his lifeline began to unravel. His pride turned to terror and he burst into tears. He was certain that he would never see his mama and papa again.
By the time Lady Gillian caught up with the boy, her chest felt as though it were on fire, and she could barely catch her breath. She had followed his trail through the thick forest, running as fast as her legs would carry her, and when at last she reached the cliffs and heard the child crying, she collapsed to her knees in acute relief. The little boy was still alive, thank God.
Her joy was short-lived however, for when she reached for his rope to pull him up to safety, she saw how threadbare it was and knew it was only a matter of minutes before the unraveling threads completely disintegrated. She was afraid even to touch the rope. If she dared pull on it, the threads would rub against the rocks and shred more quickly.
Shouting the order for him to stay completely still, she stretched out on her stomach and forced herself to look over the edge. Heights terrified her and she felt a wave of nausea as she looked down into the chasm below. How in God's name was she going to get him? It would take too long to retrace her steps to fetch a good sturdy rope, and her chances of being spotted by one of Alford's soldiers were too great to risk. There were jagged stones jutting out from the rock, and she knew that a more experienced man or woman might be able to climb down.
But she wasn't experienced-or nimble. Looking down made her dizzy, but, dear God, she couldn't leave him, and time was critical. The rope would soon snap, and the child would plunge to his death.
There wasn't any choice, and so she said a frantic prayer to God to give her courage. Don't look down, she silently chanted as she turned and cautiously scooted over the edge on her stomach. Don't look down.
Gillian cried out with joy each time her foot touched one of the protruding stones. Just like stairs, she pretended. When at last she was level with the boy, she leaned her forehead against the cold rock, closed her eyes, and thanked God for letting her get this far without breaking her neck.
She slowly turned toward the child. He couldn't be more than five or six years old, and he was desperately trying to be brave and bold at the same time. He had been clinging to the rope for several minutes now, holding tight with one hand and clutching a dagger-her dagger-in his other hand. His eyes were wide with terror, but she could see the tears there as well, and, oh, how her heart ached for him.
She was his only hope for survival, but he was stubbornly afraid to trust her. Defiant, foolishly so, he would neither speak to her nor look at her, and each time she tried to grab hold of him, he thrust the dagger, slicing her arm with each jab. She wouldn't give up though, even if it meant she died trying.
"Stop this nonsense and let me help you," she demanded. "I swear to heaven, you don't have any sense at all. Can't you see your rope is tearing?"
The sharpness in her tone jarred the boy, and he was able to shake himself out of his terror. He stared at the blood dripping down her fingertips, suddenly realized what he had done to her, and threw the dagger away.
"I'm sorry, lady," he cried out in Gaelic. "I'm sorry. I'm not supposed to hurt ladies, not ever."
He'd spoken so quickly and his words were so garbled with his brogue, she barely caught what he said.
"Will you let me help you?" She hoped he understood her but wasn't sure if she'd used the correct words, for she only had a rudimentary knowledge of Gaelic.
Before he could answer, she cried out, "Don't wiggle like that, the rope will snap. Let me reach for you."
"Hurry, lady," he whispered, though this time he spoke her language.
Gillian edged close, held on to the indentation in the rock above her head with one hand to balance herself, and then reached out for him. She had just wrapped her bloody arm around his waist and was pulling him onto the ledge with her when the rope snapped.
If the child hadn't already had one foot securely on the rock ledge, they both would have fallen backward. She squeezed him against her and let out a loud sigh of relief.
"You were just in time," he told her as he uncoiled the rope from his wrist and tossed it down into the chasm. He wanted to watch it land, but when he tried to turn around, she tightened her hold and ordered him to stay perfectly still.
"We've made it this far," she said so weakly she doubted he heard her. "Now for the difficult part."
He heard the shiver in her voice. "Are you scared, lady?" he asked.
"Oh, yes, I'm scared. I'm going to let go of you now. Lean against the rock and don't move. I'm going to start climbing back up and…"
"But we got to go down, not up."
"Please don't shout," she said. "We can't possibly climb all the way down. There aren't enough footholds. Can't you see the rock is sheared smooth?"
"Maybe if you went and got a good rope, we could-"
She cut him off. "It's out of the question."
Both of her hands gripped the edge of the tiny crevice above her head and she searched for a way to lift herself. The strength seemed to have gone out of her and, though she gave it a valiant try, she couldn't climb back up.
"You know what, lady?"
"Hush," she whispered as she said a silent prayer for strength and made another attempt.
"But you know what?"
"No, what?" she asked as she rested against the rock and tried to calm her racing heartbeat.
"There's a real big ledge down under us. I saw it. We could jump down. Look down, lady, and you can see for yourself. It isn't far."
"I don't want to look down."
"But you got to look so you can see where it is. Then maybe we can crawl along-"
"No!" she shouted as she again tried to raise herself to the next foothold. If she could only accomplish that little feat, she could surely figure out a way to reach down and pull the little boy up too.
The child watched her struggle. "Are you too puny to climb back up?"
"I suppose I am."
"Can I help?"
"No, just stand perfectly still."
Once again she tried to climb, but it was a futile effort at best. She was in such a panic inside, she could barely draw a decent breath. Dear Lord, she didn't think she had ever been this afraid in all her life.
"You know what, lady?"
The little boy was relentless, and she gave up trying to quiet him. "No, what?"
"We got to go down, not up."
"We're going up."
"Then how come we aren't moving?"
"Try to be patient," she ordered. "I can't seem to get a proper hold. Give me a minute and I'll try again."
"You can't climb up 'cause I hurt you. You got blood all over your clothes. I cut you bad. I'm awful sorry, lady, but I got scared."
He sounded on the verge of tears. She quickly tried to calm him. "Don't fret about it," she said as she made one more attempt. With a groan of frustration, she finally gave up. "I think you're right. We're going to have to go down."
Ever so slowly she turned around on the narrow ledge, and with her back pressed against the rock, she sat down. The child watched her, then spun around and plopped down beside her.
The quickness in his action nearly gave her heart palpitations, and she grabbed hold of his arm.
"Can we jump now?" he asked eagerly.
The boy really didn't have a lick of sense. "No, we aren't going to jump. We're going to ease our way down. Take hold of my hand and hold tight."
"But you got blood on your hand."
She quickly wiped the blood on her skirt, then took hold of his hand. Together they peered over the side. Gillian had to look to make certain the ledge was wide enough. She had to say a prayer too, and after she was finished, she held her breath and scooted off the ledge.
The distance wasn't all that far, but still, the impact jarred her. The little boy lost his balance as they landed, and she jerked him back just in time. He threw himself into her arms, pitching her hard against the rock wall, then buried his face in her shoulder and trembled violently.
"I almost kept going."
"Yes, you did," she agreed. "But we're safe now."
"Aren't we going to go down more?"
"No. We're going to stay here."
They huddled together for several minutes on the rock plate that protruded from the canyon wall before the boy was able to let go of her. He recovered from his near brush with death quickly, though, and after another minute or two, he crawled away from her side to reach the wider section of rock that had been hidden by a thick overhang.
Looking as pleased as could be, he folded his legs underneath him and motioned for her to come forward.
She shook her head. "I'm fine where I am."
"It's gonna rain and you'll get all wet. It isn't hard. Just don't look down."
As if to underscore his prediction, a clap of thunder rumbled in the distance.
Ever so slowly she scooted toward him. Her heart was pounding like a drum, and she was so scared she thought she might throw up. The child, it seemed, had more courage than she did.
"How come you don't like looking down?" he asked as he crawled forward to peer into the chasm.
He was dangerously close to the edge, and she frantically grabbed hold of his ankles and pulled him back. "Don't do that."
"But I want to spit down and see where it lands."
"Sit beside me and be quiet for a moment. I have to think what to do."
"But how come you don't like looking down?"
"I just don't."
"Maybe it makes you sick. Your face got real green. Were you gonna puke?"
"No," she answered wearily.
"Does it scare you to look down?"
He was relentless. "Why do you ask so many questions?"
He lifted his shoulders in an exaggerated shrug. "I don't know; I just do."
"And I don't know why it scares me to look down; it just does. I don't even like looking out of my bedroom window because it's up so high. It makes me dizzy."
"Are all English ladies like you?"
"No, I don't suppose they are."
"Most are puny," he announced authoritatively. "My Uncle Ennis told me so."
"Your uncle's wrong. Most ladies are not puny. They can do anything a man can do."
The child must have thought her remark was hilarious because he laughed so forcefully his shoulders shook. She found herself wondering how in heaven's name a boy so young could be so arrogant.
He turned her attention with yet another question. "What's your name, lady?"
He waited for her to ask him his name, and when she didn't, he nudged her. "Don't you want to know my name?"
"I already know your name. I heard the soldiers talking about you. You're Michael and you belong to a clan led by a man named Laird Ramsey. You're his brother."
The boy was vehemently shaking his head. "No, Michael isn't my real name," he said. He cuddled up next to her and took hold of her hand. "We were playing a trick when the men came and grabbed me. They put me in a wheat sack."
"That must have been very frightening for you," she said.
"What kind of a trick were you playing?" Before he could answer her, she asked, "Why didn't you wait for me in the stables? It could have been so easy to get away if you had only done what I told you to do. And why did you stab my arm? You knew I was your friend. I unlocked the door for you, didn't I? If only you had trusted me…"
"I'm not supposed to trust the English. Everyone knows that."
"Did your Uncle Ennis tell you that?"
"No, my Uncle Brodick did," he explained. "But I already knew."
"Do you trust me?"
"Maybe I do," he answered. "I didn't mean to cut you. Does it hurt fierce?"
It hurt like hell, but she wasn't going to admit it because of the anxiety she saw in his eyes. The little boy had enough worries on his mind, and she wasn't going to add to them.
"It'll be fine," she insisted. "I suppose I should do something about the bleeding though."
While he watched, she tore a strip from her underskirt and wrapped it around and around her arm. The boy tied the knot for her at her wrist. Then she tugged her torn, bloody sleeve back down over the bandage.
"There, I'm as fit as new."
"You know what?"
She let out a sigh. "No, what?"
"I hurt my fingers." He sounded as if he were boasting of an incredible feat and smiled when he held his hand up for her to see. "Now I can't do nothing to help us, 'cause my fingers burn."
"I imagine they do."
His face lit up. He was a beautiful little boy, with dark curls and the most beguiling gray eyes she'd ever seen. His nose and cheeks were covered with freckles.
He scooted away from her and pulled his tunic up so she could see his chest and stomach. "I'm gonna get scars."
"No, I don't think you will," she began, but then she noticed his crestfallen expression. "Then again, I do suppose you'll have some. You do want them, don't you?"
He nodded. "Yes."
"All warriors have scars. They're marks of valor."
He was so serious she didn't dare laugh. "Do you know what valor is?"
He shook his head. "I know it's good."
"Yes," she agreed. "Valor is courage, and that is very good indeed. I imagine those cuts sting," she added as she leaned forward to pull his tunic down over his belly. "When we're taken back to the holding, I'll ask one of the servants to put some salve on your fingers and chest and stomach, and then you'll feel much better. Some of the older women remember me," she added. "They'll help us."
"But we can't go back," he cried out.
The change in him was so abrupt it startled her. "Try to understand," she said. "We're trapped here. This ledge doesn't go anywhere."
"I could crawl to the end and see if-"
"No," she interrupted. "The rock might not be sturdy enough to hold your weight. Can't you see how it thins out near the curve?"
"But I could-"
"I cannot let you take such a chance."
Tears came into his eyes. "I don't want to go back. I want to go home."
She nodded in sympathy. "I know you do and I want to help you get back home. I'll find a way," she promised. "I give you my word." He didn't seem convinced. He relaxed against her and yawned loudly. "Do you know what my Uncle Ennis says? If an Englishman gives you his word, you'll come away with nothing."
"I really must meet this uncle of yours one day and set him straight about a few matters."
He snorted. "He wouldn't talk to you," he said. "Leastways I don't think he would. Gillian?" he asked then. "I know I was supposed to wait in the stables for you, but then that man came inside and I got scared and ran."
"Do you mean the baron went into the stables?"
"The ugly man with the red beard."
"That's the baron," she said. "Did he see you?"
"No, I don't think so. When I was hiding in the trees, I seen him leave with two other men. Maybe they won't ever come back."
"Oh, they'll come back all right," she said, for she didn't want to give the boy false hope. "If not tomorrow, then the day after."
The child's wrinkled brow made him seem too wise for his young years, and that saddened her. Little boys should be outside running and laughing and playing silly tricks with their friends. This little one had been plucked away from his family to be used as a pawn in Baron Alford's scheme. The child had to feel as though he'd been dropped into the middle of a nightmare.
"Are you still afraid, Gillian?"
"I never get afraid," he boasted.
"Almost never," he corrected.
"How old are you?"
"I will be pretty soon."
"You're a very brave boy."
"I know," he said very matter-of-factly. "How come those men stole me away from the festival? It was the first one I ever got to go to, and I was having a fine time. Was it because me and my friend was playing a trick on our families?"
"No," she assured him. "That wasn't the reason why."
"Did I do something… bad?"
"Oh, no, you didn't do anything bad. None of this is your fault. You've just been caught in the middle, that's all. The baron wants something from me, but he hasn't told me what it is yet, and you're somehow involved."
"I know what it is," he boasted. "And you know what? The baron's gonna go to hell 'cause my papa will send him there. I miss my mama and papa," he admitted forlornly, his voice cracking on a sob.
"Yes, of course you do. They must be frantic, searching for you".
"No, they aren't, 'cause you know why? They think I'm dead."
"Why would they think such a thing?"
"I heard the baron talking to his friends."
"Then you do know what the baron's plans are?" she asked sharply.
"Maybe I do," he said. "The men who took me made it look like I hit my head on the rocks and fell in the falls and drowned. That's what I heard them saying. I'll bet my mama's crying all the time."
"That poor woman…"
"She's missing me fierce."
"Of course she is. But think how overjoyed she'll be to have you back home again. Now tell me, please, what else you heard the baron say to his friends," she asked, trying to sound as though the question wasn't terribly important so that he wouldn't become fretful.
"I heard everything they said 'cause you know why? I played a trick. The baron didn't know I understood 'cause I didn't talk, not even Gaelic, in front of him or the others."
"That was very clever of you." She could tell her praise pleased him. He grinned up at her while he laced his fingers through hers. "Tell me everything you heard, and please take your time so you won't leave anything out."
"The baron lost a box a long time ago, but now he thinks he knows where it is. A man told him."
"What man? Did the baron say his name?"
"No, but the man was dying when he told him. The box had a funny name too, but I can't remember it now."
She suddenly felt sick to her stomach. She understood now why Alford had forced her back to Dunhanshire, and as the ramifications struck her full force, her eyes stung with tears.
"Arianna," she whispered. "He called it Arianna's box, didn't he?"
"Yes," he said excitedly. "How come you knew the name?"
She didn't answer him. Her mind was racing with questions. Oh, God, had Alford found Christen?
"How come you speak Gaelic?"
"What?" she asked sharply, startled by the abrupt change in topics.
He repeated the question. "Are you mad at me 'cause I asked?"
She could see the anxiety in his eyes. "No, no, I'm not mad," she assured him. "I learned to speak Gaelic because my sister, Christen, lives in the Highlands and I-"
He interrupted her. "Where in the Highlands?"
"I'm not exactly sure-"
She wouldn't let him interrupt her again. "When I find out exactly where she is, I'm going to go see her and I want to be able to speak to her in Gaelic."
"How come she's got a clan and gets to live in the Highlands and you don't?"
"Because I got caught," she answered. "A long time ago, when I was just a little girl, the baron and his soldiers seized Dunhanshire. My father tried to get my sister and me to safety, but in the chaos, Christen and I were separated."
"Is your sister lost?"
"No, she isn't lost. She was taken north into the Lowlands by one of my father's loyal men. My Uncle Morgan went to great lengths to find out exactly where she was, but she had vanished into the Highlands. I'm not sure where she is now, but I hope one day I will find her."
"Do you miss her?"
"Yes, I do. I haven't seen Christen in a long time though. I don't think I'll even recognize her. Uncle Morgan told me the family who took her might have changed her name to keep her safe."
"From the baron?"
"Yes," she replied. "Still, she'll remember me."
"But what if she doesn't?"
"She will," she insisted.
A long peaceful minute passed in silence before he spoke again. "You know what?"
"I can speak your language real good 'cause my mama taught me how to talk to the English even though Papa didn't want her to and my papa only talks Gaelic to me. I don't even remember learning how. I just did."
"You're a very smart boy."
"That's what my mama says. Some Gaelic's hard to talk," he continued, " 'cause clans got their own way of saying things and it takes a long time to learn all the different words. When Uncle Brodick talks to me, he has to talk my Gaelic or I wouldn't know what he was saying, but it wouldn't matter if you could understand what they were saying 'cause you know why? They wouldn't talk to you unless my uncle told them to."
"Why wouldn't they talk to me?"
He gave her a look that suggested she was just plain stupid. He was such an adorable little boy she had to fight the urge to hug him.
"'Cause you're English," he explained in exasperation. "It's gonna get dark," he worried out loud. "Are you gonna be afraid of the dark the way you were afraid of looking down?"
"No, I won't be afraid."
He was trying to get her to put her arm around his shoulders but she wasn't taking the hint, and in frustration, he finally grabbed hold of her hand and did it for her.
"You smell like my mama."
"And how's that?"
His voice cracked on the word, and she surmised he was getting homesick again.
"Maybe the baron won't find us."
"His soldiers will see the rope tied around the boulder," she gently reminded him.
"I don't want to go back."
He burst into tears. She leaned over him and brushed his curls out of his eyes and kissed his forehead. "Hush now, it's going to be all right. I promise you, I'm going to find a way to get you back home."
"But you're just a lady," he wailed.
She tried to think of something to ease his mind and give him hope. His sobs were breaking her heart, and in desperation, she blurted out, "You know what a protector is, don't you?"
He hiccuped while he answered. "It's the same as a champion." He sat up and mopped the tears away from his cheeks with his fists. "I had me a protector, and then I got another one. The day I was born I got one 'cause every bairn born in our clan gets to have one. He's supposed to look out for the boy or girl all his life long to make sure nothing bad ever happens to him. Angus used to be my champion, but then he died."
"I'm sorry to hear that," she said. "I'm sure Angus was a fine protector."
She was getting weary, and it was difficult to keep up with the idle chatter. Her arm was throbbing and felt as though it had been held over a flaming torch. As exhausted as she was from the long trip back to Dunhanshire, she still was determined to keep the boy occupied with conversation until he became too sleepy to worry.
"I just got me a new champion," he told her. "Papa had to ponder it a long time 'cause he wanted to make sure he picked the right one for me. He told me he wanted me to have a champion as strong and fierce as Graham's."
"Who is Graham?" she asked.
"My brother," he answered.
"And who did your father choose for you?"
"His friend," he answered. "He's a fierce warrior, an important laird too, and you know what?"
She smiled. "What?"
"He's awful mean. That's the best part. Papa says he'll make a fine champion."
"Because he's mean?"
"And 'cause he's strong," he explained. "He can split a tree in half just by glaring at it. Uncle Ennis told me so. He's only mean when he's got to be."
"Your champion isn't your Uncle Ennis, is he?"
"No," he answered. "Uncle Ennis wouldn't do. He's too nice."
She laughed. "And it wouldn't do to have a nice protector?" She could tell he thought she'd asked a stupid question.
"No, you got to be mean to your enemies, not nice. That's why Papa asked Uncle Brodick. He's my new champion, and he's not ever nice. You know what?"
Those three words were beginning to drive her to distraction. "No, what?" she asked.
"Brodick's probably spitting fire now 'cause he told Papa not to let me go to the festival, but Mama had her way, and Papa gave in."
"Did your Uncle Brodick attend the festival?"
"No, he'd never go to one 'cause there's too many Englishmen there. I'll bet he doesn't think I'm dead. He's the new laird over all the Buchanans, and everyone knows how stubborn the Buchanans are. Now that he's my protector, I get to call him Uncle. Maybe he's gonna come here and find me before my papa does."
"Maybe he will," she agreed to placate him. "Why don't you put your head down in my lap and close your eyes. Rest for a little while."
"You won't leave while I'm sleeping, will you?"
"Where would I go?"
He smiled when he realized how foolish his worry was. "I'm gonna be scared when you have to go away. I heard the baron tell his friends you got to go get your sister. He's gonna be mad when he finds out you lost her."
"Why didn't you tell me this before?"
"What else did he say?" she implored. "I need to know everything."
"I remember he said your king's looking for the box too, but the baron's got to find it first. I don't know why. I don't remember anything else," he ended on a wail. "I want my papa to come and get me now."
"Please don't cry," she pleaded. She hugged him close. "A boy who has three protectors should be smiling, not crying."
"I don't have three. I only got one."
"Yes, you do too have three. Your father's one, Brodick is two, and I'm your third protector. I'll be your champion until the day I get you safely home."
"But ladies can't be champions."
"Of course they can."
He puzzled over the possibility a long minute and then nodded. "All right," he agreed. "But you got to give me something then."
He nodded again. "A protector always gives something important to the boy or girl he's supposed to watch out for," he explained. "You got to give me something of yours."
"Did your Uncle Brodick give you something important?"
"Yes," he answered. "He gave Papa his best dagger to give to me. It has his crest on the hilt. Papa made a leather sheath for it, and he let me take it to the festival. Now it's gone."
"What happened to it?"
"One of the baron's soldiers grabbed it from me. I saw him throw it on the chest in the great hall."
"We'll find a way to get it back," she promised.
"But what are you gonna give me?" he asked again.
She held up her hand. "Do you see this ring I'm wearing? I treasure it above all things."
In the dying light it was difficult to see the ring clearly. He pulled her hand toward him and squinted down at it. "It's pretty."
"It belonged to my grandmother. My uncle Morgan gave it to me on my last birthday. I'll loop it through my ribbon and tie it around your neck. You'll wear it under your tunic so the baron won't see it."
"Can I keep it forever?"
"No, you can't," she said. "After I've kept my promise to you and gotten you safely home, you'll give the ring back to me. Now close your eyes and try to sleep. Why don't you think about how happy your parents are going to be when they see you again."
"Mama will cry 'cause she'll be so happy, and Papa will be happy too, but he won't cry 'cause warriors never cry. He won't be happy very long, though, 'cause I'm gonna have to tell him I disobeyed him."
"How did you disobey him?"
"He told me not to go near the waterfall. He said it was too dangerous for a boy to play there 'cause the rocks were slippery, but I went anyway with my friend, and when I tell Papa, he's gonna be mad at me."
"Are you afraid of your father?"
He snickered. "I could never be afraid of my papa."
"Then why are you so worried?"
"'Cause he'll make me take a walk with him, that's why, and then he'll make me think about what I did and tell him why it was wrong, and then he'll punish me."
"What will he do?"
"He maybe won't let me go riding with him for a spell… that would be the worst punishment 'cause I really like to ride on his lap. Papa lets me hold the reins."
She rubbed his back and suggested he not worry about it now. He wasn't through confessing his sins. "But that's not all I got to tell him," he said. "I got to tell him what me and Michael did."
"Your friend's name is also Michael?"
"My friend is Michael," he said. "I told you, we were playing a trick."
"Don't fret about it now. Your father isn't going to care about a game you and your friend were playing."
"Sleep, " she ordered.
He quieted down and was silent for several minutes. She thought he'd finally fallen asleep, and she turned her thoughts to more urgent matters.
"You know what?"
She sighed. "No, what?"
"I like you, but I don't like most of the English. Uncle Ennis hates them all. He told me so. He says if you shake an Englishman's hand, you'll come away without your fingers, but that isn't true, is it?"
"No, that isn't true."
"Are you sorry you have to be English?"
"No, I'm just sorry Alford is."
"He's ignorant. You know why?"
She had the feeling he wouldn't let up until he had told her what was on his mind. "No, why?" she dutifully asked.
"'Cause he thinks I'm Michael."
She stopped rubbing his back and went completely still. "You aren't Michael?"
He rolled onto his back and then sat up to face her. "No, my friend's Michael. That's what I've been trying to tell you. The stupid baron thinks I'm Laird Ramsey's brother, but I'm not. Michael is. That's the trick we were playing. We changed plaids, and we were gonna see how long it took for anyone to notice. When it got dark, I was gonna go to Michael's tent and he was gonna go to mine."
"Oh, dear God," she whispered, so stunned she could barely catch her breath. The innocent little boy didn't have any idea of the significance of what he had just told her, and all he was worried about was his father's reaction when he round out about a silly game his son was playing with his friend. It was only a matter of time before Alford would discover the truth, and when he did, this child's fate would be doomed.
She grabbed hold of his shoulders and pulled him close. "Listen to me," she whispered urgently. "You must never tell anyone what you've just told me. Promise me."
There were only a few flashes of distant lightning to illuminate the gray stones of the canyon, and it was difficult for her to see his face clearly. She pulled him close, searching his eyes, and whispered, "Who are you?"
Her hands dropped into her lap and she leaned back against the wall. "You're Alec," she repeated. She couldn't get over her surprise, but the boy didn't seem to notice her stunned reaction.
He grinned at her and said, "Do you see? The baron is too ignorant 'cause he captured the wrong boy."
"Yes, I see. Alec, did your friend see Alford's men take you away from the festival?"
He held his lower lip between his teeth while he thought about what had happened. "No," he answered. "Michael went back to his tent to get his bow and arrows 'cause we wanted to shoot them over the falls, and that's when the men came and grabbed me. You know what? I don't think the men were the baron's soldiers 'cause they were wearing plaids."
"How many were there?"
"I don't know… maybe three."
"If they're Highlanders, they're traitors then in league with the baron," she muttered as she threaded her fingers through her hair in agitation. "What a mess this is."
"But what if the baron finds out I'm not Michael? He's gonna be mad, isn't he? Maybe he'll make the traitors go and get my friend then. I hope they don't put Michael in a wheat sack. It's scary."
"We're going to have to find a way to warn Michael's family of the danger."
Her mind was racing from one thought to another as she tried to understand the twisted game Alford was playing.
"Alec, if you both changed clothes and Michael was wearing your plaid, wouldn't his clan notice? Surely he'd tell one of them about the trick you were playing."
"Maybe he'd be too scared to tell."
"How old is Michael?"
"I don't know," he answered. "Maybe he's almost my age. You know what? Maybe he took my plaid off is what he did. That's what I'd do if I got real scared, and he'd be afraid to make his brother mad 'cause he doesn't know his brother very good at all since he only just came back home to be laird. Michael was kind of scared to play the trick too 'cause he didn't want to get in trouble. It's my fault," he cried out, " 'cause I made him do it."
"I want you to stop worrying that you did anything wrong. No one's going to blame you. You were just playing a harmless game, that's all. Why don't you put your head down in my lap and be real quiet for a few minutes so I can think."
She closed her eyes then to discourage him from asking any more questions.
He wasn't going to cooperate. "You know what?" When she didn't answer him, he began to tug on her sleeve. "You know what?"
She gave up. "What?"
"My tooth is loose." To prove he was telling the truth, he grabbed her hand and made her touch one of his front teeth with the tip of her finger. "See how it wiggles back and forth when you touch it? Maybe it'll come out tomorrow."
The eagerness in his voice as he told her his important news was a jolting reminder of how very young he was. Losing his tooth obviously thrilled him.
"Papa was gonna pull it out for me, but then he said I had to wait until it got good and loose."
With a loud yawn, he put his head in her lap and patiently waited for her to rub his back again.
"I was gonna ask Papa to pull my tooth out at the festival 'cause Michael wanted to watch. Michael belongs to Ramsey," he added just in case she'd forgotten.
"And who do you belong to, Alec?"
He puffed up with importance. "I'm Iain Maitland's son."
Alford liked to play games. He was especially partial to any game that involved cruelty.
He was having a fine time now, though in fact his day hadn't started out well at all. He'd returned to Dunhanshire at midday on Sunday soaked through and chilled to the bone because of an unexpected and torrential downpour that had caught him unaware en route, and feeling quite miserable, he certainly wasn't in the mood to hear that Lady Gillian had tried to help the boy escape. Before he could work himself up into a good rage-he'd already killed the soldier who had imparted the unpleasant news-Gillian and the boy were located and brought back to the castle, and they now stood before him, waiting to hear their punishment.
Anticipation heightened Alford's pleasure. He wanted them to wallow in their own fears, and making them guess what torture he had in mind for them was all part of Alford's game. The boy, the simpleton brother of Laird Ramsey, was too stupid to understand or speak, but Alford could tell he was frightened because of the way he kept trying to edge closer to Gillian. She, on the other hand, was proving to be quite a disappointment, and if he hadn't known better, he would have thought she was deliberately trying to ruin his fun. She didn't appear to be the least bit concerned about her fate. He couldn't discern any fear at all in her.
The bitch still had the power to spook him, and he silently cursed himself for his own cowardice because he couldn't hold her gaze long. Save me from the righteous, he thought to himself. Going into battle against a league of soldiers was far less intimidating than this mere slip of a girl, and although he reminded himself that he was the one with the power and that he could order her death by simply uttering a quick command, in his mind she still had the upper hand. He'd never forgotten how she had looked at him when he'd ordered her brought before him after the massacre. She had been a little girl then, but the memory still made him inwardly flinch. He knew she had seen him kill her father, but he'd believed that in time the memory would fade from her mind. Now he wasn't so certain. What else did she remember? Had she heard him confessing his sins to her father before he gutted him? The question brought chills to Alford's spine. Gillian's hatred frightened him, weakened him, made his skin crawl.
His hand shook as he reached for his goblet of wine, and he diligently tried to shrug off his fears and get down to the business at hand. He knew that his mind wasn't sharp now, but dull and muddled. It was unusual for him to become this inebriated in front of his friends. He'd been a heavy drinker for years because the memories wouldn't let him rest. But he'd always been careful to drink when he was alone. Today he'd made an exception to his own rule because the wine helped ease his anger. He didn't want to do anything he might later regret, and though he had considered waiting until tomorrow to deal with Gillian's defiance, he decided that he was still clearheaded enough to get the chore over and done with so he and his companions could continue their celebration.
Alford stared at Gillian through bleary, bloodshot eyes. He sat at the center of the long table and was flanked by his constant companions, Baron Hugh of Barlowe and Baron Edwin the Bald. He rarely went anywhere without his friends, as they were his most appreciative audience. They so enjoyed his games that they often begged to join in, and Alford never had to worry that either one of them would ever betray him, for they were just as culpable in their past transgressions as he was.
Gillian and the boy hadn't eaten since early morning the day before, and Alford assumed both would be ravenous by now, so he forced them to watch while he and his friends dined on a feast worthy of kings and discussed various punishments. The table was heavily laden with pheasant, rabbit, peacock and pigeon, yellow wedges of cheese, chunks of coarse black bread with jam and honey, and sweet blackberry tarts. Servants rushed back and forth with widemouthed jugs of dark red wine and additional breaded trenchers piled high with more offerings to tempt their gluttonous appetites.
There was enough food on the table to feed an army. Watching the three of them eat was such a disgusting sight to Gillian that her hunger pains quickly vanished. She couldn't make up her mind which one was the most foul. Hugh, with his big protruding ears and pointed chin, kept making grunting noises while he ate, and Edwin, with his triple chins and beady red eyes, had worked himself into a sweat as he frantically shoved fistfuls of greasy meat into his mouth. He acted as though he thought the food would disappear before he could fill his enormous belly, and by the time he paused for air, his face glistened with beads of oily perspiration.
All three of them were drunk. While she stood there watching, they downed the contents of six jugs of wine and were now waiting while the servant poured more.
They were like pigs at the trough, but Alford, she decided, was by far the worst offender. Strands of pigeon skin dangled from his lips, and when he shoved a full, plump tart into his cavernous mouth, blackberry juice squirted down on both sides of his chin, staining his red beard black. Too drunk to care about his manners or appearance, he eagerly reached for another.
Alec stood on her left, near the hearth, watching the spectacle without making a sound. Every now and then his hand would touch hers. As much as she longed to comfort him, she didn't dare even look at him because Alford was watching her closely. If she showed any concern or affection for the little boy, he'd have a weapon to use against her.
She had tried to prepare Alec as best she could by warning him that it would get worse before it was over, and she had also made him promise that no matter what happened, he would remain silent. As long as Alford believed the child didn't understand what he was saying, he would hopefully continue to speak freely in front of him and perhaps say something that would explain his purpose in stealing the boy.
When she couldn't stomach watching the animals eat any longer, she turned toward the entrance. She knew she must have played in this hall when she was a little girl, but she didn't have any memories at all. There was an old chest against the wall near the steps, and she wondered if it had belonged to her parents or if Alford had brought it with him. The top of the chest was cluttered with maps and rolls of parchment, but near the edge was a dagger. Alec had told her the soldier had taken one from him and tossed it on the chest. It was still there. She could see the unusual, intricate design on the handle and was strangely comforted by it. The dagger had been a gift from Alec's protector, Brodick.
Alford drew her attention when he let out a loud belch. She watched him wipe his face on the sleeve of his velvet tunic, then lean back in his chair. He seemed to be having difficulty keeping his eyes open, and his voice was heavily slurred when he spoke to her. "What am I going to do with you, Gillian? You've resisted me at every turn. Don't you realize I only have your best interests at heart?"
Edwin burst into raucous laughter. Hugh chuckled as he reached for his goblet again.
"You've been quite a nuisance," Alford continued. "I've been very accommodating to you. Didn't I leave you alone all the while you were growing up? I'll admit I was shocked to see what a beautiful woman you've become. You were such a homely, unappealing child, the transformation is really quite amazing. You have value now, my dear. I could sell you to the highest bidder and make a pretty fortune. Does that possibility frighten you?"
"She's looking bored, not frightened," Edwin remarked.
Alford shrugged indifference. "Are you aware, Gillian, that it took a full unit of soldiers to pry you away from your sainted relative? I heard that your Uncle Morgan put up quite a fight, which I find quite amusing considering the fact that he's such an old, feeble man. Do you know I believe it would be an act of mercy on my part to put him out of his misery. I'm sure he'd appreciate a quick death in lieu of lingering on and on."
"My uncle is neither old nor feeble," she told him.
Edwin laughed. Gillian fought the almost irresistible urge to strike him. Dear God, how she wished she were stronger. She hated feeling so powerless and afraid.
"You will leave my uncle alone, Alford," she demanded. "He cannot hurt you."
He acted as though she hadn't spoken. "He's become a doting parent, hasn't he? Morgan wouldn't have fought so to keep you if he didn't love you like a father. Aye, he was defiant on your behalf, damn his hide," he added with a sneer. "I was also displeased to hear about your defiance. It was embarrassing, really. I expected you to immediately obey my summons. I am your guardian, after all, and you should have come running to me. I simply don't understand your resistance. No, I don't," he said. He paused to shake his head before resuming. "This is your home, is it not? I would think you would be eager to return. King John has decreed Dunhanshire will remain yours until you're wed. Then, of course, your husband will rule on your behalf."
"As it should be," Hugh interjected.
"You haven't weasled Dunhanshire away from the king yet?" Gillian couldn't keep the surprise out of her voice.
"I haven't asked for it," he muttered. "Why should I? It belongs to me all the same, for I am your guardian and therefore control all that is yours."
"Did John appoint you my guardian?" She asked the question to irritate him, for she knew the king had not granted Alford that right.
Alford's face turned red with anger, and he scowled at her while he adjusted his ill-fitted tunic and took another drink of wine. "You're so unimportant to our king that he's all but forgotten about you. I have said that I am your guardian, and that makes it so."
"No, it does not make it so."
"Alford is our king's most trusted confidant," Edwin shouted. "How dare you speak to him in such an insolent tone."
"She is insolent, isn't she?" Alford remarked. "Like it or not, Gillian, I am your guardian and your fate is in my hands. I shall personally choose your husband. As to that, I might wed you myself," he added offhandedly.
She wouldn't allow herself to think about such a repulsive possibility and continued to stare at Alford without reacting to his threat.
"You've promised her to your cousin," Hugh reminded him. "I've heard that Clifford is already making grand plans."
"Yes, I know what I promised, but when have you ever known me to keep my word?" Alford asked with a grin.
Hugh and Edwin laughed until tears streamed down their faces. Alford finally demanded silence with a wave of his hand.
"You've made me lose track of what I was saying."
"You were telling Gillian how displeased you were with her defiance," Edwin reminded him.
"Yes, so I was," he said. "It simply cannot go on, Gillian. I'm a forgiving man-a flaw really-and I can't help pitying the less fortunate, so I let your uncle's outrageous behavior go unpunished. I also forgave you your resistance to my summons to come home."
He took another long swallow from his goblet before continuing. "And how do you repay me for my kindness? You try to help the little savage escape. As your guardian; I simply cannot allow your disobedience to go unpunished. It's time for you and the boy to learn a lesson in humility."
"If you beat her, Alford, she'll need time to recover before she goes on your important quest," Edwin cautioned.
Alford drained the rest of the wine, then motioned for the servant to refill his goblet. "I'm aware of that possibility," he said. "Have you noticed, Edwin, how the boy has attached himself to Gillian? He must foolishly believe she'll protect him from harm. Shall we prove to him how mistaken he is? Hugh, since you so enjoy your work, you can beat the boy."
"You will not touch him." Gillian made the statement very softly. It was far more effective than shouting, and she could tell from Alford's puzzled expression that she had caught him off guard.
"No, you won't."
He drummed his fingertips on the table. "Pain will convince the boy how futile it is to try to escape. Besides, you have both inconvenienced me and I really can't disappoint Hugh. He so wants to hurt one of you."Alford turned to his friend. "Try not to kill the boy. If Gillian fails me, I'll have need of him."
"You will not touch the child," Gillian said again, though this time her voice was hard, emphatic.
"Are you willing to take his beating?" Alford asked.
Alford was stunned by her quick agreement and infuriated because she didn't look at all frightened. Courage was a foreign concept, and he had never been able to figure out why some men and women exhibited this strange phenomenon, while others did not. The trait had eluded him, and though he had certainly never felt the need to try to be courageous, those who did enraged him. What he lacked in his own character he detested in others.
"I will do whatever pleases me, Gillian, and you cannot stop me. I just might decide to kill you."
She shrugged. "Yes, you're right. You could kill me and I couldn't stop you."
He raised an eyebrow and studied her. It was difficult to concentrate, for the wine had made him quite sleepy and all he wanted to do was close his eyes for a few minutes. He took another drink instead.
"You're up to something," he said. "What is it, Gillian? What game do you dare play with the master?"
"No games," she answered. "Kill me if that is your inclination. I'm sure you'll come up with an adequate explanation to give our king. However, as you have just said, you have left me alone all these many years and then suddenly you force me to come back here. You obviously want something from me, and if you kill me-"
"Yes," he interrupted, "I do want something from you." He straightened up in his chair and looked triumphant when he continued, "I have joyous news. After years of searching, I have finally found your sister. I know where Christen hides from me." He watched Gillian closely and was disappointed because she didn't respond to his announcement. Rolling the goblet between his fingertips, he smirked. "I even know the name of the clan protecting her. It's MacPherson, but I don't know the name she uses now. One sister will surely recognize another, and that is why I want you to go and fetch her for me."
"Why don't you send your soldiers to get her?" she asked.
"I cannot send my troops into the thick of the Highlands, and that is where she hides from me. Those savages would slaughter my men. I could, of course, gain King John's blessing for this undertaking, and I'm certain he would give me additional soldiers, but I don't want to involve him in a family matter. Besides, I have you to do this errand for me."
"The soldiers wouldn't know which woman she is, and the heathens certainly wouldn't tell. They protect their own at all costs," Hugh interjected.
"And if I refuse to go?" she asked.
"Someone else can bring Christen to me," he bluffed. "It would just be less complicated if you were to fetch her."
"And would this someone else be able to recognize her?"
"The Highlander who gave us this information knows the name Christen uses," Edwin reminded Alford. "You could force him to tell you."
"For all we know the Highlander could be bringing Christen with him tomorrow," Hugh said. "The message he sent indicated there was a problem-"
"An urgent problem," Edwin interjected. "And it isn't for certain that he will arrive tomorrow. It could be the day after."
"I don't doubt the problem is urgent." Hugh leaned forward in his chair so he could see around Alford. "The traitor wouldn't take the chance of coming all this way if it weren't an urgent matter. He stands the risk of being seen."
Edwin rubbed his triple chins. "If you beat the boy, Hugh, the Highlander might be displeased and demand his gold back."
Hugh laughed. "He wants the boy killed, you old fool. You were too drunk at the time to pay attention to the conversation. Suffice it to say that a bargain was struck between the Highlander and Alford. As you know, every so often a new rumor surfaces that the golden box has been seen, and every time King John hears of it, he sends troops to scour the kingdom. His desire to find the culprit who killed his Arianna and get his treasure back has not dampened over the years."
"Some say his fervor has increased tenfold," Edwin remarked. "The king has even sent troops into the Lowlands looking for information."
Hugh nodded. "And while John searches for his treasure, Alford searches for Christen because he believes she knows where the box is hidden. He means to prove her father stole it. Alford has also sent inquiries over the years to all the clans asking about Christen…"
"But none of his inquiries were ever answered."
"That is true," Hugh agreed. "No one would admit he knew anything about her… until the Highlander arrived."
"But what of the bargain struck between this traitor and our Alford?"
Hugh looked at the baron, waiting for him to answer the question, but Alford's eyes were closed and his head drooped down on his chest. He appeared to be dozing.
"I've never seen the baron so drunk," Hugh whispered loudly to his friend. "Look how the wine has lulled him to sleep."
Edwin shrugged. "And the bargain?" he nagged.
"The baron agreed to hold the boy captive to draw out his brother, Laird Ramsey Sinclair, so that the Highlander could kill him. The child's simply a pawn, and when the game is over and Ramsey is killed…"
"The boy no longer serves any purpose."
"Exactly," Hugh agreed. "So you see, beating him will not concern the Highlander at all."
"What did the baron get out of this bargain?"
"The Highlander gave him gold and something more," he said. "I will leave that for Alford to explain. If he wants you to know, he'll tell you."
Edwin was incensed to be left out. He shoved his elbow hard into Alford's side. The baron jerked upright and muttered a blasphemy.
Edwin then demanded to know the particulars of the bargain. Alford took a drink before answering.
"The traitor gave me information more important than gold."
"What could be more important?" Edwin asked.
Alford smiled. "I told you he gave me the name of the clan Christen hides in, and when he has gotten what he wants, he vows to tell me the name she uses now. So you see, if Gillian should fail me, the Highlander will come to my aid."
"Why won't he tell you now? It would make it so much easier if you knew…"
"He doesn't trust our baron," Hugh chuckled. "This Ramsey must die first. Then he swears he'll give us her name."
Gillian couldn't believe the three of them were talking so freely in front of her. They were all too drunk to be cautious, and she doubted that any of them would remember a word he said come tomorrow morning.
Edwin and Hugh seemed to think Alford was going to be given a reward by the king, and they were now discussing what he would do with it. She was blessedly thankful for their inattention, for when she had heard that the Highlander would soon arrive at Dunhanshire, she felt as though the floor had just dropped away. Inwardly reeling, her stomach lurched with her panic and she swayed on her feet. Fortunately, Alford appeared oblivious to her distress.
She knew why the traitor was coming, of course. He was going to tell Alford that the wrong boy had been taken, and God help Alec then. Time was about to run out.
Alford yawned loudly and squinted at her. "Ah, Gillian, I forgot you were standing there. Now what were we discussing? Oh, yes," he said as he turned to Hugh. "Since Gillian has so graciously offered to take the boy's beating for him, you may accommodate her. Don't touch her face," he warned. "I've learned from experience that the bones in the face take much longer to heal, and I do so want to send her on my errand as soon as possible."
"And the boy?" Hugh asked.
Alford sneered at Gillian when he answered. "I want him beaten too."
She pushed Alec behind her. "You'll have to kill me first, Alford. I'm not going to let you touch him."
"But I don't want to kill you, Gillian. I want you to bring your sister to me."
The mockery in his voice was deliberate, for he wanted her to know he was laughing at her pitiful attempts to protect the child. Did she really believe her wants mattered to him? And how dare she give him orders, telling him what he could and could not do.
He would get his way, of course, but also teach her a valuable lesson at the same time. She would learn once and for all how insignificant she was.
"I swear to you, if you harm the boy, I won't bring Christen to you."
"Yes, yes, I know." Alford sounded bored. "You've already made that empty threat."
Hugh pushed his chair back and struggled to stand. Gillian frantically tried to think of something she could do or say that would stop the atrocity.
"You don't really want Christen back, do you?"
Alford tilted his head toward Gillian. "Of course I want her back. I have grand plans for her."
Deliberately trying to incite his wrath to take his attention away from the child, she laughed. "Oh, I know all about your grand plans. You want King John's precious box, and you think Christen has it, don't you? That's what you really want, and you think that if she's forced back here, she'll bring the treasure with her. You want to prove that my father murdered the king's lover and stole the box. Then you think you'll win the prize and Dunhanshire land. Isn't that your grand plan?"
Alford reacted as though she had just thrown boiling oil in his face. Howling in rage, he leapt to his feet. His chair flew backward, crashing into the wall.
"You do remember the box," he bellowed as he rushed around the corner of the table toward her, shoving Hugh out of his path. "And you know where it's hidden."
"Of course I know," she lied.
Another unearthly howl filled the hall as Alford ran to her. "Tell me where it is," he demanded. "Christen does have it, doesn't she? I knew… I knew she had taken it… that crazy Ector told me her father gave it to her. Your sister stole it from me, and you've known… all this time that I've been out of my mind searching… you knew… all this time you knew."
His temper exploded and he slammed his fist into her jaw, knocking her to the floor.
He was beyond reason now. His leather boot slammed into her tender skin. He viciously kicked her again and again, determined to make her scream in agony, to make her sorry that she had dared to keep the truth hidden from him. She had known all this time that the box could destroy her father's name and win Dunhanshire and the King's reward. All these years the bitch had deliberately tormented him.
"I will give the box to the king… and I alone," he railed, panting from exertion. "The reward will be mine… mine… mine."
Reeling from the blow to her face, Gillian was too dazed to fight back. Yet she had enough presence of mind to roll to her side and try to protect her head with her arms. Her back and legs took most of the pounding, but ironically the pain wasn't as terrible as Alford wanted it to be, for in her nearly unconscious state, she barely felt the blows from his booted foot.
She became fully alert when Alec threw himself on top of her. Hysterical, he screamed at the top of his lungs as she pushed him away from Alford. She threw her arms around him, hugging him tight, trying to shield him, and then she grabbed hold of his hand and squeezed, hoping he would understand she wanted him to be silent. Alford's rage was fully directed on her now, and she was terrified that the boy's interference would draw his wrath.
Spittle ran down the sides of Alford's face with each obscenity he shouted as he continued to inflict his punishment. Quickly exhausted, he lost his balance and staggered backward. The sight so amused Hugh, he was overcome with laughter. Edwin didn't want the entertainment to stop and shouted encouragement to spur Alford on. Gillian's ears rang from the deafening noise, and the room swirled around her in a hazy blur, but she desperately tried to focus on the terrified little boy.
"Hush," she whispered. "Hush now."
As though someone had cupped a hand over his mouth to silence him, Alec stopped screaming in mid wail. Only inches away from her face, his eyes wide with fear, he gave her a quick nod to let her know he would be quiet. She was so pleased with him, she forced a weak smile.
"Get hold of yourself, Alford," Hugh shouted between gales of laughter. He brushed the tears away from his cheeks before adding, "She won't be able to go anywhere if you kill her."
Alford stumbled back against the table. "Yes, yes," he panted. "I must control myself."
He wiped the sweat from his brow, shoved the boy away from Gillian, and jerked her to her feet. Blood trickled down the side of her mouth, and he smugly nodded in satisfaction, for he could see the glazed look in her eyes and knew he had caused her considerable pain.
"You dare to make me lose my temper," he muttered. "You have no one to blame but yourself for your pain. I'll allow you two days' time to recover, and then you will leave Dunhanshire and go to that godforsaken land called the Highlands. Your sister hides with the clan MacPherson. Find her," he ordered, "and bring her and the box to me."
He adjusted his tunic as he staggered back to the table, angrily motioning for the servant to pick up his chair. Once he had resumed his seat, he mopped his brow with his sleeve and downed a full goblet of wine.
"If you fail me, Gillian, the man you hold so dear will suffer the consequences. Your uncle will die a slow, agonizing death. I swear to you that I will make him beg me to put him out of his misery. The boy should also be killed," he added almost as an afterthought. "But when you bring Christen and the box to me, I give you my word I will let the child live in spite of my promise to the Highland traitor."
"But what if she can only bring one back and not the other?" Hugh asked.
Edwin had also considered the question. "Which is more important to you, Baron, Christen or the king's box?"
"The box, of course," Alford answered. "But I want both, and if Gillian brings only one, her uncle dies."
Hugh swaggered around the table to face Gillian. The lust she saw in his eyes made her inwardly cringe.
He kept his gaze on her when he spoke to Alford. "You and I have been friends a long time," he reminded the baron. "And I have never asked for anything… until now. Give me Gillian."
Alford was surprised and amused by Hugh's request. "You would take a witch to your bed?"
"She's a lioness, and I would tame her," he boasted, obscenely licking his lips over the fantasy.
"She would cut your throat while you slept," Edwin called out.
Hugh snorted. "With Gillian in my bed, I assure you I wouldn't be sleeping."
He reached out to stroke her, but she shoved his hand away and took a step back. Hugh glanced down at the boy clinging to Gillian. She quickly forced him to look at her again and forget about the child when she said, "You are most foul, Hugh, and such a weakling, I almost pity you."
Shocked by the venom in her voice, he slapped her with the back of his hand.
She retaliated by smiling.
"Leave her be," Alford demanded impatiently when Hugh raised his hand to strike her again.
He leered at her for several seconds, then leaned forward and whispered, "I will have you, bitch." He turned around then and went back to his place at the table. "Give her to me," he nagged Alford. "I can teach her to be obedient."
Alford smiled. "I shall consider your request," he promised.
Edwin wasn't about to be left out. "If you give Gillian to him, then I must have Christen."
"She has already been promised," Alford said.
"You want her for yourself," Edwin accused.
"I don't want her, but I have promised her to another."
"Who did you promise?" Edwin asked.
Hugh laughed. "Does it matter, Edwin? Alford has never kept his word."
"Never," Alford snickered. "But there is always a first time."
Edwin grinned, for he was placated now and foolishly believed he still had a chance of winning Christen's hand. "If she is half as beautiful as Gillian, then I will be well-served."
"How long will you give Gillian to complete her errand?" Hugh asked.
"She must return to me before the celebration of the harvest begins."
"But that is not nearly long enough," Edwin protested. "Why, it will take her a full week, maybe two, just to get to her destination, and if there are any problems along the way or if she cannot find Christen…"
Alford raised his hand for silence. "Your prattle of worries on the bitch's behalf make my head spin. Hold your tongue while I explain the details to my ward. Gillian? Should you think to find sympathetic Highlanders to help you save your dear uncle, know this. A full contingent of my soldiers have surrounded his home, and if so much as one Highland warrior steps foot into the holding, Morgan will be killed. I will hold him ransom until you return. Do I make myself clear?"
"What if she tells Ramsey that his brother didn't drown and that you have him?" Hugh asked.
"She will not tell," Alford replied. "She holds the boy's life with her silence. Enough of your questions," he added. "I wish to talk about more amusing matters now, such as how I will spend the king's reward when I give the box to him. I have already suggested more than once that it was Gillian and Christen's father who stole the box and killed Arianna, and when the King finds out that Christen has had the treasure all this time, he will be convinced."
He motioned to the two sentries at the entrance to come forward. "The dear lady can barely stand up. See how she sways on her feet? Take her and the boy upstairs. Put her in her old room. See how thoughtful I can be, Gillian? I'm going to let you sleep in your own bed."
"And the boy, milord?" one of the soldiers inquired.
"Put him in the room next to hers," he said. "He can listen to her weep during the night."
The soldiers rushed forward to do their lord's bidding. One took hold of Alec's arm and the other reached for Gillian. She jerked away, steadied herself, and slowly, painfully, straightened up. Head erect, she held on to the edge of the table until she gained the strength in her legs, then took careful, measured steps. When she was close to the doors, she swayed and collapsed against the chest.
The soldier pulled her upright and dragged her the rest of the way to the stairs. Gillian folded her arms across her battered ribs and hunched over, and Alec held on to her skirt as they started up the steps. She stumbled twice before her legs gave out on her altogether. Making a tisking sound, the soldier lifted her into his arms and carried her the rest of the way.
The pain in her back became excruciating, and she fainted before they reached her door. The soldier dropped her on the bed and turned to grab hold of the boy, but Alec refused to leave. He bit and scratched and kicked the man who was trying to pry him away from Gillian.
"Leave him be," his friend suggested. "If we keep the two of them in the same room, we'll only have to post a guard in front of one door tonight. The boy can sleep on the floor."
The two men left the chamber then, locking the door behind them. Alec climbed up on the bed next to Gillian and held on to her. Terrified that she would die and leave him all alone, he sobbed uncontrollably.
A long while passed before she finally awakened. The pain pulsating through her body was so intense, tears flooded into her eyes. She waited until the room stopped spinning, then tried to sit up, but the pain was unbearable, and she collapsed against the bedcovers, feeling helpless and defeated.
Alec whispered her name.
"It's all right now. The worst is over, Alec. Please don't cry."
"But you're crying."
"I'll stop," she promised.
"Are you going to die?" he asked worriedly.
"No," she whispered.
"Do you hurt real bad?"
"I'm already feeling much better," she lied. "And at least we're safe now."
"No, we're not," he argued. "Tomorrow is gonna be-"
"Much better," she interrupted. "It's dark in here, isn't it? Why don't you tie the tapestry back from the window so we can have some light."
"The light's almost gone," he told her as he jumped off the bed and ran to the window to do as she had requested.
Golden ribbons of sunlight streamed into the room and, like silken banners, floated in the gentle summer breeze. They danced along the stone floor. She could see particles of dust in the air, could smell the musty scent of mildew in the bedcovers, and wondered how long the room had been closed. Had she been the last to sleep in this bed? It was unlikely. Alford liked to entertain, and he had surely had a multitude of guests at Dunhanshire since she had been banished.
Alec climbed back in bed with her and took hold of her hand. "The sun's going down. You slept an awful long time, and I couldn't get you to wake up. I got scared," he admitted. "And you know what?"
"It is too gonna get worse 'cause I heard what the baron said. The Highlander's coming here."
"Yes, I heard what he said." She put her hand to her forehead and closed her eyes. She said a quick prayer that God would help her get her strength back-and soon-for time was critical.
"The Highlander will be here tomorrow or the day after." Alec became agitated. "If he sees me, he's gonna know I'm not Michael. Then maybe he'll tell on me."
While she once again struggled to sit up, she addressed his worry. "I'm sure he already knows you're not Michael. That's probably the urgent news he wishes to tell the baron."
He frowned intently, until the freckles on his nose blended together. "Maybe he wants to tell him something else."
"I don't think so."
"I don't want you to leave me."
"I'm not going to leave you," she promised.
"But the baron's gonna send you away."
"Yes," she agreed. "But I'm going to take you with me." He didn't look as if he believed her. She patted his hand and forced a smile. "It doesn't matter to us if the Highlander comes here or not, though in truth I would like to get a good look at him."
"'Cause he's a traitor?"
"And then you can tell my papa and Brodick and even Ramsey what the traitor looks like?"
Alec was looking happy now, and so she quickly agreed. "Yes, that's exactly right. I would tell your father what he looks like."
"And Brodick and even Ramsey too?"
"Then you know what would happen? They'd make him sorry he was a traitor."
"Yes, I'm sure they would."
"How come we don't care if the Highlander comes here or not?"
"We don't care because we're leaving tonight."
His eyes widened in surprise. "In the dark?"
"In the dark. Hopefully the moon will guide us."
His eagerness was almost uncontainable, and he bounced on the bed. "But how are we going to do that? I heard the soldier lock the door when he left, and I think maybe there's a guard outside in the hall. That's how come I'm whispering 'cause I don't want him to hear me."
"We're still going to leave," she said.
She pointed to the opposite end of the room. "You and I are going to walk right through that wall."
His smile vanished. "I don't think we can do that."
He sounded so forlorn she felt like laughing. She realized then that in spite of her pain, she was actually feeling euphoric because she wasn't going to have to leave the little boy in Alford's lair. It had been a wonderful piece of luck that Alford hadn't hidden the child away from her, and she planned to take full advantage of his error in judgment.
She couldn't resist pulling Alec into her arms and hugging him. "Oh, Alec, God is surely watching over us."
He let her kiss his forehead and brush his hair out of his eyes before he squirmed out of her embrace. "How come you think God's watching out for us?" He was too impatient to wait for her answer. "Is God gonna help us walk through the wall?"
"Yes," she replied.
He shook his head. "I think maybe the baron made you daft when he hit you."
"No, he didn't make me daft. He made me angry, very, very angry."
"But, Gillian, people can't walk through walls."
"We're going to open a secret door. This used to be my bedroom when I was a little girl," she told him. "My sister's room was right next to mine, and whenever I got scared or lonely, I would open the passageway and run into her room. My father would become very upset with me."
"Because the passage was only to be used in dire circumstances, and he didn't want anyone to know about it, not even his faithful servants. My lady's maid, Liese, knew about the doorway though, and she used to tell me that most mornings she would find my bed empty. Liese figured out there had to be a hidden door because she knew I was afraid of the dark and wouldn't have ventured out into the hall during the night. Do you see that chest in front of the wall? My father put it there to discourage me. He knew the chest was too heavy tor me to move, but Liese told me that I used to squeeze behind it to get to the door."
His eyes grew wide. "You disobeyed your papa."
"It seems I did," she answered.
He found her admission extremely funny and laughed until tears came into his eyes. Concerned the guard would hear the noise, she put her finger over her mouth as a sign for him to quiet down.
"But if the door goes to your sister's room," he whispered loudly, "how will we get out of there?"
"The passage also leads to the staircase that goes down into the tunnels below the castle. If it hasn't been sealed, it will take us outside the walls."
"Then can we leave now? Please?" he asked.
She shook her head. "We must wait until the baron has gone to bed. He's had so much wine to drink he'll pass out soon. Besides, he might send one of the servants to check on us before nightfall, and if we aren't here, she'll sound the alarm."
He slipped his fingers through hers and held tight, all the while staring at the wall, trying to figure out where the door was. When he turned back to Gillian, he was frowning again. "What if the baron sealed it?"
"Then we'll figure out another way to leave."
She didn't have the faintest idea, but she did know that she had to get Alec out of Dunhanshire before the Highlander arrived. "We could trick the guard into coming inside-"
In his excitement he interrupted her. "And I could hit him on his head and knock him down," he said, acting out his plan by pounding the bed with his fists. "I'd make him bleed," he assured her. "And if I stood on top of the chest, I could maybe even grab his sword, and then you know what? I could slice him up and make him cry something fierce. I'm very strong," he ended with a boast.
She had to resist the urge to hug him again, and she didn't dare smile because he might think she was laughing at him. "Yes, I can see how strong you are," she said.
He grinned with pleasure over her compliment and lifted his shoulders as he nodded.
Were all little boys as bloodthirsty in their fantasies as this one? she wondered. One minute he was crying and clinging to her and the next he was gleefully planning gruesome revenge. She didn't have any experience with children-Alec was the first she had been around for any length of time-and she felt thoroughly inadequate, yet at the same time, she also felt tremendously protective. She was all the little boy had separating him from disaster, and in her mind that meant Alec was still in danger.
"Does it hurt?"
She blinked. "Does what hurt?"
"Your face," he answered as he reached up to touch the side of her cheek. "It's swelling."
"It stings a little, that's all."
"How come you got a scar under your chin?"
"I fell down the steps. It happened a long time ago."
She patted the bed beside her and said, "Why don't you stretch out beside me and try to get some sleep."
"But it isn't night yet."
"Yes, I know, but we're going to be up all night walking," she explained. "You should try to rest now."
He scooted up close to her and put his head down on her shoulder. "You know what?"
"We'll find something to eat later."
"Will we have to steal food?"
From his exuberance she assumed he was looking forward to the possibility. "Stealing is a sin."
"That's what my mama says."
"And she's right. We won't steal anything. We'll just borrow what we need."
"Can we borrow horses?"
"If we're lucky enough to find a sturdy one and no one's around to stop us, then yes, we'll borrow a horse."
"You could get yourself hanged for stealing a horse."
"That's the least of my worries," she said as she shifted in the bed. Every inch of her body throbbed, and there simply was no comfortable position. She moved her bandaged arm down to her side and felt a prick, and only then remembered the surprise she had for Alec.
"I have something for you," she said. "Close your eyes tight."
He bolted upright onto his knees and squeezed his eyes shut. "What is it?"
She held up the dagger. She didn't have to tell him to look, for he was already peeking. The joy in his eyes made her feel like weeping.
"Brodick's dagger," he whispered in awe. "How did you find it?"
"You told me where it was," she reminded him. "I grabbed it from the chest on the way out of the hall. Keep it inside the leather sheath so you won't accidentally cut yourself."
He was so happy to have his treasure back, he threw his arms around her neck and kissed her swollen cheek. "I love you, Gillian."
"I love you too, Alec."
"Now I can protect you 'cause I got my knife back."
She smiled. "Are you going to be my champion, then?"
"No," he giggled, drawing out the word.
He pulled back and told her what he thought should have been obvious. " 'Cause I'm just a little boy. But you know what?"
"We got to find you one."
He nodded solemnly.
She shook her head. "I don't need a protector," she assured him.
"But you got to have one. Maybe we can ask Brodick."
"The mean one?" she teased. He nodded again.
She laughed softly. "I don't think…"
"We'll ask Brodick," he said, sounding very grown up. " 'Cause you know why?"
"You need him."
They didn't like the message. Four of Laird Buchanan's elite guard surrounded the young MacDonald soldier, towering over him like avenging gargoyles as he stammered out his important information while quaking in his boots. Three of the warriors were rendered speechless by the announcement. Aaron, Robert, and Liam were outraged by what they immediately surmised was trickery on Laird MacDonald's part. Everyone in the Buchanan clan knew the messenger's laird to be a sneaky, lying, son of a bitch, and therefore refused to believe a word he said. The fourth Buchanan warrior, Dylan, had the opposite reaction to the news. Though he also believed Laird MacDonald to be a sneaky, lying, son of a bitch, he was so amused and intrigued by the message he was eager to hear the details.
Aaron, the most outspoken of the Buchanan group, shook his head in denial and moved forward with the demand that the messenger repeat every word.
"'Tis as I said before," the young MacDonald soldier insisted.
"Then say it again," Aaron commanded, deliberately moving close so that the man would have to crane his head back in order to look him in the eyes. "Word for word I would hear this foul message again."
The MacDonald soldier felt like a trapped rabbit. Robert stood behind him, Dylan faced him, and Aaron and Liam pressed in against his sides. All the Buchanan warriors were at least two heads above him in height, and they could easily crush him with their weight alone.
He turned to the warrior who had made the demand, then tried to step back so that he could put a little breathing distance between them. "There is a young lady who insists that your laird come to her at once. She waits inside the boarded up church near the crossroads below the Len holding. She claims… to be…"
The dark look on the warrior's face so terrified the soldier he couldn't go on. He turned to Dylan, then stepped back in an attempt to get away from his scorching glare and bumped into the warrior named Black Robert.
"My message is for Brodick and Brodick alone," he protested.
"He is Laird Buchanan to you, pup," Liam growled.
"Yes… yes, Laird Buchanan," the soldier hastily acknowledged. "I overstep myself."
"Aye, you do," Robert muttered from behind. Dylan stepped forward to question the messenger. Brodick had already been summoned to the great hall but had not yet arrived, and so the commander over the elite guard of Buchanan warriors decided to take charge of the questioning. He knew the MacDonald soldier was scared, and so he clasped his hands behind his back as a signal that he wouldn't harm him and impatiently waited for him to regain his composure.
"Continue with your message," Dylan demanded.
"The lady, she claims to be his bride," the frightened young man blurted out. "And she demands that your laird escort her to his home so that she may take up residence."
Robert nudged the soldier to get his attention and accidentally sent him lunging forward. He bumped into Dylan, who didn't budge an inch, quickly righted himself, and whirled around to face the warrior. "I do not lie," he insisted. "I repeat only what I was bid to say."
"What is your name?" Robert asked. He thought his question a mild one and therefore was surprised by the messenger's reaction. The young man actually paled like a frightened woman.
" Henley," he blurted out with a sigh, thankful he'd been able to remember it. "My name is Henley."
Dylan demanded Henley 's attention by prodding him to turn around again. The soldier quickly obeyed the order, dizzy now from twirling about in the center of the giants. He tried to concentrate only on the Buchanan commander, but it was difficult, for the other three were deliberately pressing in on him.
"Why did the MacDonald send a boy to give us this message?" Dylan asked contemptuously.
Henley 's Adam's apple bulged and wobbled as he swallowed. He didn't dare contradict the commander by arguing that he was a man, not a boy, and so he said, "My laird felt that a younger man would have a better chance of surviving your laird's temper. We have all witnessed your laird in battle and know of his remarkable strength. Many have claimed that they have seen him fell his enemy with but a flick of his wrist. We have also all heard that it is… unwise… to displease him. Laird MacDonald is not ashamed to admit that he respectfully fears your laird."
Dylan smiled. "Respectfully fears?"
Henley nodded. "My laird also said that Brodick…"
Liam shoved the messenger hard, sending him crashing into Robert. The warrior didn't flinch, but Henley felt as though he'd just run into a stone wall. He turned to Liam then, wishing with all his heart he had the nerve to suggest that if the warrior wanted to gain his attention, he simply say his name.
"Brodick is Laird Buchanan to you," Liam reminded him.
"Yes, Laird Buchanan," Henley quickly agreed.
"You were saying?" Aaron prodded.
Henley turned to his left to answer. "My laird said that Laird Buchanan is an honorable man and that he would not prey upon an unarmed man. I do not carry a weapon."
Henley was forced to whirl to the right when Dylan asked, "And does your laird also tell you that Brodick is reasonable?"
Henley knew that if he lied, the warriors would know it. "Nay, he said just the opposite," he admitted.
Dylan laughed. "Your honesty protects your hide."
Aaron spoke then, forcing the messenger to turn completely around.
"We don't kill messengers," he said.
"Unless, of course, we dislike the message." Robert grinned.
Henley turned back to address their leader once again. "There is more," he said. "I fear the rest will truly displease your laird." The quicker he got his message delivered, the quicker he could get out of their trap, and if God proved merciful, he would be well on his way home before Brodick arrived.
The laird had been summoned from the training fields below the holding and was irritated by the interruption, but when he heard that there was an urgent message, his heart leapt with hope that the news was from Iain Maitland, telling him that his son, Alec, had been found.
Gawain, another one of his trusted guards, dashed Brodick's hopes when he told him that the plaid the messenger wore was from the clan MacDonald.
The disappointment frustrated and angered him. He turned to Gawain and said, "Tomorrow we go back to the falls and search once again. Do you argue with me this time, Gawain?"
The soldier shook his head. "Nay, I know that it's futile to argue with you, Laird. Until you believe in your heart that the boy is dead, I'll continue to search as diligently as you."
"Do you believe Alec drowned?"
Gawain's sigh was weary. " 'Tis the truth I do." Brodick couldn't fault his friend for his honesty. He continued up the hill with Gawain at his side.
"His father taught Alec how to swim," he remarked.
"But if Alec hit his head on the rocks as the blood indicated, he would have been unconscious when he hit the water. Besides, even a grown man would have difficulty surviving the pounding falls."
"Neither Iain nor I believe Alec is dead."
"Laird Maitland mourns his son," Gawain said. "In time he will accept his death."
"No," Brodick argued. "Until there is a body to bury, neither one of us will accept."
"You were just appointed his champion," Gawain said. "Perhaps that is yet another reason you cannot accept. As his new protector…"
"A protector who failed," Brodick interrupted harshly. "I should have gone to the festival. I should have watched out for him. I don't even know if Iain gave Alec my dagger and if the boy knew…" He shook his head and forced himself to think about the present. "Go and take over the training. I'll join you as soon as I've heard what the MacDonald soldier has to say."
A draft blew into the great hall when the doors to the courtyard were thrown open. Henley heard the sound of Brodick's boots pounding against the stone floor and closed his eyes. His panic nearly made him faintheaded and it took a supreme act of courage to stand still and not try to run.
"The message damned well better be urgent. Where's the MacDonald soldier?" Brodick demanded as he strode into the hall.
Dylan nodded to the guards surrounding the messenger. "Move back so our laird may hear this important message," he ordered. He tried to sound serious, but knew he'd failed in that endeavor.
Brodick stood next to Dylan to face the messenger. Henley felt his shivers increase tenfold, for the two warriors were extremely daunting. The Buchanan laird was even taller than his commander. Brodick was a giant of a man, with thick bulging muscles in his shoulders and upper arms and thighs, indicating his raw, superior strength. His skin was richly bronzed, his long hair golden. His eyes bore into Henley with a gaze so intense and probing, the young soldier felt as though he were staring into the eyes of a lion who was about to have him for his supper.
Aye, he was in the lion's den, and heaven help him when he gave the rest of his message.
Dylan had terrified Henley before, but now that the commander stood next to his laird, he didn't seem quite as intimidating. In coloring, Dylan was the antithesis of Brodick, for he was as dark as the night. In size and bulk he was equal, but his manner was less threatening.
"I would hear this urgent message," Brodick commanded.
Henley flinched. He found it impossible to hold the laird's stare, and so he cowardly looked at the tops of his boots while he repeated word for word what he had memorized.
"The lady… she bids you to come to her at the church of Saint Thomas at the crossroads below the Len holding, and the lady, she… demands… yes, demands that you escort her to your home."
Henley darted a quick glance up to judge Brodick's reaction and wished with all his heart he hadn't been so curious. The scowl on the laird's face made the blood rush to his temples, and he feared he might disgrace the MacDonald name by passing out.
"She?" Brodick asked quietly.
"Tell him," Dylan ordered.
"Your bride," Henley blurted out. "The lady, she's your bride."
"This woman claims to be my bride?"
Henley nodded. " 'Tis true."
"The hell it is," Dylan replied.
"Nay, I meant to say only that she claims… She told me to say those very words. Laird, does my message displease you?" He held his breath while he waited for an answer. He firmly believed the gossip about Brodick and therefore thought his fate rested in the laird's reaction.
"It would depend upon the woman," Aaron said. "Know you if she is comely?"
Not only did Henley dare to contradict the warrior, but he also let a flash of anger appear in his expression and his voice while he was at it. "She is not a mere woman. She is a lady, a gentle lady."
"And what is this gentle lady's name?" Robert asked.
"Buchanan," Henley answered. "She calls herself Lady Buchanan." He took a deep breath and then said, "She must be your laird's wife, for she is most fitting. I believed her to be very sincere."
"She has obviously turned your head," Aaron interjected. "But then, you are a boy, and boys are easily influenced."
Henley ignored the criticism, his attention on the laird now. "May I speak my thoughts freely and tell you all that transpired?"
Brodick granted him permission, but Dylan qualified his laird's agreement. "As long as you speak only the truth."
"Yes, only the truth," Henley promised. "I was on my way home from the Lowlands when I was intercepted by a man I took to be a farmer. His voice was that of an Englishman. I was surprised, because it is unheard of for an Englishman to walk on Highland ground without it being known and permission granted. I thought the man was most impertinent, but I soon forgave him his transgression when I heard about his noble undertaking."
"What was his noble undertaking?" Aaron asked.
"He and his brother protected the lady."
"Only two men to protect such a treasure?" Robert mocked.
Henley ignored the comment and steeled himself against the laird's temper when he told him what he considered to be the worst of the news.
"Laird, your bride is English."
Liam, the quiet one of the group, let out a roar that so startled Henley he jumped. Robert muttered a dark curse, Aaron shook his head in disgust, and Dylan couldn't quite hide his grimace. Brodick seemed to be the only one unaffected by the announcement. He raised his hand for silence and calmly bid the messenger to continue.
"I didn't know about the lady at first," Henley explained. "The Englishman told me his name was Waldo, and he invited me to share his meager supper. He explained that he had been given permission to cross the Len holding by the old laird himself and that his wife's family was distantly related to the clan. I took his explanation as truth for I couldn't think of any reason why he would lie, and because I was both weary and hungry, I accepted his invitation. He seemed a likable sort-for an Englishman. After we ate, he told me he was very curious about the clans in the north. He knew of many of them and asked me to show him in the dirt with a stick where certain clans lived."
"Which clans in particular was he interested in?" Brodick's voice had turned hard.
"He was interested in the Sinclairs and the MacPhersons," Henley said. "But he was most interested in finding out where the Maitland clan was located and also where your clan resided, Laird. Aye, he was extremely curious about the Buchanans. 'Twas peculiar now that I think about it, but the farmer seemed disappointed to see how far north the Maitland clan lived. He smiled, though, when I showed him that your holding bordered the Sinclairs' and that it was the Sinclair holding that touched a corner of Maitland land. I should have asked him why he was so happy about this information, but I didn't."
"Did you think to ask him why he was interested in the clans?" Dylan asked.
Henley twitched over the anger in the warrior's tone. "Yes, I did ask," he answered. "Waldo told me he wanted to know who would give him permission to cross their land and who wouldn't. I told him he should turn around and go back home because none of the clans he had asked about would ever let him step on their ground."
"When did he tell you about the woman?" Aaron asked. Henley dared to correct the warrior once again. "She is a lady." Aaron rolled his eyes heavenward. "So you say," he replied. "I have yet to judge her so."
"Continue with this tale of yours," Dylan ordered.
"After I had drawn the map of the clans for Waldo, he asked me if I knew a warrior named Brodick."
"He is Laird to you," Liam snapped.
Henley quickly nodded. "I am only repeating the farmer's words to me," he rushed out. "He called your laird Brodick. I told him I did indeed know who he was asking about, and I also explained that he is called Laird Buchanan now. He asked many questions about you, Laird, but he was most interested in knowing, for a certainty, that you were… honorable. I told him that you were most honorable, and that was when he confessed his true reason for being in the Highlands. He said he was escorting your bride."
"Is that when her father's soldiers presented themselves?"
"Nay," Henley answered. "There were but two traveling with the lady, no less, no more, brothers they were, and much too old for such a duty. I searched for others, but there were none."
"What kind of father sends his daughter with but two old men to guard her?" Aaron asked.
"There were no others," Henley insisted. "Aye, they were old men, in their forties, but they were able to get her all the way to the Len holding, and that is quite a distance inside the Highlands. The brothers were very protective toward her. They wouldn't let me see her, but told me that she was inside the church. They gave me a message to relate to you, Laird, and then tried to send me on my way with the promise that you would richly reward me. I want nothing from you, though," he hastened to add, "for I have already been given my reward."
"And what was that?" Robert asked.
"I saw the lady and spoke to her. No gift could ever equal that moment."
Liam openly scoffed, but Henley ignored him. "Laugh if you wish, but you have not seen her yet, and you cannot understand."
"Tell us about her," Aaron commanded.
"She called out to me through the open window when I was leaving. I had agreed to gain permission from my laird to come to you, though in all honesty, I hoped Laird MacDonald would give the errand to another, because I had great trepidation about coming here."
"Get to the point," Dylan ordered.
The commander was curious over Brodick's reaction, for his laird hadn't said much of anything at all since the questioning had begun. He appeared to be somewhat bored by the news that an Englishwoman was claiming to be his bride.
Henley cleared his throat before continuing. "The lady, she called out to me and I leapt from my horse and rushed to the window before Waldo and his brother could stop me, as I was most curious to see her and hear what she had to say."
The messenger paused as he remembered the vivid details of that enchanting moment. His entire demeanor changed in the blink of an eye from fearful to that of a man besotted, and his voice became as smooth as honey as he recounted the meeting.
"I saw her clearly and stood close enough to touch her hand."
"And did you touch her?" Brodick asked the question in a soft, chilling tone.
Henley frantically shook his head. "Nay, I would never dare such audacity," he insisted. "Your bride has been sorely mistreated, Laird," he added. "One side of her face was bruised, her skin the color of saffron with purple marks along her jaw and cheekbone. There was still some swelling evident, and I noticed other bruises on her hands and her right arm. Her left arm was bandaged from elbow to wrist, and there were bloodstains on the white linen. I wanted to ask the gentle lady how she had come by her injuries, but the words got trapped in my throat, and I found it impossible to speak a word. I could see the pain and weariness in her eyes, her glorious green eyes so like the color of our hills in spring, and I couldn't take my gaze away from her," he admitted with a blush. "I believed in that moment that I was seeing an angel."
Henley turned to address Aaron. "You asked me if she was comely, but that word does not do Laird Buchanan's bride justice."
His face turned as red as fire as he added, "The lady… she is very beautiful… aye, she must be an angel, for I swear to you she is perfection."
Brodick hid his exasperation over the soldier's enthralled description of the Englishwoman. Angel, indeed, he thought to himself. An angel who blatantly lied.
"Did you describe the lady's perfection to your laird or any others in your clan?" Brodick asked.
"I did," Henley admitted. "But I didn't overly embellish."
"Why not?" Robert wanted to know.
Henley knew better than to turn his back on Laird Buchanan. It would be perceived as an insult, and for that reason he didn't look at Robert when he answered him. "I knew they would go and claim her for their own if they knew the full impression she had made upon me. I told my laird the truth, that two Englishmen asked me to relay a message to your laird. I told him the brothers wished to let you know that the time had come for you to go and fetch your bride. My laird was content with that much information and bid me come to you… but his commander wanted more details."
"Balcher questioned you?" Dylan asked.
"Yes," Henley answered.
"And what did you tell him?" Robert asked.
"He asked me directly if the lady was in the Highlands now, and I couldn't, and wouldn't, ever lie to him. I answered that she was. I wasn't specific, though," he admitted. "I had given my word to the lady that I would tell only you, Laird, of her exact whereabouts."
"Then you lied to Balcher?" Dylan questioned.
Henley shook his head. "No, I didn't. I told my commander that the lady was near the Len holding. I didn't mention the church."
"So even now Balcher could be on his way to steal Brodick's woman," Aaron muttered.
"I was not sworn to secrecy, and so I can tell you that without a doubt Balcher will scour the Len holding looking for the lady. Everyone in the Highlands knows how much he would like to best you, Laird, and if he can steal your bride…"
"He dares to take what belongs to us," Liam interjected, outraged by the possibility.
"If even one of the MacDonalds touches her, they will all die." Robert voiced what the others were thinking. "Is that not true?"
"Aye, it is," Liam agreed.
"I do not think you understand," Henley said. "If my clansmen see her, they will not care about your laird's wrath. They will become too besotted to think clearly."
Aaron shoved the messenger. "As you were besotted?" he asked.
"'Tis the truth I was."
"But you didn't touch her?" Dylan asked.
"I have just told your laird that I did not touch her, and I value my life too much to lie to any of you. Besides, even if she were not your laird's bride, I wouldn't have dishonored her by trying to touch her. She is the most gentle of ladies."
"Balcher won't care about honor," Robert muttered.
Dylan was annoyed. Robert and Aaron and Liam had suddenly turned into the lady's champions. "Not five minutes ago you were outraged by this message," he reminded them. "What has caused this change in attitude?"
"The MacDonalds," Robert answered.
"Specifically Balcher," Aaron interjected.
"The lady belongs to Brodick and no other shall have her," Robert decreed.
So ludicrous had the conversation become, Brodick couldn't hold back his smile. "I have not claimed her," he reminded the warriors.
"But she has claimed you, Laird," Liam argued.
"And that makes it so?" Dylan asked.
Before anyone could answer, Brodick held up his hand for silence. "I would ask one last question of this messenger, and I would like to be able to hear his answer."
"Yes, Laird?" Henley asked, shivering anew.
"You have told me that she called you to the window to speak to you, but you haven't told me what she said."
"She sent an additional message to you."
"A request?" Aaron asked.
Henley found his first smile. "Nay,'twas not a request but an order."
"She gives me an order?" Brodick was astounded by the woman's temerity.
Henley took a deep breath, hoping it wasn't going to be his last, and then blurted out, "She commands you to hurry."
Gillian was having second thoughts about her rash plan. She and Alec had waited in the abandoned church for almost twenty-four hours now, and that was surely long enough for the laird to reach her, if he had been so inclined.
She felt ill and knew that if she sat down she probably wouldn't have enough strength to get back up again, and so she paced up and down the main aisle while she thought about their circumstances.
"We're going to have to leave soon," she told the little boy. "We simply cannot continue to wait."
Alec sat on a chair with his legs folded under him watching her.
"You don't look so good, Gillian. Are you sick?"
"No," she lied. "I'm just weary."
"You just ate."
"But then I threw up."
"Yes, because you ate too fast," she replied.
She went to the back of the church, where she'd placed her cloth satchel and the basket of food her dear friends the Hathaway brothers had stolen for her. She glanced out the window and saw Henry pacing about the clearing.
"What are you staring at?" Alec asked.
"The Hathaways," she answered. "I don't know what we would have done without them. Years ago they helped me get to my uncle's home. They were very courageous. Neither one of them thought twice about helping me again. I must find a way to repay them," she added.
She handed Alec a wedge of cheese and a thick square of bread. "Please eat slowly this time."
He took a bite of the cheese and then asked, "Uncle Brodick will be here soon, won't he?"
"Remember your manners, Alec. It isn't polite to talk with a mouth full of food."
"You know what?" he asked, ignoring her criticism.
"We can't leave 'cause then Uncle Brodick will be mad when he gets here and can't find us. We got to wait for him."
She sat down next to him on the chair. "We'll give him one more hour, but that's all. All right?"
He nodded. "I hate waiting."
"I do too," she admitted.
"Gillian? What are you gonna do if you can't find your sister?"
"I will find her," she countered. "I must."
"You got to find that box too," he said. "I heard the baron tell you so."
"I don't know. The box disappeared years ago."
"But you told the baron you knew where it was."
"I lied," she said. "It was all I could think of at the time to get him to leave you alone. My father gave the box to my sister to take with her. There was an accident…"
"But how come the baron wants the old box, anyway?"
"It's extremely valuable, and it's also the key to a mystery that happened a long time ago. Would you like to hear the story?"
"Is it scary?"
"A little. Do you still want to hear it?"
He eagerly nodded. "I like scary stories."
She smiled. "All right then, I'll tell you. It seems that before John was King-"
"He was a prince."
"Yes, he was, and he was madly in love with a young lady named Arianna. She was said to be very beautiful-"
"As beautiful as you?"
The question took her aback. "You think me beautiful?"
"Thank you, but Arianna was far more beautiful than any other lady in the kingdom. She had golden hair that shimmered in the sunlight-"
"Did she get sick and die?"
"No, she didn't get sick, but she did die."
"Did she just up and keel over the way Angus did?"
"Then what happened to her?"
She laughed. "I'll get this story told much quicker if you stop interrupting me. Now then, where was I? Oh, yes, as I was saying, Prince John was smitten with the beautiful woman-"
"What does'smitten' mean?"
"It means he was taken with her. He liked her." She rushed on when she saw he was about to interrupt her again. "She was his first true love, and he wanted to marry her. Have you ever heard of Saint Columba's box?"
He shook his head. "What is it?"
"A jeweled case that belongs to the Scots," she explained. "A long, long time ago, the sacred remains of Saint Columba were put inside the case-"
"Fragments of bones," she answered. "Now, as I was saying, the remains were placed inside the box, and the Scots carried it into battle with them."
"How come they wanted to carry bones into battle?"
"They believed that having the case with them would bring them victory over their enemies."
"I suppose so," she said. "The practice of carrying the box into battle is still going on. They don't take the box into every single battle, just some," she added.
"How come you know about the box?"
"My Uncle Morgan told me about it."
"I'll bet it's the Lowlanders who carry the box, not the Highlanders."
"Why do you say that?"
"'Cause Highlanders don't need a box when they fight. They always win 'cause they're stronger and meaner. You know what my Uncle Ennis says?"
"No, but I'm guessing he said something outrageous."
"He says when English soldiers see more than three Highlanders riding toward them, they drop their swords and run away like scared rabbits."
"Not all Englishmen are like the baron. Most are quite courageous," she insisted.
He wasn't interested in her defense of the English. "Aren't you going to tell me what happened to the pretty lady and King John?" After asking the question, he turned and spit on the ground.
She ignored his crude behavior and continued on with the tale. "John took a fancy to the story of the Scottish jeweled box and decided to create a legend of his own. He commissioned his artisan-"
"What does 'commissioned' mean?"
"He ordered his artisan," she qualified, "to make a beautiful jeweled box for him. John has always loved being clever and cunning, and so he also decreed that he would be the only one who knew how to open the box. The artisan took over a year to complete the design and build the box, and when it was finally finished, it was said to be quite grand. It was impossible to tell which was the top and which was the bottom, though, because there were no visible latches or keyholes. The entire exterior was covered in a series of gold strips that crisscrossed, with sapphires as blue as the sky on a sunny day and emeralds as green as-"
"Your eyes?" he eagerly guessed.
"And there were rubies too, bright red rubies-"
"As red as blood?"
"Perhaps," she allowed. "All the precious jewels were set between the golden crisscrosses. Only John knew where to press to get the box to open."
"That's not true. The man who made the box knows how to open it."
"That's exactly what John realized," she said. "And so he did a terrible thing. He ordered the artisan's death."
"Did King John"-he paused to spit again before continuing his question-"kill the pretty lady and put her bones in his box?"
"Oh, no, the box was much too small," she explained. "Besides, John only wanted a lock of Arianna's hair because he was certain she would bring him good fortune when he went into battle. He opened the box, put his jeweled dagger inside, and then ordered his squire to take the box to Lady Arianna's chamber with specific orders that she put a lock of her golden hair into his golden box."
"Then what happened?"
"Lady Arianna received the open box and the dagger from the squire. He went into her chamber and placed it on the table, then took his leave. He later told the prince that she was the only person inside the room. Not even her lady's maid was present."
"I know what happened next. She stole the box and the jeweled dagger, didn't she?"
Gillian smiled over the child's enthusiasm. "No, she didn't steal the box. According to the story, when John's squire left her chamber, he heard her lock the door. He returned later to get the box for the prince, but Lady Arianna wouldn't answer his summons. John then went to her chamber."
"Did she let him in?"
"Did she tell him to go away?"
"No," she answered. "Not a sound could be heard from the room. John has always been known for his impatience. It didn't take long for him to become very angry because she refused to answer him, and so he ordered his soldiers to break the door down. They used their hatchets. John went rushing inside and he was the one who found her. Poor Lady Arianna was lying in a pool of blood on the floor. Someone had stabbed her."
"Then did John put her bones in his box?"
"No, he didn't. Remember I told you the box was far too small to hold her bones. Besides, neither the box nor the dagger was there. They had disappeared."
"Where'd they go?"
"Ah, that's the mystery."
"Who killed the pretty lady?"
"No one knows. John ordered his soldiers to search the kingdom for the box, but it had vanished into thin air. He believes that whoever stole the box murdered his own true love. Uncle Morgan told me that every couple of years a rumor surfaces that Arianna's box has been seen, and John renews his efforts to find it. The reward he's offered is staggeringly high, but to this day it hasn't been claimed."
"You know what?"
"The lady's better off dead than married to King John." After making his comment, he once again turned away from her and spit on the floor.
"Why are you doing that?"
"I got to," he replied. "Whenever we say his name, we got to spit. It's a sign of how we feel."
She was both appalled and amused at the same time. "Do you mean to tell me that everyone in the Highlands spits each time one of them says King John's name?"
"Some curse, but Mama won't let me."
"I should hope not."
"Brodick curses when he's got to say your king's name. Are you gonna tell him to stop?" After asking the question, he began to giggle.
The sound proved infectious, and she lightly tapped him on the bridge of his nose. "You are the dearest little boy," she whispered. "But you do ask the most bizarre questions."
"But will you tell Brodick to stop?" he prodded.
She rolled her eyes heavenward. "Should he ever happen to say King John's name and then curse-or spit," she added, "I would, of course, order him to stop."
He burst into laughter. "You're gonna be sorry if you try to tell him what to do. He won't like it," he said. "I wish he'd hurry up and get here."
"I do too."
"Maybe you should have sent the dagger like you were going to," he said. "How come you changed your mind?"
"If I sent Brodick the dagger he gave you, he would know the reason I wanted to see him had something to do with you, but then I worried that someone else might see the dagger, and it was simply too risky. I don't know who to trust."
"But you saw the traitor riding down the path," he reminded her. "You said you watched him from the hilltop while I was sleeping."
"Yes, I did see him, but remember what I told you? We aren't going to let anyone know about that."
"Not even Brodick?"
"No, not even Brodick."
"How much longer do we have to wait?"
She patted his hand. "I think we've waited as long as we can. He isn't going to come for us, but I don't want you to worry. We'll find another way to get you home."
"'Cause you promised, right?"
"Yes, because I promised. What was I thinking? It was a foolish idea to tell that MacDonald soldier I was Brodick's bride."
"But maybe Brodick needs a bride. He might come for us."
"I should have offered him gold."
Alec snorted. "Brodick doesn't care about gold."
She smiled. "It's just as well because I don't have any."
His eyes widened. "You would lie to Uncle Brodick?"
"I lied about being his bride."
"He's gonna be angry when he gets here, but I won't let him shout at you."
"Thank you. You aren't still angry with me, are you?"
"I was," he admitted. "But now I'm not."
"You needed a bath. You were rank."
"Brodick's gonna think you're pretty, but you know what?"
"He won't tell you so. Do you want him to think you're pretty?"
"Not particularly," she answered, her mind clearly on more important matters. "We can't wait any longer, Alec. We're going to have to go on alone. Finish your food, and then we'll leave."
"But if you don't want Brodick to think you're pretty, how come you put on your pretty green clothes?"
She sighed. Alec asked the most outrageous questions. Inconsequential matters seemed to be extremely important to him, and he wouldn't let up until she gave him what he considered an adequate answer.
"I put on these clothes because my other gown was dirty."
He took another bite of bread while he thought about her answer, and then said, "You know what?"
She held on to her patience. "No, what?"
"You're gonna be afraid of Brodick."
"Why do you say that?"
"'Cause ladies are always afraid of him."
"Well, I won't be afraid," she insisted. "Stop talking now and finish your food."
A knock sounded on the door, and Gillian stood up just as Waldo, the older Hathaway, rushed inside.
"We've got trouble, milady," he blurted out. "The MacDonald soldier… the one I gave the message to…"
He frantically nodded. "He must have told the other MacDonalds you Were here, because there's over thirty of them coming across the meadow below. They're all wearing the same colors as Henley, but I didn't see him among the soldiers."
"I don't understand," she replied. "I didn't tell Henley about Alec. Why would his clan come here?"
"I'm thinking they're here to claim you, milady."
She was startled by the suggestion and shook her head. "But they can't claim me."
Waldo looked bleak and weary. "They do things different in these parts," he told her. "If they want something, they take it."
She grabbed Alec's hand and pulled him to his feet. "We're leaving now. Waldo, get your brother and meet us at the horses. Hurry."
"But, milady," Waldo protested. "There's more to the telling. There's another clan on the opposite side of the meadow riding hard toward the MacDonalds. I don't know for certain who they are, but I'm thinking they must be the Buchanans you sent for. There's nine of them."
"If it's Brodick and his soldiers, then they're pitifully outnumbered."
"Nay, milady, it's the MacDonalds I pity. I ain't never seen the like of these warriors. They're ferocious looking, and I could see by the way the MacDonalds were backing away, they fear them. If there's blood shed this day, I don't think it's going to be a Buchanan doing the bleeding. Are you certain you want to put yourself and the boy in the hands of such savages?"
She didn't know what to think, and she was in such a panic inside, her heart felt as if it might stop. "I hope it is Brodick and his men," she whispered.
Alec was struggling to get away from her so he could go outside and watch the fight, but she tightened her hold on him and wouldn't let go.
"Waldo, you and Henry should leave now before they get here. I thank you for all you've done for Alec and me. Hurry now, before you're seen."
Waldo shook his head. "My brother and I will not leave until we are assured you will fare well, milady. We'll stand guard at the door. The soldiers will have to kill us before they can get to you."
She couldn't dissuade him from what he considered a noble undertaking. As soon as he went back outside, she turned to Alec.
"Tell me what Brodick looks like," she demanded.
"He looks like Brodick," he answered.
"But what exactly does he look like?"
He shrugged. "He's big," he whispered. Then he smiled because he'd thought of something else he could add. "And old."
He nodded. "Terrible old," he explained.
She didn't believe him. "What color is his hair?"
"You re sure?"
He nodded. "And you know what?"
Her heart had sunk to her stomach. "No, what?"
"He doesn't hear too good."
She had to sit down. "Why didn't you tell me Brodick was an old man before I sent the message that I was his bride? The shock could have sent him to his grave." She jumped back up and pulled Alec along. "We're leaving."
"But what about the Buchanans?"
"It's apparent the other clan in the meadow isn't Brodick's. Waldo would have told me if any of the warriors had been old."
"I want to go look. I can tell you if it's the Buchanans."
Waldo opened the door and shouted, "The MacDonalds have taken off, milady, and the other clan is coming this way."
Gillian grabbed Alec by the shoulders and forced him to look at her. "I want you to hide behind that stone font until I find out who these men are. I don't want you to say a word, Alec. Promise me… please."
"Promise me," she demanded.
"Can I come out if it's Brodick?"
"Not until I've talked to him and gained his promise that he'll help both of us."
"All right," he said. "I promise I'll be quiet."
She was so pleased to get his cooperation she kissed him on his cheek. He immediately wiped it away with the back of his hand and squirmed when she hugged him.
"You're always kissing me," he complained with a wide grin that told her he really didn't mind. "Just like my mama."
"Go hide," she said as she led him to the back of the church.
He took hold of her left arm, and she grimaced in reaction. The injury from the knife wounds still hadn't healed, and from the way it was throbbing, she knew it was infected.
Alec had seen her flinch. "You need my mama's medicine," he whispered. "Then you'd feel better."
"I'm sure I would," she replied. "Now, Alec, not one word," she cautioned. "No matter what happens, you stay put and don't make a sound. May I have the dagger Brodick gave you?"
"But it's mine."
"I know it's yours. I would just like to borrow it," she assured him.
He handed the dagger to her, but as she turned to walk away, he whispered, "It's awful dark here."
"I'm here with you, so there isn't any need to be afraid."
"I hear them coming."
"I do too," she whispered back.
"Gillian, are you scared?"
"Yes. Now, be quiet."
She rushed down the center aisle and stood in front of the altar to wait. A moment later she heard Waldo shouting the order to halt. The command was obviously ignored because a second later the door flew open, and there in the center of the arch stood the most intimidating warrior she had ever seen. He was a towering figure with long, flaxen hair and deeply tanned skin. Barely covered, he wore only a muted plaid that didn't quite reach the tops of his knees. A wide strip of the cloth angled over his massive and scarred chest and draped down over his left shoulder. A dirk protruded from one of his deerskin boots, but he didn't carry a sword.
The man hadn't even stepped inside the church yet, but she was already quaking in her shoes. The sheer size of him blocked out most of the sun, though streaks of golden light shone all around him, making him appear almost ethereal. She gripped the dagger behind her back, and after slipping it into the sleeve of her gown, she slowly brought her hands forward and folded them in an attempt to fool him into believing she was thoroughly composed.
The warrior stood immobile for several seconds, his gaze searching for any threat that might be lurking in the corners, and when he was convinced she was all alone, he ducked under the doorframe, stepped inside, and slammed the door shut behind him.
Brodick strode down the aisle, shaking the rafters of the little church with each hard step as specks of dust rained down from the ceiling. Gillian valiantly held her ground.
Blessedly, when he was just a couple of feet away, he stopped, then clasped his hands behind his back and insolently studied her, his gaze moving from the top of her head to her feet and then back again. He took his sweet time, and after he had finished his rude inspection, he kept his eyes locked on hers and waited for her to speak.
She had planned for this moment and had rehearsed exactly what she would say to him. She would begin by introducing herself because that was the polite thing to do, and then she would ask him his name. He would tell her he was Brodick, but she wouldn't believe him until he had proven his identity by answering several questions she had cleverly come up with, a test, actually, to determine that she could trust him.
Aye, she was going to be clever with her questioning, and just as soon as she could calm down, she would begin. The way he was looking at her was unnerving, and she was having difficulty coming up with a single thought.
He quickly grew impatient. "Are you the woman claiming to be my bride?"
The anger in his voice heated her face. She felt herself blush with mortification. "Yes, I am."
He was surprised by her honesty. "Why?"
"I don't usually…"
"Usually what?" he asked, wondering why she was so nervous. His stance was relaxed, his hands were clasped behind his back, and he had given Dylan his sword before coming into the church. Surely she realized he wasn't going to do her any harm.
"I don't usually lie," she explained, thrilled that she could remember what she was talking about. Staring at his chin helped, for his eyes were too intense. "You aren't old." She blurted out the thought and then smiled. "I was told you were very old," she whispered, "… with white hair."
And then she laughed, convincing Brodick she was out of her mind.
"I believe I should start all over. My name is Lady Gillian, and I really am sorry I lied, but claiming to be your bride was the only way I could think of to get you to travel such a long distance."
He shrugged. "The distance wasn't great."
"It wasn't?" she asked in surprise. "Then, pray tell, why did it take you so long to get here? We've been waiting in this church for a very long time."
"We?" he asked quietly.
"Yes, we," she replied. "The Hathaway brothers… the two guards outside the door… and I have been waiting all that time."
"Why were you so certain I'd show up at all?"
"Curiosity," she answered. "And I was right, wasn't I? That's why you came."
A hint of a smile softened his expression. "Yes," he agreed. "I wanted to meet the woman who dared such audacity."
"You are Brodick… I mean to say, you are Laird Buchanan, aren't you?"
Her face lit up with relief. Damn, but she was pretty. The messenger hadn't lied about her appeal, Brodick thought. If anything, Henley had understated her beauty.
"I was going to test you to make certain you really were Brodick, but one look at you convinces me. I was told, you see, that your glare could part a tree trunk, and from the way you're scowling at me, I do believe you could do it. You're quite intimidating, but you know that, don't you?"
He didn't show any reaction to her remarks. "What is it you want from me?"
"I want… no, I need," she qualified, "your help. I have a very valuable treasure with me and I need assistance getting it home."
"Aren't there any Englishmen who could come to your aid?"
"It's complicated, Laird."
"Start at the beginning," he suggested, surprised by his own willingness to extend this meeting. Her voice appealed to him; it was soft, lyrical, yet husky and sensual, as sensual as the woman herself. Brodick was conditioned to keeping his thoughts hidden, and for that reason he was certain she didn't have any idea of the effect she was having on him. Her wonderful scent was a clear distraction. It was very feminine and smelled faintly of flowers, which he found both alluring and arousing. He had to fight the urge to move closer to her.
"This should explain everything you need to know," she said as she slowly removed the dagger and sheath from her sleeve and held it up for him to see.
He reacted with lightning speed. Before she could even guess his intent, he'd snatched the dagger out of her hand, grabbed hold of her injured arm, and jerked her forcefully toward him. Towering over her, he demanded, "Where did you get this?"
"I will explain," she cried out. "But please let go of me. You're hurting me."
The tears in her eyes confirmed her words. Brodick immediately let go of her and stepped back. "Now explain," he demanded again.
"I borrowed the dagger," she said, and then she turned and called out, "Alec, you may come out now."
Brodick had never been so close to losing his composure. When the Maitland boy came running toward him, he felt his knees buckle and his heart lodge in his throat. He was too stunned to say a word, and then Alec threw himself into his arms. Brodick's hands shook as he lifted him up and clasped him to his chest.
The little boy wrapped his arms around his protector's neck and hugged him. "I knew you would come. I told Gillian you would help us."
"You are well, Alec?" he asked, his voice trembling with emotion. He turned to Gillian questioning her with his eyes, but she was watching Alec with a soft, motherly smile on her face.
"Answer him, Alec," she instructed.
The child leaned back in Brodick's arms and nodded. "I'm very well, Uncle. The lady, she took good care of me. She gave me her food to eat and went hungry when there wasn't enough for both of us, and you know what? She wouldn't let nobody hurt me, not even when the man wanted to."
Brodick stared at Gillian while Alec chattered away, but nodded when the little boy had finished his explanation.
"You will tell me exactly what happened," he told Gillian. It wasn't a question but a statement of fact.
"Yes," she agreed. "I'll tell you everything."
"Uncle, you know what?"
Brodick turned to Alec. "No, what?"
"I didn't drown."
Brodick was still too shaken to laugh over the ridiculous understatement. "I can see you didn't," he answered dryly.
"But did you think I did? I told Gillian you wouldn't believe it, 'cause you're stubborn, but did you?"
"No, I didn't believe you drowned."
Alec leaned around Brodick so he could see Gillian. "I told you so," he boasted before turning his attention to his uncle once again. "They put me in a wheat sack, and I got real scared."
"Who put you in a sack?" he demanded, trying to keep the anger out of his voice so he wouldn't frighten the child.
"The men who took me. I maybe even cried." He sounded as though he were confessing a terrible sin. "I wasn't brave, Uncle, but you know what? Gillian said I was."
"Who were these men who put you in a sack?"
His abruptness worried the boy, and he looked down when he answered forlornly, "I don't know. I didn't see their faces."
"Alec, he isn't angry with you. Why don't you go and collect our things while I speak in private to your uncle."
Brodick gently lowered Alec and watched him run to the front of the church.
"Will you help me get him home to his parents?" she asked.
He turned to her. "I'll make certain he gets home."
"And so will I," she insisted. "I made Alec a promise, and I mean to keep it, but I must also speak to his father. The matter is extremely urgent. Besides," she added, "I trust you, Laird Buchanan, but I don't trust anyone else. I was told eight men ride with you today. Is that true?"
"I would like to see every one of them before Alec steps outside."
"You want to look at them?" he asked, puzzled by the bizarre request. "They're Buchanans," he added, "and that's all you need to know."
Alec came running down the aisle just as Gillian made her demand once again. "I will see them first."
"'Cause you know why, Uncle?"
Brodick looked at the little boy. "Why?"
"She saw the traitor," he blurted out, wanting to be the first to explain. "I fell asleep, but Gillian saw him good. She told me so. She made us hide a long time just so she could see him. He's a Highlander," he thought to add.
"Oh, Alec, you weren't supposed to tell anyone-"
"I forgot," he interrupted. "But Brodick won't tell nobody if you ask him not to."
"The man I saw is probably just now on his way back to the Highlands," she said. "I don't know how long he was going to stay in England, but I'm not taking any chances. It's better to be safe."
"And you want to see my soldiers just to make certain one of them isn't the man you saw?" he asked, his outrage clearly evident.
She was suddenly feeling so weary she needed to sit down, and she certainly wasn't in the mood to be diplomatic and come up with a suitable reply that would placate the laird. "Yes, that's exactly what I'm wanting to do, Laird Buchanan."
"You have said that you trust me."
"Yes," she agreed, and then quickly qualified her answer. "But only because I have to trust someone, and you are Alec's protector, but I'm not going to trust anyone else. Alec told me he thought that there were three Highlanders who took him from the festival, but there could be more besides the man who planned the kidnapping, so you see, Alec is still in danger, and I'm going to continue to guard him until I get him safely home."
Before he could respond to her argument, a whistle sounded outside, drawing his attention. "We must leave now," he announced. "My men grow impatient, and it's only a matter of time before the MacDonalds gather more soldiers and come back here."
"Are you feuding with the MacDonalds?" Alec asked.
"We weren't," Brodick answered. "But now it seems we are."
"Why?" Gillian asked, puzzled by his half-given explanation to Alec. "The MacDonald I met was a very pleasant gentleman, and he obviously was also a man of his word because he kept his promise and took my message to you."
Brodick nodded. "Aye, Henley was his name, and he did give me your message, but only after he had told his laird and pricked the curiosity of his clan."
"And they came here to fight you?" she asked, trying to understand.
He smiled. "Nay, lass, they came to steal you, and that, you see, is an insult I cannot allow."
She was astounded. "Steal me?" she whispered. "Why in heaven's name would they want to do that?"
He shook his head to let her know he wasn't willing to go into further explanation. "As much as I would like to kill a few MacDonalds, I will have to wait until after I have gotten you and Alec to the Maitlands. We're leaving now."
Alec would have run to the door if Gillian hadn't grabbed hold of his hand and forced him to stay by her side. "You will wait until I'm convinced that it's safe for you to go outside."
"But I don't want to wait."
"And I don't want to hear any argument, young man. You'll do as you're told. Do you understand me?"
Alec immediately looked to Brodick for help. "I keep telling her my papa's a laird and she's not supposed to tell me what to do all the time, but she won't listen. She isn't afraid of Papa at all. Maybe you should tell her."
Brodick hid his amusement. "Tell her what?"
"To let me have my way."
"The lady wants to do what's best for you, Alec."
"But tell her about Papa," he pleaded.
Brodick conceded. "Iain Maitland is a powerful man in the Highlands," he said. "Many fear his wrath."
She smiled sweetly. "Is that right?"
"Many would also guard what they say to his son."
Alec was nodding his agreement when Gillian looked at him. "I am more interested in keeping you alive than in winning your father's approval by spoiling you and perhaps getting you killed."
"Let me see your arm," Brodick demanded.
She blinked. "Why?"
He didn't answer her or wait for her to comply with his command but took hold of her hand and pushed the sleeve up past her elbow. A thick bandage covered her skin, but he could see from the swelling and the redness at her wrist that the injury was infected.
"How did this happen?"
Alec squeezed closer to her side. "Are you gonna tell on me?" he whispered worriedly.
Brodick pretended he hadn't heard the boy's question. He had his answer; Alec was somehow responsible for Gillian's injury, and later, when he and Alec were alone, he would get the particulars. For now he would let the matter rest.
Gillian and the boy were clearly exhausted, for both had dark circles under their eyes. Her complexion was flushed, and Brodick was pretty certain she was feverish. He knew that if the wound wasn't taken care of soon, she would be in real trouble.
"It isn't important how I hurt myself, Laird."
"You will call me Brodick," he said.
"As you wish," she replied, wondering why his voice had softened and the scowl had left his face.
Before she realized what he was doing, he grabbed hold of her chin and tilted her head to one side so he could see the faint marks on her cheeks. "How did you come by this bruise?"
"The man, he hit her with his fist," Alec blurted out, thankful his uncle's attention had turned away from Gillian's arm. He was ashamed that he had cut her and hoped that his uncle would never find out. "And, Uncle Brodick, you know what?" he rushed on.
Brodick was frowning at Gillian when he answered. "What?"
"Her back is all black and blue too. It used to be, anyway, and maybe it still is."
"Alec, do be quiet."
"But it's the truth. I saw the bruises when you got out of the lake."
"You were supposed to be sleeping," she said before pushing Brodick's hand away from her face. "May I see your soldiers now?"
"Yes," he replied.
She had intended to leave Alec inside while she stepped out on the step to look at the soldiers, but Brodick had other ideas. He whistled, loud and shrill, causing Alec to giggle and cover his ears with his hands. The door flew wide and eight men immediately rushed inside the church. Gillian noticed that every single one of them had to duck under the doorframe. Were all the Buchanans giants?
The second the door had opened, she had shoved Alec behind her back, thinking to protect him, which really was laughable considering the sheer size and obvious strength of the warriors coming toward her. Brodick saw how she shielded the boy and tried not to take offense over the insult she was giving him and his soldiers. Though considered ruthless against their enemies, the Buchanans would never raise a hand against a woman or a child. Everyone who lived in the Highlands knew them to be honorable, but Gillian was from England, and he therefore excused her behavior because she didn't know any better.
Dylan tossed his laird's sword to him as he strode forward, and Brodick slipped the weapon into the sheath at his side, inwardly smiling over the stunned soldiers' faces. They were obviously taken with the beautiful lady, for they couldn't take their eyes off her.
His amusement quickly turned to irritation, however, and he found he didn't like them openly staring at Gillian after all. It was one thing to look, and quite another to gawk. Hadn't they ever seen a pretty woman before?
Alec peeked out from behind Gillian, spotted Dylan, and waved to him. The commander's step faltered, and he bumped into Robert, who promptly shoved him back.
Gillian studied each man while Brodick kept his attention focused on her. "You are convinced now?" he asked calmly after she had finished scrutinizing each one of his soldiers.
"Yes, I am convinced."
"Is that a Maitland hiding behind a woman's skirts?" Dylan asked, his composure still not completely recovered. "I swear to God, the brat looks like Alec Maitland."
Alec immediately ran to Dylan and laughed with delight when the soldier lifted him high up over his head. "She made me hide. I didn't want to, but she made me."
"We thought you drowned, boy," Liam whispered, his voice as raspy as dried leaves.
Dylan lowered Alec and settled him against his shoulder. The child immediately put his arms around the warrior's neck and then leaned to the side so he could see the others. "I didn't drown," he announced.
The eight soldiers surrounded Alec, but several continued to stare at Gillian. Broderick took a possessive step closer to her and scowled his displeasure at Liam and Robert, the worst offenders, so that they would know their laird was angered by their behavior.
"Is the Maitland holding a great distance from here?"
"No," he answered. "Robert, get her satchel and tie it behind your mount," he ordered as he took hold of Gillian's hand and started for the door. "Alec will ride with you, Dylan," he added, and as he marched past Robert, he muttered, "Have you never seen a pretty woman before?"
"Never one as pretty as this," Robert replied.
Dylan shifted Alec to one side and stepped forward to boldly block his laird's path. "Aren't you going to introduce us to your bride, Laird?"
"She's Lady Gillian," he said. He then introduced his soldiers to her, but he said their names so quickly and in such a thick brogue, she only caught one or two.
She would have made a curtsy, but Brodick continued to hold her hand, and so she bowed her head instead. "It is a pleasure to meet you," she said slowly, speaking in Gaelic for the first time since she had met Brodick, and she thought she had done an adequate job until they all smiled at her. Were they pleased with her attempt at their language or were they laughing at her because she'd failed miserably? Her speech became more halting with her growing lack of confidence when she continued, "And I would thank you now for your assistance in helping me get Alec back to his parents."
She was thrilled when all of them nodded.
Robert stepped forward. "Are you his bride?" he asked, blunt as always.
"No," she answered, blushing slightly.
"But you claimed to be his bride," Aaron reminded her.
She smiled. "Yes, I did, but you see, it was just a lie to make your laird curious so that he would come here."
"A claim's a claim," Liam said. The others immediately concurred.
"What does that mean?" she asked the warrior.
Dylan smiled. "It means, lass, that you're his bride."
"But I lied," she argued, thoroughly confused by the conversation. Her explanation seemed simple to understand, yet these soldiers were acting perplexed.
"You have said it is so," a soldier said. She remembered his name was Stephen.
"Now isn't the time for this discussion," Brodick announced.
He led the way outside, pulling Gillian along in his wake, and barely paid any attention to the two Englishmen waiting by the side of the steps. The horses were tethered near the line of trees.
"You'll ride with me," Brodick told her.
She pulled away from him. "I must say good-bye to my friends."
Before he could stop her, she hurried over to Waldo and Henry. Both men bowed their heads and smiled when she spoke to them. Brodick couldn't hear what she was saying, but he could tell from the men's faces that they were pleased.
When he saw her take hold of their hands, he went back to her side. "We've wasted enough time."
She ignored him. "Laird, I would like you to meet Waldo and Henry Hathaway," she said. "If it were not for these courageous men, Alec and I would never have made it this far."
He didn't speak, but he did bow his head slightly to the two brothers.
"Waldo, will you please return the horse I borrowed," she requested.
"But you stole the horse, milady," Henry blurted out.
"No," she countered. "I borrowed the mount without permission. Please promise me, too, that you will both hide until this is finished. If he finds out you helped me, he'll kill you."
"Aye, milady," Waldo said. "We know what the blackheart is capable of, and we will both hide until you return. God protect you on your quest."
Tears came into her eyes. "Twice now you have come to my aid and saved me from disaster."
"We've come a long way together," Waldo said. "You were such a little girl when we first met. You didn't speak then."
"I remember what my dear friend Liese told me. You came forward to offer your escort on that black day. And now you once again have come to my aid. I will forever be in your debt, and I don't know how I will ever be able to repay you."
"It was an honor for us to help you," Henry stammered.
Brodick took hold of her arm and pulled her back so she would have to let go of the older brother's hand. "We must leave now," he demanded, though this time his voice was much more forceful.
"Yes," she agreed.
She turned, spotted Alec in Dylan's arms, and motioned to the Hathaway brothers to wait. Then she pushed Brodick's hand away and rushed across the clearing.
"Alec, you will want to say thank you to Waldo and Henry for helping us."
He shook his head. "No, I won't," he said. "They're English, so I don't have to say thank you. Highlanders don't like the English," he added arrogantly.
She held her temper. "Dylan, would you please give Alec and me a moment of privacy?"
"As you wish, milady."
As soon as he put Alec down, Gillian latched onto his arm and dragged him toward the trees. Then she leaned down and whispered in his ear while the child squirmed to get away.
Dylan turned to Brodick. "What's she doing?" he asked.
Brodick smiled. "Reminding the boy of his manners," he answered. He glanced at the two brothers once again, then let out a sigh. "It seems I have also been reminded."
Before Dylan could ask him to explain his odd remark, his laird turned toward Waldo and Henry. The brothers were obviously afraid, for both backed away from him until he commanded them to stand still.
Dylan couldn't hear what Brodick was saying to the men, but he saw him reach down and pull his jeweled dirk from the top of his boot and hand it to Waldo. The stunned expression on the Englishman's face mirrored Dylan's. He watched as Waldo tried to refuse the gift, but Brodick won the argument.
Gillian also saw what was happening and smiled as she continued to instruct Alec in his duty.
A moment later, Alec, deliberately dragging his feet, made his way across the clearing to speak to the Englishmen. Gillian gave him a little push between the shoulder blades to get him to quicken his step.
Alec lowered his chin to his chest and stood next to Brodick when he addressed Waldo and Henry. "I thank you, 'cause you both watched out for me," he said.
"And 'cause you didn't have to but you did anyway."
Exasperated, she said, "Alec means to say that he is sorry he was a bother, Waldo and Henry. He also knows that the two of you put your lives at risk for him. Isn't that right, Alec?"
The child nodded and then took hold of Gillian's hand as he watched Waldo and Henry take their leave.
"Did I say it right?"
"Yes, you did just fine."
Dylan lifted Alec onto his mount and then turned to his laird. "Has she told you what happened or how she and Alec ended up together?"
Brodick swung up onto his stallion's back before answering. "No, she hasn't told me anything yet, but she will. Be patient, Dylan. Right now it's more important to get her and the boy away from the MacDonalds. Once I know they're safe, and I don't have to keep looking over my shoulder, I'll get her explanation. Tell Liam to take the lead," he commanded. "We're going to Kevin Drummond's cottage before we head north. Robert will take the rear to watch our backs."
"The Drummonds are several hours out of our way," Dylan said. "It'll be sunset before we get there."
"I know where the man lives," he countered. "But Kevin's wife is well known for her healing ways, and Gillian's arm needs attention."
Gillian stood in the center of the clearing, shivering from the cold while she patiently waited for the men to finish discussing her. It was apparent she was their topic, for they both frowned at her while they conversed with one another. The summer sun beat down on her face, but she was getting more chilled by the minute, and every muscle in her body ached. She knew it wasn't just fatigue, and, dear God, there wasn't time now for her to get sick. She needed every minute of every day before the fall festival to search for her sister. Oh, it all seemed so hopeless. She shouldn't have lied to Alford by telling him that her sister had King John's precious box. How was she ever going to find it when every soldier in the kingdom had searched for the treasure at one time or another over the past fifteen years? Could Christen still have it with her? Alford seemed to think she did, and Gillian had fueled his belief because at the time Alec had been in terrible danger. In her heart she knew the box was gone forever, and now she felt she was weighed down in a quagmire and sinking rapidly.
She did have a fragment of a plan. Once she got Alec home, she was going to plead with his father for assistance in getting her to the MacPherson holding, where Christen was reported to be living. And then what? she thought. Her mind was filled with unanswerable questions, and she prayed she would be able to sort it all out when she was feeling better.
Rubbing her arms to ward off her chills, she forced herself to think about the present. Brodick nudged his mount toward her. He didn't slow the stallion's gait as he approached. He leaned to the side and, with little effort, wrapped his arm around her waist and swept her onto his lap.
She adjusted her skirts to cover her knees and tried to sit straight so her back wouldn't touch his chest, but Brodick wouldn't let her maintain any formality. He tightened his hold and hauled her up against him.
In truth, she was thankful for his warmth, and his masculine scent appealed to her. He smelled like the outdoors. She wanted to close her eyes and rest for just a few minutes and maybe even pretend this nightmare was all over. She didn't dare give in to the foolish fantasy though, because she needed to keep a watchful eye on Alec.
She turned in Brodick's arms and looked up at him. He was really quite handsome, she thought, forgetting for the moment what she wanted to say to him. She had heard stories about the Viking warriors who roamed England centuries before and thought Brodick was surely a descendant, for he was as huge as the Vikings were reputed to be. His bone structure was well-defined from his high cheekbones to his gently squared chin. Aye, he was handsome all right and had surely caused many a lady to lose her heart. That thought led to another. Alec had told her Brodick wasn't married, but did the laird have a sweetheart at home waiting for him to return?
"Is something wrong, lass?"
"Could Alec ride with us? We could make room for him."
She waited a full minute for him to explain why he had denied her request, then realized he had said all he was going to say. His manner was distant, but she tried not to take offense. Her Uncle Morgan had often told her that the Highlanders were a different breed of men and danced to what he called their own strange tune, and she therefore assumed that Brodick wasn't actually trying to be rude. His abruptness was simply part of who he was.
She leaned back against him and tried to relax, but every so often, she looked behind him to make certain Alec was all right.
"We're almost there," Brodick said. "You're going to get a stiff neck if you keep looking back every other minute. Alec's fine," he insisted. "Dylan isn't going to let anything happen to him." With that, he shoved her head down on his shoulder. "Rest," he ordered.
And so she did just that.
Brodick shook Gillian awake when they reached their destination.
She pulled herself from her slumber and rubbed the stiffness in her neck. It took some effort, but she finally forced her eyes to focus, and for a brief moment she thought she was still dreaming. Where was she? What was this place? Lush green hills surrounded her. A narrow stream gently meandered down the slope and in the center of the green valley sat a gray stone cottage with a thatched roof. The yard on either side was ablaze with wild-flowers of every color in the rainbow, their perfumed scent floating around her. Birch trees flanked the clear-water stream that flowed on the west side of the cottage, and to the east was a broad meadow blanketed in a thick carpet of grass. A flock of sheep, ready for shearing, clustered together at the far end of the field, bleating at one another like gossiping women, while a rather regal-looking guard dog sat on his haunches with his head held high, eyes ever watchful as he surveyed his charges. Smoke gently curled up into the cloudless blue sky from the cottage chimney. A faint breeze touched Gillian's cheek. This was a paradise.
A shout shook her from her musings. A tall, thin-faced man stood on the front step of the cottage and was smiling and calling to the approaching soldiers. As she watched the men disappear through the doorway, everything that had happened in the last few days flooded back to her memory.
Dylan had Alec on his shoulders and was bending down to go inside. Brodick had already dismounted but was waiting to assist Gillian. When at last she turned to him, he reached for her and she slid into his arms. For a fleeting moment their eyes met, and she studied the face of this man she hardly knew and yet trusted with her life. His piercing eyes made her think he knew all her secrets. She tried to shake herself out of such foolish thoughts. He was just a man, nothing more-and he needed to shave. His cheeks and jaw were covered with golden brown whiskers, and she had the insane urge to find out what it would feel like to run her fingers down the side of his face.
"Why are you staring at me?" she asked.
"The same reason you're staring at me, lass."
From the sparkle in his eyes, she guessed he had a bit of the Devil in him and she simply wasn't up to the task of being clever or flirtatious. She wasn't even sure she knew how.
She pushed his hands away from her waist and stepped back. "Why have we stopped here? And who was that man in the doorway? Alec shouldn't have gone inside until I-"
He cut her off. "This is the last time I'm going to tell you that Alec is safe with Dylan. He would be highly insulted to know you don't trust him."
"But I don't trust him," she whispered so the other soldiers wouldn't overhear. "I don't know him."
"You don't know me either," he pointed out. "But you've decided to trust me, and you therefore have to believe that what I tell you is true. My soldiers will protect Alec with their lives." The briskness in his voice indicated he was finished discussing the subject.
"I'm too weary to argue."
"Then don't. It's pointless to argue with a Buchanan," he added. "You can't possibly win, lass. We Buchanans never lose."
She thought he might be jesting, but she couldn't be absolutely sure, and so she didn't laugh. Either he had a very strange sense of humor or he was sinfully arrogant.
"Come along. We're wasting time," he said as he caught hold of her hand and started up the stone path.
"Are we going to spend the night here?"
He didn't bother to turn around when he answered. "No, we'll move on after Annie tends to your arm."
"I don't want to be a bother."
"She'll be honored to serve you."
"She thinks you're my bride," he explained.
"Why would she think that? I only told the lie to one MacDonald soldier."
He laughed. "News travels fast, and everyone knows the MacDonalds can't keep secrets."
"Oh, dear, I've caused you considerable trouble, haven't I?"
"No," he answered.
When they reached the doorway, he stepped back to let her go inside first. She moved close to him and asked in a whisper, "Do you trust these people?"
He shrugged. "As much as I trust anyone who isn't a Buchanan," he answered. "Kevin Drummond's sister is married to one of my soldiers, so he's considered kin of a sort. Anything you say in front of them will be held in confidence."
Dylan introduced her to the couple. Annie Drummond stood near the hearth and bowed low to Gillian. She was about her age and was heavy with child. Kevin Drummond also bowed and welcomed her into his home. Both of them, Gillian thought, appeared to be extremely nervous.
Their cottage was small and smelled of freshly baked bread. An oblong table took up a good deal of space in the center of the room and from the number of chairs, six in all, Gillian assumed the Drummonds were used to entertaining visitors. It was a home, warm and comfortable and inviting, the kind of place Gillian dreamed of when she allowed herself to fantasize about falling in love and having a family. Such a foolish notion, she thought to herself. Her life was consumed with worry now, and there wasn't room for such yearnings.
"It's a privilege to have you in our home," Kevin told her, but his eyes, she noticed, were fully directed on Brodick.
After formally greeting the laird, Annie suggested Gillian take a seat at the table and let her have a look at her injury. She pulled a chair out on the opposite side and waited for Gillian to get comfortable. Then she spread a cloth on the tabletop while Gillian pushed up her sleeve and unwrapped the bandage.
"I would appreciate any medicine you have," she said. "It isn't a serious injury, but I believe it's become a bit inflamed."
Gillian didn't think her arm looked all that bad, but Annie visibly blanched when she saw it.
"Ah, lass, you must be in terrible pain."
Brodick and his men moved forward to look at the injury. Alec ran to Gillian and pressed against her. He looked scared.
"How in heaven's name did this happen?" Dylan asked.
"I cut myself."
"It's got to be opened and drained," Annie whispered. "Laird, you're going to have to stay with us a couple of days at the least while I tend to this. She's a lady," she added, "and I must therefore use the slow method of curing her."
"No, I cannot stay that long," Gillian protested.
"If she were a man? What would you do then?" Brodick asked.
Thinking he'd asked the question out of simple curiosity, Annie replied, "I'd open the skin and drain the infection, but then I would pour mother's fire on the open wound, and though the special brew has cured everything I've ever used it on, it causes terrible pain."
"I've seen warriors shout during Annie's treatment with her mother's fire," Kevin said.
Brodick waited for Gillian to decide which method would be used.
She believed the Drummonds were exaggerating the treatment, but it really didn't matter. She couldn't afford to lose so much time just to avoid a little pain. Brodick seemed to be reading her mind.
"Do these warriors you've treated with this mother's fire of yours stay for days or do they leave?" he asked.
"Oh, they leave once I've put the healing salve on the wounds," Annie answered.
"The ones who can stand leave," Kevin interjected.
Brodick caught Gillian's barely perceptible nod and then said, "You will use this warrior's treatment on Gillian, and she will not make a sound while you're tending her. She's a Buchanan." He added the last as though that explained everything.
"I will not utter a sound, Laird?" she asked, her voice laced with amusement over his galling arrogance.
He was serious when he answered. "Nay, you will not."
She had a sudden urge to start screaming like a wild woman before Annie even touched her just to irritate the pompous man, but she didn't give in to the desire because the kind woman and little Alec would both become upset. When she was alone with Brodick, however, she was going to remind him that she wasn't a Buchanan, and she might also add that she was going to thank God for that fact, because the Buchanans were a little too full of themselves. She had noticed that when Brodick announced that she wouldn't make a sound, every one of his soldiers had nodded.
Oh, yes, she certainly wanted to scream all right.
Annie had turned as pale as milk after Brodick chose the treatment to be used. She leaned against her husband and whispered into his ear. Because she spoke so rapidly, Gillian only caught a word or two, but it was quite enough for her to figure out that Annie was asking Kevin for permission to give Gillian a sleeping draft.
Kevin put the request to Brodick while Annie rushed about the cottage gathering her supplies. Before Brodick could answer, Gillian spoke up. "I don't wish to be drugged. I appreciate your concerns, but I must insist on remaining clearheaded so that we may continue on our journey."
Brodick nodded, but Gillian wasn't certain if he was agreeing with Kevin's request or with her denial. "I mean what I say," she pressed. "I don't want to be drugged."
Alec demanded her attention then by tugging on her sleeve. As she leaned down to him, out of the corner of her eye she saw Annie sprinkle brown powder into a goblet and then add wine.
"What is it?" she asked Alec.
"Are you gonna tell on me?" he whispered.
"About the cuts on my arm?" He bumped her chin when he nodded. "No, I'm not going to tell, and I want you to stop worrying that I will."
"All right," he said. "I'm hungry."
"We'll get you something to eat in a little while."
"With your permission, Laird, I would like to toast you and your bride," Kevin announced as he carried a tray of goblets to the table.
"Oh, but I'm not-" Gillian began.
Brodick interrupted her. "You have my permission."
She frowned at him, puzzled as to why he hadn't corrected Kevin's misconception, but decided to wait until later to ask him to explain.
Kevin put Gillian's drink in front of her. He then placed the other goblets a good distance away, no doubt so that the drugged wine wouldn't get mixed up with the others. The toast was but a clever ploy, and though she knew Kevin's intentions were good-hearted, it still rankled her that he had ignored her wishes. After the toast was given, she would have to take a drink, for otherwise she would be considered rude. That left her only one choice.
"May I call your other soldiers inside to share this toast?" Kevin asked.
In answer Brodick went to the door and whistled. The sound echoed through the cottage. Less than a minute later, the rest of his soldiers filed inside to take a goblet. Gillian helped by handing one to each man.
When everyone held a drink, Kevin stepped forward and raised his goblet high.
"To a long happy life filled with love and laughter and healthy sons and daughters."
"Here, here," Aaron agreed.
Everyone waited until Gillian had taken a drink before they downed their wine. Brodick nodded to Annie, pulled out a chair, and straddled it to face Gillian. He motioned for her to put her arm out again, and then put his hand down on top of hers.
She didn't have to ask him why he was holding on to her. He was making sure she didn't pull away during Annie's treatment.
Dylan came around the table and placed one hand on her shoulder. "Robert, take the boy outside," he ordered.
Alec frantically clutched Gillian's arm. "I want to stay with you," he whispered anxiously.
"Then put your request to Dylan," she instructed. "And perhaps he will reconsider, but be polite when you ask him, Alec."
The boy hesitantly looked up at the soldier, craning his neck back as far as it would go. "Can I stay… please?"
"I would be happy for his company."
"Then you may stay inside for a little while, Alec, but you mustn't interfere. Can you promise me that you won't?"
Alec nodded. "I promise," he said, then leaned into Gillian.
Annie stood beside her, watching her closely. She was ready to begin, yet continued to wait. "Are you feeling a bit sleepy, milady?" she inquired casually.
"Not overly," she replied.
Annie glanced at the laird. "Perhaps I should wait another minute or two."
Gillian looked up at the men surrounding her and noticed that Annie's husband was yawning every other minute, but then the soldier named Robert also yawned, and she couldn't decide which one was actually getting drowsy. Then Kevin began to sway.
"Annie, would you please ask your husband to sit down?"
Kevin heard her request and, blinking furiously, tried to make sense of it."Why would I want to be sitting down, lass?" he asked.
"So you won't have so far to fall."
No one understood her suggestion until Kevin suddenly pitched forward. Fortunately, one of Brodick's soldiers was quick on his feet and caught him before his head struck the edge of the table.
"Ah, lass, you switched goblets, didn't you?" a soldier asked.
"She drugged Kevin?" another soldier asked, grinning.
Gillian could feel her face burning and concentrated intently on the tabletop while she tried to think of a proper apology to give Kevin's wife.
Startled by such trickery, Annie turned to the laird. Brodick shook his head as though in disappointment, but there was a definite sparkle in his eyes and voice when he said, "It seems Kevin drugged himself. Toss him on the bed, Aaron, and let's get this done. Annie, we need to be on our way."
She nodded, and with trembling hand she put her knife to Gillian's arm. Brodick tightened his hold on Gillian's wrist just before she felt the first prick of the blade cutting through her tender skin. At first Gillian let him know she thought he was overreacting, yet once Annie began to probe the wounds, she was glad for his anchor. The need to flinch was instinctive, but Brodick's grip wouldn't allow any movement at all.
The treatment wasn't nearly as awful as she had anticipated. Her arm had been throbbing from the pressure of the infection swelling beneath the surface of her inflamed skin, but once the wounds were opened, she felt immediate relief.
Alec squeezed under her right arm and clung to her. Frightened, he whispered, "Does it hurt bad?"
"No," she answered quietly.
When he saw how calm she was, the tension eased out of him. Curious, he asked, "Does it hurt as bad as when that man punched you in the face?"
"But does it?" he pestered.
She sighed. "No."
Annie had been cleaning the wounds with clean strips of cloth, but paused when Alec asked the question. "Someone struck you, milady?" she asked. The sweet woman looked so appalled, Gillian immediately tried to reassure her.
"It was nothing, really," she insisted. "Please don't concern yourself."
"This man… who was he?" Annie asked.
The room grew deadly quiet while everyone waited to hear her response. She shook her head. "It isn't important."
"Oh, but it is important," Dylan said to a chorus of grumbled agreements.
"He was an Englishman," Alec blurted out.
Nodding to indicate she didn't doubt the child's statement, Annie picked up another cloth and resumed her task of cleaning the wounds. Gillian winced from the discomfort, unaware that she was now gripping Brodick's hand.
"I knew he had to be English," Annie grumbled. "I don't know of any Highlander who would raise his hand against a woman. Nay, I don't."
Several soldiers nodded their agreement. Desperate to change the subject, Gillian latched onto the first thought that came into her mind. "It's a fine day today, isn't it? The sun is bright and the wind is mild-"
Alec interrupted her. "The man was drunk, terrible drunk."
"Alec, no one wants to hear the particulars-"
"Ah, but we do want to hear," Brodick drawled out, his mild voice belying what he was truly feeling. He tried to be patient, but his need to hear the full story from start to finish was driving him to distraction. What kind of a madman would prey on such a gentle lady and a little boy? Alec had already painted a dark picture of the horror he'd survived and had let them all see a glimmer of the courage Gillian had shown. Aye, he wanted all the details, and he decided that he would hear the full tale before nightfall.
"He was drunk, wasn't he, Gillian?" Alec pestered.
She didn't answer him, but the boy wasn't deterred. Since she hadn't actually forbidden him to talk about the beating, he decided to tell everything he knew.
"Uncle Brodick, you know what?"
"The man, he hit her with his fist and knocked her clear off her feet to the ground, and then you know what he did? He kicked her and kicked her and kicked her. I got real scared, and I tried to make him stop, but he wouldn't."
"How did you try to make him stop?" Dylan asked.
Alec lifted his shoulders. "I don't know," he admitted. "Maybe I cried."
"Annie, are you almost finished?" Gillian asked.
"Just about," the woman answered.
"And then you know what? I threw myself on top of Gillian, but she pushed me away, and then you know what she did? She rolled on top of me and put her hands on my head so I wouldn't get kicked none."
"What happened then, Alec?" Liam asked.
"She patted me and told me to hush 'cause she said it was going to be all right. She wouldn't let nobody hurt me. She didn't neither," he added. "I never once got kicked."
Gillian wanted to put her hand over Alec's mouth. The men looked horrified by what the child was telling them, but their gazes were locked on her. She felt ashamed and embarrassed by what had happened.
"Was it just one Englishman who touched Lady Gillian?" Robert asked. "Or were there others?"
"Another man hit her," Alec said.
"Alec, I wish you wouldn't-" Gillian began.
"But he did hit you, don't you remember? The man kicked you, and then the other man hit you. How come you don't remember?"
She bowed her head. "I remember, Alec. I just don't want to talk about it."
The boy turned to Brodick. "You know what she did after he hit her? She smiled just to make him mad."
Annie gathered up her cloths and put them aside on one of the stools, then spread a thick towel under Gillian's arm. "Laird, I'm finished cleaning out the infection."
Brodick nodded. "The boy's hungry. He would appreciate a piece of your bread if that isn't too much trouble."
"Maybe with honey on it," Alec suggested.
Annie smiled. "Of course with honey."
"You must eat it outside," Brodick ordered. "Robert will go with you and see you don't get into mischief."
"But, Uncle Brodick, I want to stay with Gillian. She needs me, and she might get lonely."
"I'll keep her company," he promised. "Robert?"
The soldier moved forward. Alec saw him coming around the table and pressed closer to Gillian. She leaned down and whispered, "I'll call out to you if I need you."
She had to promise on her mother's heart before Alec was convinced that she wouldn't disappear if he left her for a few minutes. Then he snatched the bread from Annie's hand and ran out the doorway, forgetting in his haste to thank her properly.
"He'll remember his manners later and then thank you," Gillian said. "I appreciate your patience with him. He's just a little boy and he's been through a very difficult time."
"But you got him through it unharmed." Dylan made the comment from behind her and once again put his hands on her shoulders. She wasn't sure if he was offering her praise and comfort or making sure she didn't try to escape.
Annie appeared a moment later with an oblong pan of foul-smelling brew she'd heated over the fire. She held the pan with a thick rag she'd wound around the iron handle and tested the warmth of the liquid with the tip of her finger.
"It isn't too hot, milady, but it's going to hurt something fierce. If you need to scream…"
"She will not make a sound." Brodick repeated the comment in a firm, no nonsense voice.
The arrogant man sounded as though he were stating a fact, and she couldn't help but be a little perturbed with his highhanded manners. She should be the one to decide if she were going to be brave or not. Why did he think it was his decision to make?
Annie continued to hover, looking frightened and unsure. Gillian glanced up. "Why is your treatment called mother's fire?"
She asked the question a scant second before Brodick nodded to the woman and she poured the liquid over Gillian's open wounds. The pain was instantaneous, horrific, consuming. Her arm felt as though it had been flayed and then dipped in lye. Her skin was on fire, the flames shooting down to her bone. Her response was just as instantaneous. Her stomach lurched, her head spun, and her vision blurred. She would have leapt out of the chair if Dylan and Brodick hadn't been holding her down. Dear God, the excruciating agony wouldn't let up. After the first spasm of wrenching pain, her skin began to throb and pulsate, and her arm felt as though hot embers were embedded in her wounds. Arching her back against Dylan, she took deep, gasping breaths, squeezed her eyes shut to hold her tears back, clenched her jaw tight so she wouldn't scream out loud, and gripped Brodick's hand with all her might.
Had he shown her a glimmer of sympathy, she would have broken down and sobbed like a baby, but when she looked at him for help and saw his calm, dispassionate expression, she was able to regain her control.
Realizing she was pressing against Dylan, she forced herself to sit forward in the chair. But she couldn't stop squeezing Brodick's hand, though God knows she tried. Just when she was certain she couldn't take another second of the torture, it began to ease.
"The worst is over, lass," Annie whispered in a voice that sounded as though she, too, wanted to have a good cry. "Now I'm going to put some soothing salve on your skin and wrap it up tight in a nice bandage. Is the pain easing yet?"
Gillian tried, but she found it impossible to speak just yet, and so she stiffly nodded. She stared beyond Brodick's shoulder, focusing on a splinter of wood in the far wall, and prayed she wouldn't pass out.
Annie worked quickly, and within minutes Gillian's arm was covered in a thick white ointment and then wrapped from elbow to wrist. It was awkward work, for Gillian still refused to let go of Brodick's hand. Now that the pain was bearable, she realized he was rubbing her palm with his thumb. His countenance hadn't changed, but the little caress had a powerful effect. She felt as though he had taken her into his arms and was holding her.
After Annie tied the ends of the bandage at her wrist, Gillian took one last calming breath and finally pulled her hand away from Brodick's.
"There, it's done," Annie whispered. "You'll be as fit as ever tomorrow. Please try not to get the injury wet for a couple of days."
Gillian nodded again. Her voice was hoarse when she thanked the woman for her help.
"If you'll excuse me for a moment," she began as she slowly stood up. Dylan took hold of her elbow and helped her. She sagged against him, slowly righted herself, and then inclined her head to Annie before she left the cottage. The soldiers bowed as she passed them.
Gillian was certain they watched her from the doorway, and so she didn't give in to the urge to run to the cover of the trees. Alec was skipping barefoot in the stream while Robert stood guard. Fortunately, the child didn't notice her when she hurried in the opposite direction or hear her when the first sob escaped.
Liam frowned with concern as he watched her leave, then turned back to Annie. "Is there any of that mother's fire left?"
"Aye, a few drops," she answered.
Liam went to the table, pulled out his dirk, and made a small cut above his wrist. All of his friends knew what he was going to do, and none of them was the least bit surprised, for Liam was known as the doubting Thomas of the group and also the most curious.
Wanting to know exactly what the liquid felt like against a raw cut, he put his arm out over the cloth Annie had left on the table and ordered, "Pour some of the liquid on this nick. I would know how it feels."
If Annie thought the request was insane, she was smart enough not to remark on it. She felt as though she were in a cave with a family of bears. The men were the most ferocious warriors in the Highlands. Easily insulted and quick to react, they made frightening enemies. Yet at the same time, they were the best of allies. Annie counted herself fortunate to be related to the Buchanans, because that meant she and her husband would never by preyed upon by other more civilized clans.
She stepped forward to do as he ordered. "Your cut is paltry compared to milady's," she remarked. "So the sting won't be near as bad."
After making the comment, she tipped the pan and let the liquid pour into the cut. Liam didn't react. His curiosity assuaged, he nodded to Annie and then turned and strode outside. Brodick and the others followed. Surrounding him, they patiently waited for him to give his report. Aaron smiled when Liam finally spoke because his voice sounded very like the croak of a drowning frog.
"It hurt like a son of a bitch," he whispered. "I don't know how the lass stood it."
Robert joined them, carrying Alec like a sack of wheat over his shoulder. The child squealed with delight until he noticed that Gillian wasn't there. A look of stark terror crossed his face as he scrambled to the ground and screamed Gillian's name at the top of his lungs. Robert clapped his hand over the boy's mouth to quiet him.
"She's just beyond the trees, Alec. She'll be right back. Calm yourself."
Tears poured down the child's face as he ran to his uncle. Brodick picked him up and roughly patted his back. "I forgot how very young you are, lad," he said gruffly. "Gillian didn't leave you."
Ashamed that he had panicked, Alec hid his face in the crook of Brodick's neck. "I thought maybe she did," he admitted.
"Since you've known her, has she ever left you?"
"No… but sometimes… I get scared," he whispered. "I didn't used to, but now I do."
"It's all right," Brodick said, and with a sigh he added, "You're safe now. I'm not going to let anything happen to you."
"That's what Gillian said," he remembered. "She's not gonna let anyone hurt me, not ever." He lifted his head and stared into Brodick's eyes. "You got to take care of her too 'cause she's just a puny lady."
Brodick laughed. "I haven't noticed anything puny about her."
"But she is. She cries sometimes when she thinks I'm sleeping. I told her she needed you. I don't want nobody to hurt her any more."
"I'm not going to let anyone hurt her," he assured the child. "Now stop worrying and go with Robert to fetch his horse. We'll leave as soon as Gillian returns from her walk."
Gillian didn't return to the clearing for another ten minutes, and it was evident from her red eyes that she'd been crying. Brodick waited by his stallion while she said her thank-you to Annie, and when she hurried over to him, he lifted her up into the saddle, then swung up behind, her. She was so exhausted from her ordeal, she collapsed against him.
Brodick was suddenly overwhelmed with the need to protect and comfort her. He tried to be gentle as he settled her on his lap, then wrapped his arm around her and held her close. Within minutes she was sound asleep. He nudged his mount forward and gently settled Gillian in the crook of his arm, her long curls brushing his thigh. She had the most angelic face, and with the back of his hand he brushed her cheek tenderly. He finally gave in to the desire that had been plaguing him since the moment he'd laid eyes on her. He leaned down and kissed her soft lips, smiling when she wrinkled her nose and sighed.
His mind kept telling him to be reasonable. She was English, and God only knew, he couldn't abide anyone or anything English. He had learned his lesson well on his one foray into that hateful country when he was young and foolish. He'd wanted to find a bride as fitting as Iain Maitland's wife, Judith, but the quest had been futile, for Iain had found the only treasure England had to offer.
Or so Brodick had believed until he met Gillian. Now he wasn't so certain.
"You're a courageous lass," he whispered. And with a nod, he added, "I'll give you that."
But no more.
Alec's needs came first. As impatient as Brodick was to get some answers, he decided to wait until after the boy had been fed to question Gillian. It was late, well past sunset, and the moon shone brightly. The woman and the child were tired. They made camp at the base of Carnith Ridge in a narrow, secluded tract of land buffered on three sides by towering pines. The clearing eased down to the grassy bank of Beech Lake, a clear, stone-bottomed basin filled with speckled trout.
Aaron placed a plaid on the ground near the small campfire Liam had built after noticing Gillian was shivering. She thanked him with a smile that caused the soldier to blush like a little boy.
Gillian sat with her legs tucked under her on the edge of the woolen cloth while Alec sprawled like a lazy Roman statesman beside her. Brodick thought his angel looked as though she had just been to battle. Her complexion was gray; her lips were pinched, and her eyes were bright with fever, yet she didn't utter a word of complaint. She didn't want any of the food Robert offered, but she made certain that Alec filled his seemingly hollow stomach. He wanted to gulp his food down and would have done just that if she hadn't given him only small portions at a time. In a whisper, she kept reminding him to eat slowly so he wouldn't get sick again and she showed amazing endurance by listening to his nonstop chatter without losing her patience.
The little boy was in good cheer until she suggested he bathe. He scrambled to his feet and ran to his uncle shouting, "I don't need a bath."
Gillian was the only one who wasn't surprised by the child's outburst. "You'll feel better after," she promised.
Alec vehemently shook his head. "No, I won't," he shouted. "You can't make me."
"Alec, you will not speak to the lady in such a tone," Brodick ordered. "And stop hiding behind me. A Maitland doesn't cower."
From the boy's puzzled expression Brodick surmised he didn't know what the word "cower" meant, but he must have guessed it wasn't good because he immediately stepped out to stand next to his uncle. His shoulder pressed against Brodick's thigh.
"I don't want to have a bath," he muttered.
He pointed to Gillian. "She'll make me use her soap, and then I'll…"
"You'll what?" Brodick prodded.
"I'll smell like a girl."
"I doubt that, Alec."
"I went to considerable trouble borrowing this soap," she called out.
"You stole it."
"No, Alec, I borrowed it," she corrected before glancing at Brodick. "The soap has rose petals in it, and Alec seems to think that because I use it…"
The child finished her explanation for her. "It makes me smell like a girl," he insisted as he took a step back and warily watched her out of the corner of his eye.
Robert came up behind Alec, hooked his arm around him, and carried him to the lake. Liam asked her for the soap and then followed.
Gillian heard Robert promise Alec that although they would surely smell like roses after they had bathed, the sweet scent would in no way turn them into females.
Alec was laughing a minute later, and the crisis, it seemed, was over. She decided to stand up and stretch her legs and had made it to her knees when Aaron and Stephen rushed forward to offer their assistance. Without asking, they each grabbed an elbow and pulled her up.
"Thank you, gentlemen."
"You may call me Stephen," the dark skinned soldier said.
"I doubt you have all our names straight in your mind," Aaron remarked.
"I know most of you. Robert took Alec to the lake, Liam went with him, and I know you're Aaron, but I don't know the other names yet."
"My name's Fingal," a redheaded soldier announced as he pressed forward.
"I'm Ossian," another called out as he, too, moved close. He was tall and so thick through the shoulders his neck disappeared.
Gillian suddenly felt as though she were enclosed by a six-foot male wall. The men were all staring down at her as if they considered her an oddity that had dropped from the sky to land at their feet. Had they never encountered a woman from England before? And why were they acting so peculiar now? She'd been in their company a full day, and that was surely time enough for them to get past their curiosity.
She stepped to the left so she could see between two soldiers and spotted Brodick leaning against a tree with his arms folded across his chest. He, too, was watching her, but unlike his soldiers, he wasn't smiling. She tilted her head ever so slightly toward the men pressing into her, fully expecting Brodick to catch her subtle hint and order his soldiers to give her breathing room. He didn't seem inclined to come to her assistance, however.
"You didn't eat much supper, milady," Ossian said. "Are you feeling poorly?"
"I'm feeling quite well, thank you," she replied.
"You don't have to be brave in front of us," Stephen commented.
"But you see, sir…"
"Please call me Stephen." Before she could agree, he added, "I meant what I said. You don't have to be brave in front of us."
Yet another soldier joined the wall. He was going to be the easiest to remember, because he had a scar that crossed the left side of his face and the most handsome brown eyes.
"My name's Keith," he reminded her. "And you may always speak freely in front of us. We're your laird's guard."
"But he isn't my laird."
Dylan joined the conversation in time to hear her comment. He noticed none of the men contradicted her, but they were all grinning like idiots.
"Milady, Annie Drummond gave Liam a pouch of medicine powder. You're to take half tonight, mixed with water, and the rest tomorrow night."
Liam had returned from the lake and thrust a cup of liquid into her hand. "I tasted it, milady," he said. "It's bitter, so you might want to gulp it down quick. It smells vile too."
She studied his blue eyes for several seconds and then asked suspiciously, "Are you thinking to drug me to sleep, Liam?"
He laughed. "Nay, milady, we learned our lesson with Kevin Drummond. The potion will help rid you of your fever."
She decided to believe him and drank the liquid as quickly as she could. The urge to gag was overpowering, but taking deep, gasping breaths helped. Blanching, she said, "The cure is worse than the illness."
"Does your arm hurt?" Stephen asked.
"No," she answered. "If you'll excuse me, gentlemen, I would like to sit on that boulder next to your laird so that I may speak to him."
Fingal and Ossian moved out of her way so she could get past them, while Keith grabbed the plaid from the ground and hurried ahead to put the woolen cloth on the flat surface of the rock for her to sit on.
She thanked him for his consideration as she took her seat.
"Is there anything else we may do for you, milady?" Fingal asked.
"No, thank you," she replied. "You have all been very kind and gracious to me," she added.
"You need not thank us for doing our duty, milady," Ossian told her.
"Please call me Gillian."
He appeared scandalized by her suggestion. "I cannot, milady."
"No, he cannot," Brodick announced as he walked over to stand in front of her. "Leave us now," he ordered quietly.,
One by one the soldiers bowed to Gillian before heading to the lake. She watched them until they disappeared from view, all the while gathering her thoughts because she knew the time had come for her to give a detailed explanation of what had transpired. Lord, reliving the past was exhausting to even think about.
Straightening her shoulders, she folded her hands in her lap and waited for Brodick to tell her to begin. Dylan remained by her side with his arms folded across his chest.
"How did you and Alec end up together?" Brodick asked.
"I'm not certain where to start."
"At the beginning," he ordered.
She nodded. "The obsession started a long time ago."
"Obsession?" Dylan asked.
"Let her explain without interruption," Brodick suggested. "Then we will both ask questions."
"I have a sister," Gillian said. "Her name is Christen, and when we were little girls, our home was invaded and our father was killed."
The rising wind whistled through the pine trees, the sound eerily melancholy, Gillian gripped her hands as she described the black night in vivid detail, though in truth she wasn't certain if she actually remembered what had happened or if Liese had given her the memory. The story of Arianna's treasure and the king's obsession to find the man who had murdered his love intrigued Brodick, but he didn't bother her now with questions. He merely nodded when she hesitated, urging her to continue.
"If the baron finds the treasure before anyone else, he will receive a great reward. He's motivated purely by greed," she explained. "Still, I don't think he knew for certain that Christen was given the box when she left England or he surely would have intensified his search for her."
Brodick interrupted her concentration when he lifted her plaid and wrapped it around her shoulders. "You're shivering," he said gruffly.
Surprised by his thoughtfulness, she stammered her thank-you.
"Continue," he ordered, shrugging off the gratitude as inconsequential.
"The baron has learned that Christen does indeed hide in the Highlands."
"And where did he get this information?"
"From the Highlander who came to him with a proposal. Remember," she hastily added, "over the years the baron has sent inquiries to all the clans, but none responded until about a month ago, when the Highlander arrived. He told the baron he knew where Christen was and that he could give the baron the information he needed if in return he would do something for him."
"And what did this Highlander want done?" Brodick asked.
"He wanted Laird Ramsey's brother taken from the festival to draw Ramsey out so he could kill him. He wants both of them dead."
Dylan couldn't keep silent. "But the Maitland boy was taken."
"Yes, they stole the wrong child."
Their questions began, one following another until her head throbbed. The sound of Alec's laughter carried from the lake. The soldiers were keeping him occupied, she knew, so he wouldn't interfere with Brodick's inquisition.
"Where do you fit in this puzzle, Gillian?" Brodick asked.
"I was told to find my sister and the treasure and bring both back to the baron before our fall festival begins."
"And if you fail?"
"My Uncle Morgan will be killed." Her voice broke on a sob that took her by complete surprise. Exhaustion was making her emotional, she decided, and she willed herself to calm down. "He is the dearest man. He took me into his home and raised me as his daughter. I love him and I will protect him at all cost."
"The baron isn't related to you?"
"No, he isn't. Are you almost finished questioning me? I would like to get Alec settled for the night. It's late."
"I'm almost finished," he replied. "Give me the name of this Highlander who made the pact with the baron."
"I cannot give you the name, for I never heard it."
"Are you telling me the truth? Surely the baron or one of his friends said the man's name," he said, his frustration palpable in the sudden stillness.
"Why would I lie? To protect a traitor?"
"But you did see him, didn't you?" Brodick pressed. "Alec told me you saw the Highlander from the hill."
"And you would recognize him if you saw him again?" Dylan asked.
"Yes," she answered. "Alec and I were well hidden on a knoll with a path just below. I saw him clearly as he rode toward me. He isn't the only traitor involved, though," she added. "Alec said there were two… maybe three… who took him from the festival." So weary now she could barely hold her head up, she whispered, "You do know why the Highlander was returning to Dunhanshire, don't you?"
"To inform the baron he'd taken the wrong boy," Dylan answered. "And then Alec would have been killed. Isn't that right?"
"Milady, why were you beaten? Did the bastard give you a reason?" Dylan asked.
"A man who strikes a woman is a coward, Dylan, and cowards don't need reasons to justify their actions." Brodick's voice radiated anger.
Gillian pulled the plaid close. "Our first attempt to escape failed, and the baron wanted to punish Alec and me."
"The boy said you threw yourself on top of him to protect him," Dylan said. "It was a brave act, milady."
She disagreed. "I wasn't brave; I was terrified they would kill him. I don't think I've ever been so scared. I had just heard the Highlander was on his way, and I knew why, and I was in such a panic to get Alec away before-" She stopped suddenly and took a deep breath. "So many things could have gone wrong. They could have separated us or hidden Alec away from me, and every time I think what could have happened, I become terrified all over again. Brave? I think not."
Brodick and Dylan shared a look before Brodick continued. "Who specifically inflicted the punishment? Was it the baron or one of his soldiers?"
"Why do you want to know?"
"Alec said that another man struck you. Is that true?" Brodick's voice was low and frightfully menacing.
"I don't remember."
"Yes, you do," he snapped. "Tell me."
Startled by his curt tone, she stiffened her spine. "As a matter of fact, one of his friends struck me. I don't understand why you need to know about it, though. It's over and done with."
"Nay, lass," he said softly. "It's only just begun."
Beneath the steely exterior of a warrior beat the heart of a true gentleman. The revelation was both surprising and amusing, for though Brodick obviously wanted to be solicitous, it quickly became apparent he didn't have the faintest idea how. When he finally called a halt to the questioning, she hastily stood up before he could change his mind. She turned to leave, but her feet got tangled up in the plaid, and she stumbled forward into his arms instead. He grabbed her by her shoulders to steady her, which was a very thoughtful thing to do, of course, but he didn't stop there. Once he had her, he decided to keep her. As though he had every right to do so, he threw his arm around her shoulders, his staggering weight all but knocking her to the ground, and hauled her up against him. She tried to delicately shrug him away, but that didn't work, and so she looked up at him to tell him to let go. He was waiting for her, and, Lord, the impact of those dark penetrating eyes, filled with such compassion and tenderness, made her heart quicken and her knees tremble.
Did he have any idea of the effect he had on her? The warmth of his skin made her wish she could snuggle closer to him. His heat felt better than ten blankets piled on top of her. And his voice, too, so rich and gruff, was wonderfully sensual. Why, even the way he walked, with such unbridled arrogance, as though he believed he owned the world, his hips moving with easy grace, and those muscular thighs of his…
She blocked the unseemly thought. She shouldn't be noticing such things. 'Twas the truth she'd never known any man like him, though, or felt this kind of reaction. All she wanted to do was put her head down on his shoulder for a few minutes and close her eyes. When she was with him, she didn't feel so vulnerable and unsure of herself. Brodick seemed to be the kind of man who wasn't afraid of anything. Did he think he was invincible? And did thinking it make it true? Where had his arrogance and confidence come from, she wondered, and, oh, how she wished she could borrow a little of both.
Exhaustion was surely taking its toll. She glanced up at him and smiled. Odd that she'd known him for less than a full day, yet she felt as though she'd been with him for years. They walked to the lake leaning into one another like old friends, comfortable with the closeness and the silence, but also like lovers, she imagined, who were breathless in anticipation for what might come.
Aye, his effect on her was quite strange. He made her believe she wasn't alone. Would he help her slay the monsters? No, she immediately decided. She couldn't, and wouldn't, involve him in her battles. She understood her responsibility. She would fight the dragon alone, and if she failed…
"Are you cold, Gillian?"
"I was thinking about my uncle. I worry about him."
"Is he worth your worry?"
"Oh, yes, he is."
He leaned close to her ear. "Can you do anything about your uncle tonight?"
"No," she answered, trying to ignore the caress of his warm sweet breath against her sensitive skin.
"Then let it go for now. Worrying won't help him."
"That's easier said than accomplished."
"Perhaps," he allowed.
Alec ran past them, dragging a stick behind him. The child was barefoot and bare-chested and obviously having a fine time. His laughter echoed through the trees.
"He's too excited to sleep."
"He'll sleep soundly," he predicted.
He didn't let go of her until they reached the water's edge. Then he asked, "Can you manage on your own or do you need help?"
"I can manage, thank you."
"Don't get your arm wet," he reminded her as he started back to camp.
He turned back to her. "Yes?"
She suddenly stopped. Wondering why she hesitated, he took a step toward her. She bowed her head and folded her hands together as though in prayer. She looked terribly vulnerable now… and sweet… he thought.
"Yes?" he repeated.
"You make me feel safe. I thank you for that."
He didn't know how to respond. He finally managed a quick nod, then walked away.
Even though Gillian could tell she'd startled him, she was still glad she'd told him how she felt. She knew she could have been more eloquent, but it was too late now to start over.
Her arm still hurt, though not nearly as much as it had earlier in the day, and she was hopeful her fever would ease soon. By morning she would either be as right as rain or dead, and at the moment she had trouble deciding which would be better. Fatigue was pressing down on her like a vise. Perhaps a bath would make her feel better, she decided. The water didn't look deep near the bank, the stone bottom appeared smooth, and she would be careful, of course, not to get her bandage wet.
She got trapped in her tunic when she tried to pull it over her head, then she bumped her arm. It was all suddenly too much, and she burst into tears and collapsed.
But before she could fall to the ground, she felt strong arms lifting her up to her feet. She couldn't see; the tunic was pressed against her face, yet she knew Brodick had come to her rescue.
"Are you wanting this off or on?" he asked gruffly.
She nodded. It wasn't a proper answer, and so he made the decision for her and pulled the tunic over her head. Tossing it on the grass, he tilted her chin up, saw the tears, and wrapped his arms around her. "You can cry all you want. No one's here to bother you."
She wiped the tears away with his plaid. "You're here," she whispered, sounding pitiful.
His chin dropped to the top of her head, and he continued to hold her until she grew calm. Allowing her to pull back, he asked, "Better now?"
"Yes, thank you."
She couldn't believe what she did then. Before she could stop herself, she leaned up on tiptoes, put her arms around his neck, and kissed him on the mouth. Her lips brushed over his for the barest of seconds, but it was still a kiss, and when she came to her senses and dared to pull away and look at him, he had the most curious expression on his face.
Brodick knew she regretted her spontaneity, but as he stared into her brilliant green eyes, he also knew, with a certainty that shook him to the core, that his life had just been irrevocably changed by this mere slip of a woman.
Dazed by her own boldness, she slowly stepped back. "I don't know what came over me," she whispered.
"When this is over…"
He shook his head, unwilling for the moment to say another word, and then turned abruptly and walked away.
What had he been about to say? She longed to go after him and demand that he explain, and then immediately changed her mind. When Brodick wanted her to know what he was thinking, he would tell her. Besides, she was pretty certain she knew exactly what it was. Soon she would return to England and it was therefore foolish to become attached.
Why in God's name had she kissed him? Was she out of her mind or just plain stupid? She didn't need a complication like this now, not with all the trouble she was in. She thought about going after him then to explain that she really hadn't meant to kiss him-it had just happened-a spontaneous act nurtured by his kindness and her curiosity. Perhaps she should just pretend it hadn't happened, she thought as she touched her mouth with her fingertips and let out a long sigh of regret.
A bath, she decided, was out of the question, for in her bemused state, she would probably drown. She washed as thoroughly as she could, then took her time dressing as she summoned the courage to go back to camp and face Brodick.
All of the Buchanans were sitting together on the far side of the clearing, talking to one another until they spotted her coming toward them. The sudden silence unnerved her and she didn't dare look at Brodick for fear she'd blush and cause the other soldiers to wonder why. She kept her head down while she prepared her bed on the opposite side of the clearing, but she could feel all of them watching her. Alec was drawing circles in the dirt with his stick.
"Are you ready for bed, Alec?" she called out.
"I'm gonna sleep with the men. All right?"
"Yes," she answered. "Good night, then."
She lay down on her side facing the woods, her back to the soldiers, fully convinced she wouldn't get a moment's rest with an audience observing her every move, but exhaustion won out and she was asleep minutes later.
So that they wouldn't disturb her, the men continued their conversation in low whispers. Brodick couldn't stop watching her, worrying about foolish matters such as whether she had enough blankets. The wind had picked up and heavy rain clouds moved in, covering the moonlight. The sound of thunder rumbled in the distance, and the air became thick and heavy.
The darker it got, the more agitated Alec became. Robert doused the fire, and the camp became nearly pitch-black. Grabbing his blanket, the child scrambled to his feet and blurted out, "I've got to sleep with Gillian."
"Why?" Brodick asked, wondering if the boy would admit he was afraid of the dark.
"'Cause she gets scared in the night." Without waiting for permission, he dragged his blanket across the clearing and placed it next to Gillian. Carefully putting his stick within grabbing distance, he yawned and then curled up against her back.
Brodick watched him struggle to keep his eyes open, then heard him whisper, "Uncle?"
"What is it, Alec?"
"You won't leave… will you?"
"No, I won't leave. Go to sleep."
Gillian was awakened from a deep sleep during the night by a howling scream like the sound of a tortured animal. She was very familiar with the unearthly sound. Alec was trapped in another nightmare. She quickly rolled to her side and took the little boy into her arms to soothe him.
"Hush," she whispered as she stroked his brow. "It's all right now. You're safe."
The screams turned to whimpers, and his terror abated. She continued to stroke him until she felt him relax and heard his breathing calm.
The heart-stopping howling started all over again an hour later, and she repeated the ritual a second time. During the predawn hour, she awakened yet again, but this time for an altogether different reason. She was on her back with her left arm stretched wide. It was pinned down and throbbing painfully. She turned her head and saw that Alec was using her bandage as a pillow. Ever so slowly, so as not to disturb him, she eased her arm out from under him. She was bringing her hand down to her side when she noticed something resting on her stomach. It was a hand; it was heavy, and it didn't belong to her. Stupefied, she squinted at it for several seconds while she tried to clear her mind, and then she slowly followed the path from the hand up the muscular arm to the broad shoulder. She blinked. Good Lord, she was sleeping with Brodick. She slowly sat up and looked around her and realized she was in the center of a cocoon. Surrounding her in a circle were all of Brodick's soldiers. She couldn't comprehend how they had gotten there, or how she had ended up in Brodick's arms. She tried to think about it, but she was so sleepy she couldn't keep her eyes open long enough to make sense out of anything, and so she lay back down, put her head on Brodick's shoulder, her hand on his chest, and went back to sleep.
For the first time in a long, long time, she felt protected. Blessedly, her nightmares left her alone.
Brodick shook her awake an hour after dawn. The poor lass looked all wrung out and he hated to interrupt her sleep, for she'd had precious little of it but time was wasting away, and they had a hard ride through hostile territory ahead of them.
"We have to get going, Gillian."
"I'll only be a minute," she promised as she hurried to the lake with her satchel tucked under her arm. She washed quickly, then brushed her hair and dug through her bag for a ribbon. Because of the bandage, her left hand was useless and she couldn't get her hair braided. After trying unsuccessfully to bind it behind her neck with the ribbon, she gave up.
They were waiting for her when she returned to camp. Liam took her satchel and tossed it to Robert.
"You must eat, milady," Liam said as he thrust what looked like a fried triangle of mush into her hand.
"I'm not hungry, Liam, but I thank you…"
He wouldn't take the food back. "You must eat, milady," he insisted.
She didn't want to be difficult, and so she forced herself to swallow the bland-tasting food.
"Liam, would you please tie my hair back with this ribbon? I can't seem to…" Her voice trailed away when she saw his appalled expression. "It wouldn't be proper?" she asked.
"Nay, milady, it wouldn't. Your laird should be the only man to touch your hair."
Her laird indeed. How could she argue with such an absurd idea? The Buchanans, she'd already learned, were an obstinate lot, and when they got a notion into their hard heads, nothing could prod it loose.
They were also good and honorable men who were now protecting Alec and her, and nothing any of them did would cause her to lose her patience.
"All right then," she agreed.
Brodick was leading his horse toward her when she ran to him and asked his assistance. He also looked startled, but he did accept the ribbon. She turned around, swung her hair over her shoulder, and lifted it up with one hand. He pushed her hand away, pulled on her hair as though he were grooming his horse's tail, and roughly tied the ribbon into a hard knot.
The man was as delicate as a bull. She thought he might have pulled her hair on purpose because she'd asked him to do a woman's chore, but she held her smile and thanked him profusely.
"Will we reach Laird Ramsey Sinclair's holding before nightfall?"
"No," he answered curtly. He grabbed her by her waist and lifted her onto his stallion's back, then swung up behind her and took the reins. "We're going to the Maitlands'."
She bumped his chin when she turned to him. "We must go to Ramsey first and warn him of the danger to him and his brother before we take Alec home."
He was astonished that she had the gumption to contradict him. No woman had ever dared argue with him before, and he wasn't quite certain how to proceed. Didn't she realize his position of power?
"You're English," he said. "And I will therefore make certain allowances for you. I realize you don't understand you shouldn't argue with me, and so I'll explain it to you. Don't argue with me."
Incredulous, she said, "That's it? 'Don't argue with me' is your explanation as to why I shouldn't argue with you?"
"Are you trying to irritate me?"
"No, of course not."
Presuming she now understood he wasn't going to waste valuable time debating his decisions with her, he turned to call out to Dylan, but she regained his full attention when she put her hand on his chest. Her voice was low, insistent. "I must warn Laird Sinclair."
He tilted his head ever so slightly as he studied her. "Do you know him?" he asked softly. "Have you seen Ramsey?"
She couldn't understand why he had suddenly become so tense and irritable. His behavior was most puzzling, but she decided not to remark on it now because she was more interested in making him be reasonable.
"No, I've never met the man, but I know a good deal about him."
He raised an eyebrow. "Tell me what you know."
Ignoring his gruff tone, she answered, "I know he rules the Sinclair clan and that he's their new laird. Isn't that true?"
"It is," he answered.
Her fingertips were slowly trailing a path down his chest, her touch damned distracting. He wondered if she realized what she was doing or if it was a deliberate ploy to gain his cooperation. Did the woman actually believe that a kind word and a gentle caress would sway him? It was laughable, really. Anyone who knew him well understood that once he had made up his mind, he never changed it.
"And I have made certain assumptions about him," she continued. "A man doesn't become laird unless he's a very fit warrior. I imagine he's… almost… as strong as you are."
The tension eased out of him. "Almost," he arrogantly allowed.
She didn't smile, but the urge was nearly overwhelming. "I also know that Ramsey has a brother as young as Alec. He's a child, and it's therefore your duty, and mine, to watch out for him. Every child should be protected from harm, and Michael's no exception."
Her argument was sound. Brodick had thought first to get her and Alec to Iain Maitland, with whom they would be safe, and then go to Ramsey to warn him.
He reevaluated his decision now. "Your primary concern is for the boy, isn't it?"
"Yes," she replied.
"I'll send Dylan and two others to warn Ramsey, but the rest of us will go to the Maitlands'. Does that satisfy you?"
"Yes, thank you."
He grabbed her hand to get her to stop stroking him and said, "In future, you will not argue with me."
It wasn't a request but a statement of fact, and Gillian decided to let him think she agreed. "As you wish."
After receiving his instructions, Dylan left with Ossian and Fingal to go to the Sinclair holding. Alec rode with Robert, and Liam took the lead as they continued toward their destination. When they stopped to rest the horses at the nooning hour, Keith and Stephen split from the group. The soldiers caught up with the procession again an hour later, looking as smug as could be, and leading a feisty gray mare.
Gillian took to the animal right away. She was pleased they had borrowed the horse until she found out they didn't plan to ever give her back. Appalled, she refused to ride the horse unless they promised her that when they reached the Maitlands', they would return the mare to her rightful owner, but the soldiers were as stubborn as their laird and wouldn't agree to any such thing. Keith tried to be clever by changing the subject while Stephen tried to convince her that the man who owned the horse felt honored because a Buchanan had chosen his mare to steal.
"Do you want us to insult the man?" Stephen asked.
"No, of course I don't, but-"
"It would shame him," Keith told her.
"If you think I'm going to believe-"
"It's time to go." Brodick gave the order as he lifted her onto the mare. His hand rested on her thigh. "You do know how to ride, don't you?"
She began to push his hand away, but he merely tightened his grip while he patiently waited for her to answer his question.
She decided to give him a dose of his own arrogance. "Better than you, Laird."
He shook his head at her and tried to ignore the sweet smile she gave him with her outrageous boast. "I don't like arrogant women."
"Then you aren't going to like me at all," she replied cheerfully. "I'm horribly arrogant. Just ask my uncle Morgan. He tells me it's my greatest flaw."
"No, arrogance isn't your greatest flaw."
Before she realized what he was going to do, his hand cupped the back of her neck and he roughly pulled her toward him. He'd moved so quickly, she didn't even have time to blink, and she was still smiling at him when his mouth settled possessively on hers.
He kissed the breath right out of her. The heat of his mouth against hers sent a jolt of excitement surging through her body. The kiss was exhilarating, and then it got better. His tongue stroked hers, and the pleasure was so intense, she was certain it had to be a sin, but she couldn't make herself care. All she wanted to do was kiss him back as passionately as he was kissing her.
She wanted to get closer to him, to throw her arms around his neck, hold him close, and never let go. She tried to do just that, and when he ended the kiss, she very nearly toppled to the ground. Fortunately, he wasn't as addlebrained as she was-'twas a fact he didn't look at all affected by the searing kiss-and he was able to catch her before she disgraced herself.
She could hear Alec making gagging sounds of disgust in between his giggles, but didn't turn to look at any of the soldiers, knowing that her face was burning with embarrassment.
"You mustn't ever kiss me again, Brodick," she whispered hoarsely.
He laughed as he swung up onto his mount and took the lead. She nudged her horse into a trot to catch up with him.
"I mean it," she whispered.
He acted as though he hadn't heard her, and she decided to let the matter go.
They rode hard that day, stopping only once more to rest the horses and let Alec stretch his legs. Gillian stayed behind Brodick as they rode through rough, untamed, but breathtakingly beautiful land.
When they stopped for the night, she went to the nearby stream and washed, all the while thinking about the comment Brodick had made but hadn't explained, and the longer she thought about it the more curious she became. He'd told her that arrogance wasn't her greatest flaw, indicating he believed there was another more serious imperfection.
She was dying to ask him to explain himself, but determined not to, and though it was frustrating, she was able to control her curiosity for a while. She and Alec were so worn out from the long day, they went to bed directly after supper. Both of them slept like the dead, and if Alec had nightmares, she didn't remember soothing him. She awakened a little before dawn and found herself cuddled in Brodick's strong arms again. Content, she closed her eyes and went back to sleep.
So that Alec could catch up on his sleep, they got a late start the following day and didn't stop until the middle of the afternoon. Alec was more relaxed now, but he still wouldn't let her out of his sight. She had to order him to sit with Keith when she needed a few minutes of privacy, and as soon as she returned, he ran to her and latched onto her hand.
The poor innocent looked relieved to see her again.
"I'm not going to disappear on you, Alec."
"Uncle Brodick says we're close to my home now."
"Does this valley look familiar to you?"
"No," he admitted. Then he tugged on her hand. "Gillian?" he whispered.
She leaned down. "Yes?" she asked, wondering what he was worrying about now.
"Can I ride with you?"
"Don't you like riding with Robert?"
"He won't let me talk, not even when it's safe."
"You can ride with me."
"But you got to ask Uncle Brodick."
"I will," she agreed. "Finish eating, and I'll go ask right now."
Brodick was walking back from the forest and appeared to be preoccupied when she approached him.
"Brodick, how much farther is it to Alec's home?"
"A couple of hours."
"Would it be all right if Alec rode with me for a little while?"
"He'll ride with Robert."
"But Robert won't talk to him."
Exasperated, he said, "My soldier has more important matters on his mind."
"The child doesn't understand that."
With a sigh, he said, "All right. He can ride with you. We're on safe land now."
He started toward his horse, then stopped. "Do all boys his age talk as much as he does?"
"I don't know. Alec's the first child I've ever been around."
"You're good with him," he said abruptly. "You have a kind heart, Gillian."
She watched him walk away. The sun seemed to be following him. Beams of light shone down on his head and shoulders as he crossed the glen, and in the golden glow, her bronzed warrior looked as though he'd been sculpted by God in the archangel Michael's image so that he, too, could fight the demons roaming the world. It was at that moment that she became aware of him in a way she never had before. Now she reacted as a woman, and she was consumed with a yearning so intense tears came into her eyes. Annie and Kevin
Drummond's charming home suddenly came into her mind. She pictured their pretty little cottage, but in her fantasy, Kevin wasn't standing in the doorway, Brodick was, and he was beckoning her.
Daydreams were dangerous because they made her wish for things she could never have.
"Milady, is something wrong?" Liam asked.
At the sound of his voice she jumped. "No, nothing's wrong."
Before he could question her further, she picked up her skirts and hurried to her horse. She couldn't get a proper grip with her left hand, and after trying twice without success, she gave up and called Brodick for assistance.
He nudged his mount close, leaned down, and all but tossed her onto her mare's back. Robert lifted Alec into her lap and went to fetch his horse.
"Brodick?" she whispered so the others wouldn't overhear.
"You told me that arrogance wasn't my greatest flaw. You had another imperfection in mind?"
He'd wondered how long it would take her to get around to asking him that question and had to force himself not to laugh. "You have many flaws," he announced. He swore he saw a spark of fire ignite in her emerald eyes as she straightened her shoulders. The lass had a temper, and he found that flaw quite pleasing. "But there was one flaw that made all the other imperfections pale in comparison."
"Was?" she asked. "I don't have this flaw any longer?"
"No, you don't."
"Pray tell," she muttered in exasperation, "what was this terrible flaw?"
He grinned. "You used to be English."
Gillian felt as though she'd entered another world. Even the sunset seemed different in the Highlands. The sky had turned into a brilliant canvas filled with broad, sweeping strokes of gold and splashes of orange. The center of the sun was a bold red, unlike any color Gillian had ever seen before, and she knew tomorrow the palette would be just as magnificent. God, she thought, surely favored this land.
"Gillian, you know what? I'm almost home."
"We must be close," she replied. "We've climbed almost to the top of the mountain."
Alec yawned loudly. "Tell me the story again when you scared your uncle Morgan and made him scream," he pleaded.
"I've told you that story at least five times now."
"But I want to hear it again. Please?"
"You close your eyes and rest and I'll tell you the story again."
Alec cuddled up against her chest and yawned once more. "I'm ready now."
"When I was a little girl-"
"You didn't talk for a whole long year."
The little boy obviously had memorized the story. "Yes, that's right. I didn't speak for almost a full year."
Brodick slowed his mount and waited until Gillian was even with him. He'd heard what she'd said to Alec and was curious to know the rest of the story.
"And you went to live with your Uncle Morgan, remember?"
She smiled. "I remember."
"But you got to tell it."
"One night I had a terrible nightmare-"
"Like the nightmares I sometimes have."
"Yes," she agreed. "My lady's maid, Liese, woke me up so I'd stop screaming, and as was her habit, she held me in her lap and rocked me."
"And then she almost dropped you on top of your head 'cause you finally talked to her."
"That's right, Alec."
"And the bad man who told you you killed your sister lied 'cause Liese said you didn't kill her. He was being mean, but you know what?"
"Uncle Brodick will make him sorry he was mean."
Embarrassed because she knew Brodick could hear what the child was saying, she hastily continued the story.
"I was very happy to learn that Christen was alive, but then I also worried that she might be lost. Liese told me not to fret about my sister because she was certain my Uncle Morgan would help me find her. She said that all I needed to do was ask him. She meant for me to wait until morning, but I surprised her when I jumped off her lap and went running to my uncle's chamber."
"'Cause it was the middle of the night, right?"
"Right," she answered.
Alec started giggling because he knew what was coming and he could hardly contain himself. His shoulders shook as he covered his mouth with one hand and eagerly waited, his eyes twinkling with anticipation.
"Liese tried to stop me, but she wasn't fast enough, and she couldn't chase me into my uncle's private chamber. I ran to the side of his bed, climbed up on the platform, and poked him in the ribs to get him to wake up. He was in such a deep sleep, he was snoring, and no matter how hard I poked and prodded, I couldn't get him to open his eyes."
The story captured Brodick's attention, but he wasn't sure if it was because of the way she told the tale or if it was Alec's reaction that so amused him. The child could hardly sit still in her lap.
"And then what did you do?" Alec demanded.
"You know very well what I did. I've told you this story so many times you know it better than I do."
"But you got to tell it."
"I shouted at the poor man and gave him quite a fright."
Alec burst into raucous laughter. "And then he screamed, right?"
"Oh, my, yes, he screamed all right."
"And then you screamed, didn't you?"
She laughed. "Yes, I did. Poor Uncle was so startled, he leapt up and grabbed his sword, but his feet got all tangled up in the covers, and he fell out of bed and rolled all the way down the platform. And that's the end of the story."
"But you got to tell how you followed him around everywhere he went, talking and talking and talking all the day long."
"You just told it," she said. "Uncle told me that for the year I didn't speak he would pray every night that I would one day say his name-"
"But when you started talking and you wouldn't stop, that's when he started praying for a little peace and quiet?"
"Yes," she answered. "You know, Alec, when you get home, there's going to be quite a lot of excitement, and I doubt you'll get to bed early tonight. Why don't you close your eyes and rest?"
Yawning, he wrapped his arms around her waist. "Gillian?" he whispered.
"I love you."
"I love you too, honey bear."
The little boy was clearly worn out and fell asleep minutes later. It was blissfully silent as they continued the steep climb up the side of the mountain. Every once in a while, Brodick would turn back and look at her, a puzzled expression on his face, as though he were trying to work something out in his mind.
The wind picked up, a brittle cold wind that felt as if it were slicing through her bones. She felt Alec shiver and wrapped the plaid around him.
The weight of the child against her left arm soon became unbearable, and she finally asked Brodick for help. Alec was so exhausted he didn't wake up as he was transferred onto his uncle's lap. The tenderness in Brodick's eyes as he carefully placed the child's head against his chest made her think of her uncle Morgan and how he used to hold her on his lap while he told her bedtime stories, and she was suddenly so homesick and scared she wanted to weep.
Brodick caught her watching him. "Alec will get an ache in his ear if you don't cover his head," she blurted to cover her embarrassment.
He pulled the plaid over Alec's head but kept his attention centered on Gillian.
"What has you so worried, lass?"
"Nothing," she lied. "I was thinking…"
"Thinking about what?" he prodded.
He'd moved so close, his leg rubbed against hers. She pretended not to notice.
"Answer me," he demanded.
She sighed. "I was thinking that when you marry and have children, you will make a fine father."
"What makes you think I don't already have children?"
Her eyes widened. "But you're not married."
He laughed. "A man need not be married to father children."
"I realize that, she replied, trying her best to sound worldly. "I'm not completely ignorant."
"But you are completely innocent, aren't you?"
"That, sir, is none of your affair."
Her cheeks had turned bright pink with embarrassment. She was a delight to observe, he thought, and a sure temptress.
"Do you?" she whispered.
"Do I what?"
"Then you were teasing me."
She seemed to require an answer to her statement, and so he gave her a quick nod before he nudged his mount and took over the lead.
A few minutes later she heard the sound of thunder and the ground began to tremble. Stephen, Aaron, Liam and Robert all moved forward to circle her.
"Protect Alec and your laird," she ordered.
"Milady, we're on Maitland land now. There isn't any danger," Stephen explained.
"Then why are the four of you pressing in on me?"
Robert grinned. "We're just letting the Maitlands know."
"Know what, Robert?"
He wasn't inclined to explain. The Maitland soldiers crashed through the trees then and surrounded them. The noise startled Gillian's mare. Before she could calm the horse, Liam grabbed hold of the reins and forced the mare's head down.
They were encircled by warriors, and their closeness became oppressive. They were at least forty in number, and every one of them looked grim.
One soldier broke through the line and rode forward to speak to Brodick. There was something vaguely familiar about the man.
She asked Liam, "Is that soldier angry with your laird?"
"No, milady," he answered. "His name is Winslow, and he always frowns."
"Winslow is Iain Maitland's commander in arms," Stephen told her. "He's also Brodick's brother."
No wonder he seemed so familiar to her, for now she could see the resemblance in the brother's coloring and piercing eyes. Winslow even frowned like Brodick, she thought, when the Maitland commander turned toward her, narrowed his eyes, and said something to his brother.
Stephen deliberately nudged his mount closer to Gillian on one side and Liam squeezed closer on her other side.
"Winslow wants to know who you are, milady," Robert whispered from behind.
She watched Brodick shrug as though she were so unimportant to him he couldn't remember who she was.
And that's the way it should be, she thought to herself. She wasn't important to him; she was simply a means to an end. For a short time, she and Brodick had a united goal of getting an innocent child back to his family. But now they were on Maitland land, and soon their duty would be over. Alec would be with his parents again, Brodick would no doubt go home, and she would begin her search for her sister. Her mind understood that their time together was over, yet her heart ached with regret. It was logical that Brodick would return to his duties as laird over the Buchanans… and it was right. Why, then, did she feel so alone? Gillian didn't need him, or any other man… except her uncle, of course. Uncle Morgan was her family, and when her quest was over, if she succeeded, she would return to him.
But she would never forget Brodick… or the spontaneous kiss he'd given her that had meant nothing to him and everything to her.
Winslow caught her attention when he once again glanced her way and frowned with obvious displeasure. She heard him say the word "English" and assumed he was angry because Brodick had brought an outsider to the Maitlands.
Brodick's response was severe, but he spoke so rapidly, Gillian couldn't catch a single word. Whatever he said seemed to placate his brother, though, because he backed down and reluctantly nodded. Then Brodick lifted the blanket away from Alec's face. Winslow was so stunned he let out a shout. Alec immediately woke up, pushed the plaid down, and sat up straight, smiling as the Maitland soldiers moved forward.
All of the men began to hoot and holler, making such a ruckus Gillian's ears rang.
Alec loved the attention. He gleefully waved to his father's soldiers, then turned in Brodick's lap to look back at Gillian. Alec's joy was wonderful to see, and she knew that she would never forget this wonderful moment. Thank you, God, she prayed, for getting this child home.
Gillian's radiant expression took Brodick's breath away, and when she looked at him and smiled, she made him feel invincible. How could one woman have such an impact on him in such a short time? He felt as though his world had been changed forever, and, honest to God, he didn't know if he liked that one bit. Gillian was a disruption-
"Iain's on his way back from the training fields," Winslow said, breaking into his brother's thoughts.
"You should prepare him," Brodick said. "It's bound to be a shock having a son return from the dead."
Winslow laughed. "A joyous shock," he remarked before leaving.
The Maitland soldiers tried to press in on Gillian, which the Buchanan soldiers took immediate exception to, and had Brodick not put an end to the budding hostility, Gillian was certain a real fight would have broken out. Angry words and hard shoves were exchanged, but no real damage was done.
Brodick led the procession up the last steep hill. There were cottages of every shape and size nestled in the side of the mountain, some stark, others adorned with brightly colored doors. As they rode past, men and women poured out of their homes to follow them. They all looked as though they were witnessing a miracle, and several, Gillian noticed, made the sign of the cross and bowed their heads in prayer. Others mopped at their eyes to stem their joyful tears.
The Maitland home was at the top of the crest on a wide, flat plane. The gray stone structure was quite forbidding, as there was a wide black cloth draped over the double doors. The windows were also covered.
Brodick dismounted with Alec in his arm, motioned to Robert to assist Gillian, and then put the boy down. Running to Gillian, Alec latched onto her hand, and started pulling her to the steps.
The crowd silently pressed forward. Brodick clasped Gillian's other hand, giving it a little squeeze when he noticed how uncomfortable she was with the sea of curious strangers gawking at her. He stopped at the entrance, reached up, and ripped the black cloth from the doors. The cheer that followed was earthshaking. He pulled the door open and stepped back so Gillian could enter, but she shook her head and moved close so he could hear her above the shouting.
"Alec's homecoming should be private. I'll be happy to wait here."
He grinned. "I'll be happier to have you inside," he replied as he gently shoved her ahead of him. She decided she would wait by the door until Alec had had a few minutes alone with his parents and no amount of prodding or pushing was going to change her mind.
The stone entry was poorly lit with a single candle flickering light on a low chest next to the staircase leading to the second level. On Gillian's left were three steps leading down to the great hall. A fire blazed on the hearth, and across the rectangular room was a long wooden table. A lady sat at one end sewing by the light of two candles. Her head was bent to her task, and Gillian couldn't see her face, but she was certain she was watching Alec's mother. The woman didn't look up, though surely she had heard the door open. She seemed completely impervious to the noise the crowd was making outside.
Gillian heard Laird Maitland's voice before she saw him.
"Who in God's name is making all that noise?" Iain demanded.
The voice came from the back hallway. Alec's father entered the great hall from the buttery, spotted Brodick, and demanded to know why everyone was shouting.
Alec had started up the steps to his parents' chamber, but when he heard his father's voice, he turned around and ran back down. He raced across the stone floor, jumped down the steps to the great hall, and threw his arms wide.
"Mama… Papa… I'm home."
The shock very nearly did his parents in. For the first time in his life, Iain Maitland was completely undone. As though he'd just run headfirst into a stone wall, he staggered back shaking his head in disbelief. His dark eyes misted. "Alec?" he whispered hoarsely. And then he roared, "Alec!"
Judith Maitland leapt to her feet and let out a joyful cry, her forgotten sewing basket spilling to the floor. Her hand flew to her heart. She took a shaky step toward her son and then fainted dead away. Unfortunately, Brodick was too far from her to catch her before she hit the floor, and her husband was still too shaken to do more than watch her collapse.
Alec almost knocked his father off his feet when he threw himself at his legs. Iain tried to shake himself out of his stupor. Trembling, the mighty warrior dropped to his knees and, with head bowed and eyes closed, wrapped his son in his strong arms.
The little boy put his head down on his father's shoulder and worriedly watched his mother. "Shouldn't you pick Mama up, Papa? "he asked.
Iain stood but couldn't make himself let go of his son, and so he ordered Brodick to do something about his wife.
Brodick slipped his hand under her shoulders and gently lifted her into his arms. Her face was white, and no amount of shaking was going to get her to wake up until she was ready.
"You've given your mother quite a surprise, Alec," Brodick remarked. "She had you dead and buried."
Iain shook his head. "No, she still had hope in her heart."
Judith opened her eyes and found herself in Brodick's arms. "Why are you…"
"Mama, you're awake."
Brodick slowly lowered Judith to the floor but held her about the waist in the event she felt like passing out again. Suddenly overcome by the tide of emotions engulfing her, she began to sob uncontrollably. Iain reached for her and held her while Alec watched and fretted.
"You're not supposed to cry, Mama. I'm not dead. I'm home. Papa, tell her not to cry."
Iain laughed. "She's happy to have you home. Give her a minute and she'll tell you so."
Judith touched Alec's face with her quivering hand. "I prayed that you…"
Brodick slowly backed away. He wanted to give the Maitlands a few minutes alone, and he also wanted to find Gillian. He had thought that she was with him when he'd entered the great hall, but now he realized she'd stayed behind. He found her sitting on a bench near the stairs. Her hands were folded in her lap and her eyes were downcast.
"What are you doing?" he asked, frowning.
"I'm waiting for the Maitlands to finish their reunion. I felt it would be intrusive for me to watch. They should have a few minutes alone."
Brodick sat down next to her and swallowed up all the space the bench allowed. She found herself squeezed up against him. She had likened him to a bear before, and now the image seemed all the more real.
He took hold of her hand and gently pushed up the sleeve of her gown. "You'll need to take this bandage off before you go to bed tonight."
He didn't let go of her hand, and she didn't pull away. "Brodick?"
She stared into his eyes a long minute before she spoke again. "I want to thank you for your help. Without you, Alec would never have made it back to his parents."
He disagreed. "I didn't get him home, Gillian. You did. I merely helped," he added. "But if I hadn't, you still would have found a way."
Iain called out to him, but she gripped his hand to get him to look at her again. "Yes?"
"After you speak to Alec's parents… will you be going home?"
He stood up and pulled her to her feet. They were just inches apart, his head bent down toward her, her face upturned to his, like lovers about to come together. Damn, but he suddenly wanted to kiss her. A long, hot kiss that would lead to another and another and another…
The way he was looking at her sent shivers down her arms. "Will you?" she whispered.
"What are you asking me?" he demanded impatiently.
Startled by the sharpness in his tone, she stepped back, the back of her knees bumping into the bench.
"After you speak to the Maitlands, will you be going home?" She stared down at her hands as she added, "You are a laird, after all. You must have many pressing duties."
"There's much that needs to be done," he agreed.
"Yes," she said, trying to keep her disappointment out of her voice. "I must thank you, Brodick, for all you've done for Alec, and me, but your duty is finished now that he's safely home. I don't know what I would have… done… without you…" She knew she was rambling, but she couldn't seem to make herself stop. "Of course you must go home. I just thought…"
She lifted her shoulders in a delicate shrug. "I thought perhaps you would wish to see your good friend Ramsey Sinclair again."
He nudged her chin up with his thumb. "I'll see him before I leave the Maitlands. He should be here soon."
"What makes you think-"
He didn't let her finish her question. "I sent Dylan to warn him, remember?"
"Ramsey will want to talk to you as soon as possible. He'll come here," he predicted once again.
"But will you go home then?" she asked.
"As I explained, I have many pressing duties."
Frustrated, she cried out, "Can you not give me a simple answer?"
Iain shouted Brodick's name.
"Come along, Gillian. Iain will want to meet you. He's had enough time to get over his surprise."
"And his wife?"
"It's going to take her a good week to get past her shock. I doubt she'll let Alec out of her sight for all that while."
Gillian brushed the dust from her gown. "I look a fright."
"Aye, you do."
She picked up her skirt to go down the stairs, but Brodick stopped her by taking hold of her arm. In a low voice he said, "You asked me if I would give you a straight answer. Now I'm wondering why you can't ask me a straight question."
"What in heaven's name is that supposed to mean? What is it you think I should ask you?"
"What you want to ask," he said.
"You're an exasperating man."
"So I've been told," he said. "I'm impatient too," he added. "But in this instance, I'm willing to wait."
"There she is, Mama. That's Gillian." Alec's shout echoed throughout the hall.
Gillian pulled away from Brodick, smiling as she watched the little boy run toward her. He grabbed her hand and started pulling. "Don't be afraid of Papa. Most ladies are, but maybe you won't be because you're not like most," he said.
She wasn't as confident as Alec assumed she was, for Iain Maitland was an imposing figure. He was a tall, muscular man with penetrating gray eyes. His dark hair was given to curl and seemed to soften the blistering scowl on his face. Had he not been so imposing, she would have thought he was almost as handsome as Brodick.
Judith Maitland's smile helped assuage her husband's frightening manner. She was a beautiful woman, but it was the color of her eyes that captivated. They were the color of violets. She was a little bit of a thing, yet had such a regal bearing about her Gillian felt as though she were in the presence of a queen.
Desperately in need of a bath and clean clothes, Gillian thought she must look like a lowly peasant.
As soon as Brodick made the introductions, Judith rushed forward to clasp Gillian's hand. Her voice trembled when she said, "You found our son and brought him home to us. I don't know how we will ever repay you."
Gillian darted a quick look at Brodick. The Maitlands obviously believed that Alec had been lost, and Lord help her, how was she ever going to explain what really happened?
"Come and sit at the table," Judith urged. "You must be thirsty and hungry from your long journey. Alec told us you came here all the way from England," she remarked as she led Gillian to a chair near the end of the table.
"Yes, I came here from England."
"I, too, am English," Judith told her.
"No, Judith," her husband corrected. "You used to be English."
His wife smiled. "The men here change history when it's convenient."
"You're a Maitland," Iain countered. "And that is all anyone need know. Brodick, pour yourself some wine and sit down. I want to hear every detail of what transpired before I open the doors to family and friends. Alec, come and sit with your father." He added the command with a good deal of affection in his voice.
The little boy ran around the table and pulled a stool close to his father's chair. Gillian noticed Iain's hand shook when he touched his son's shoulder. Alec smiled up at him and sat down, but was promptly lifted back to his feet and reminded to wait until the ladies had taken their seats.
The Maitland commander, Winslow, came striding into the hall then, bowed to his laird and lady, and then announced, "Ramsey Sinclair has just crossed our border and should be here within the hour."
"Has he already heard of our good fortune?" Iain asked.
"I sent Dylan to him," Brodick explained before turning to his brother.
"Gillian, I would like you to meet my brother. Winslow, this is Lady Gillian."
Winslow bowed. "Lady Gillian, you are from England?" he asked, frowning.
"Yes, I am from England. 'Tis the truth I cannot and would not change that fact, sir. Does it displease you?"
Winslow surprised her with a quick smile. "It would depend, milady."
"Depend on what?"
"My brother." Without further explanation he dismissed the topic altogether and turned to Brodick. "You'll see my wife and my boys before you leave? They will be disappointed if you don't."
"Of course I'll see them."
"Bring them here, Winslow," Iain ordered. "We must celebrate tonight. The children will stay up late."
"Winslow, do you happen to know if Ramsey's brother, Michael, rides with the laird?" Gillian asked.
If the soldier thought the inquiry was peculiar, he didn't comment on it. "I don't know, milady, but we will soon find out." He bowed once again and left the hall.
Judith personally saw to the task of fetching a pitcher of water for her guests.
"Papa, where's Graham?" Alec asked.
"Your brother's with your Uncle Patrick, but he'll be home soon. He's going to be very happy to see you."
"'Cause he missed me?" he asked eagerly.
Iain smiled. "We all missed you, Alec."
"Mama missed me the most. She's still shaking something fierce 'cause I surprised her. Look, Papa. She can't even pour the water. Is she gonna cry again?"
Iain laughed. "Probably," he answered. "It's going to take your mother… and me," he added, "time to get over this joyous surprise."
Alec hadn't exaggerated Judith's condition. She had already spilled a good deal of water on the tabletop and thus far hadn't managed to get a single drop into the cup. Her hands were shaking violently and every time she looked at her son, her eyes brimmed with fresh tears.
Iain put his hand on top of his wife's. "Sit down, love," he quietly suggested.
She moved her chair close to her husband, collapsed in the seat, and leaned into his side. Iain poured the water for Gillian, but as she reached for the goblet, she noticed how dirty her hands were and quickly hid them in her lap.
Iain put his arm around his wife and hugged her. His attention, however, was centered on Gillian. "Start at the beginning and tell me how and when you found my son. I want to hear every detail," he ordered. He paused to pat Alec before adding, "It's a miracle a five-year-old could survive the falls."
"Alec's only five years old?" Gillian asked.
"But I'm gonna be seven."
"Your brother's seven," Iain reminded him.
"But I'm gonna be seven too."
Alec scooted off the stool and ran around the table to Gillian. Without asking permission, he climbed onto her lap, pulled her arms around him, and grinned at her.
"You and Alec have become close friends," Judith remarked, smiling.
"Iain, perhaps you could wait until Alec has gone to bed to hear the details," Brodick suggested.
"But I get to stay up late 'cause Papa said we have to celebrate," Alec blurted. "Didn't you say so, Papa?"
"Yes," his father agreed.
"You know what, Gillian?" Alec whispered loudly.
She leaned down. "No, what?"
"When I go to bed, Mama's gonna sit with me until I fall asleep, and my brother sleeps in the same room with me, so maybe I won't have bad dreams and I won't get scared."
"Perhaps you won't dream at all tonight."
"But you got to have someone to sleep with too, so you won't get scared 'cause I won't be there."
"I'll be just fine," she assured him.
Alec wasn't convinced. "But what if you do get scared? You got to have someone to wake you up. Maybe you could ask Brodick to sleep with you again like he did before."
She clapped her hand over his mouth to get him to hush and felt her face burn with mortification. She knew Brodick was watching her, but she didn't dare look at him.
Judith laughed. "Alec, sweetheart, you're embarrassing Gillian."
"Mama, you know what Gillian calls me?"
Giggling, the little boy said, "Honey bear."
Iain's gaze went back and forth between Gillian and Brodick. "Father Laggan's back," he remarked. "And there's another, younger priest named Stevens with him."
"Why are you telling me this?" Brodick asked.
"I just wanted you to know there are two priests available," Iain explained with a meaningful glance at Gillian.
"I didn't sleep with Brodick," she blurted out. "I have no need for a priest."
"Yes, you did too."
"Alec, it isn't polite to contradict your elders."
Gillian glared at Brodick. He could easily correct this horrid misunderstanding if he would only offer a quick explanation.
He wasn't inclined. He winked at her. "I didn't know a face could get that red," he remarked.
"Do explain," she demanded.
"Explain what?" he asked, feigning innocence.
She turned to Judith. "We were camping… and it isn't what it sounds like… I did sleep, and when I awakened… they were all there…"
"They? "Iain asked.
"You slept with his soldiers too?"
She didn't understand that Iain was teasing her. "No… that is to say, we… slept. That's all that happened, Laird."
"Stop tormenting her," Judith ordered. "Can you not see how distressing this is for her? Gillian doesn't understand the Highlanders' humor. What happened to your arm?" Judith asked then, thinking to turn the subject to a less delicate one. "I noticed the bandage, and I was curious-"
Alec interrupted his mother. Jumping off Gillian's lap, he cried out, "Papa, we got to take a walk."
"Yes, Papa, now."
"Alec, I want to talk to Brodick and Gillian. I'm anxious to hear how they found you."
"But, Papa, I got to tell you what I did, and then you're gonna be mad at me. We got to take a walk so I can think about it."
"Come here, son," his father ordered, concerned by the anxiety he saw in Alec's eyes.
The little boy dragged his feet and kept his head down as he went to his father. Iain laid his hands on his shoulders and leaned forward.
Alec promptly burst into tears. "I got real scared, Papa, and I cut Gillian's arm, and then it got all swollen, and Annie had to fix it, and it's all my fault 'cause I hurt a lady, and I'm not ever supposed to hurt ladies, but I got real scared. I didn't like England and I wanted to come home." Alec threw his arms around his father's neck and began to sob in earnest.
"Alec has been very worried that he would disappoint you, Laird," Gillian explained. "He didn't understand that I was trying to help him. He had climbed down with a rope into a gorge, but it was an old rope, and it began to unravel, and he…" She looked to Brodick for help. The task of explaining suddenly became overwhelming and she was so weary she didn't know where to start.
"My son isn't making much sense," Iain said. "He says he was in England?"
Gillian braced herself for the ordeal ahead and quietly said, "He speaks the truth. Alec was in England."
"I told you so, Papa."
Iain nodded but kept his attention on Gillian. "How did my son get to England?"
"Alec didn't go into the falls. He was taken from the festival and imprisoned in a castle in England. That is where I met him."
The expression on Iain's face changed. He put Alec in Judith's lap, and stood. For his son's sake, he tried to keep his voice mild when in fact he wanted to shout.
"Who took him?"
Gillian felt an instant of real fear as the laird towered over her, glowering as though he had already decided she was fully responsible for his son's jeopardy.
"It was a mistake," she began.
"Damned right it was," Iain roared.
Alec's eyes grew wide. "Are you angry, Papa?"
His father took a deep breath. "Yes," he snapped.
"He isn't angry with you, Alec," Gillian whispered.
"He knows that."
"Don't snap at Gillian." Brodick, who had remained silent up until now, sounded as angry as Iain when he gave the command. "She is as innocent as your son in this. Sit down, and I'll tell you what I have learned. I know you're anxious to hear it all, but you cannot raise your voice to Gillian. I will not allow it."
Gillian could see that Iain was ready to explode and hurried to explain before the two lairds got into a real fight. "When I said it was a mistake…"
"Yes?" Iain asked.
"The men who took Alec thought they were stealing Ramsey's brother, Michael. They kidnapped the wrong boy."
"For the love of…" Iain was so enraged he couldn't go on.
"Sit down, husband," Judith suggested. "Listen to what Gillian has to say."
He nearly overturned the chair when he ripped it out from the table and sat down. Leaning back, he stared hard at Gillian for several seconds.
"It's a very long story, Laird, and Ramsey should be here any minute now, shouldn't he? If you could please wait…"
Iain's jaw was clenched and he shook his head.
"Papa, you know what?" The little boy smiled up at his father when he spoke, and Iain reached over to pat him.
"No, what, Alec?" he asked gruffly.
"We sneaked away twice, but the first time we got dragged back, and it was all my fault 'cause I didn't wait like I was supposed to."
Iain blinked as he tried to sort out his son'scontusing explanation. "What happened the first time you got away?"
"I climbed down into the gorge is what I did," he boasted. "But I didn't get a good rope."
"It was threadbare," Gillian interjected.
"My son climbed down into a gorge with a threadbare rope?" Iain lashed out. "And where were you while Alec was attempting this?"
"Papa, she told me to wait for her, but I didn't, and we weren't supposed to go into the canyon, but I thought it would be faster. Then I got good and stuck, didn't I, Gillian?"
"Yes, you did."
"I was supposed to wait in the stable."
"But you didn't," his mother said.
"No, and I thought Gillian was gonna puke 'cause her face turned green when she looked over the side and saw me. She told me she gets awful sick when she's got to look way down, and she sometimes gets dizzy too."
"You're afraid of-" Judith began.
Her husband interrupted with a question of his own. "But you climbed down to get Alec anyway?"
"I didn't have any other choice."
"She had to fetch me, Papa," Alec explained. "And she was just in time 'cause the rope broke right in half just after she grabbed me. She told me she was awful scared, but she didn't puke."
The child sounded a little disappointed over that fact. Neither one of his parents smiled, for they were both thinking about the near miss their son had had.
They were also realizing that Gillian had saved him.
"I will force myself to be patient a little longer and wait until Ramsey arrives to hear your accounting," Iain announced. "But at the very least, give me the names of the bastards who stole my child from me," he demanded. "By God, I want to know who they are and now, this minute."
"I've warned you not to take that tone with Gillian. Now I'm ordering you, Iain. I won't have her upset."
Judith Maitland couldn't make up her mind who was more surprised by Brodick's angry outburst. Iain looked flabbergasted, and Gillian appeared to be incredulous.
Iain quickly recovered. He leaned forward and in a furious hiss said, "You dare to order me?"
Brodick also leaned forward. "That's exactly what I-"
Gillian, hoping to avert the budding hostility, blurted out, "Shouting at me won't upset me."
"But it upsets me, Gillian."
Gillian wondered if Brodick realized he was nearly shouting at her now. She looked to Judith for help, but it was Alec who inadvertently turned his father's attention.
"Papa, don't yell at Gillian," Alec cried out as he ran around the table to Gillian and climbed into her lap. "She never shouted at me, not even when the man beat her. She tricked him good, Papa."
"Someone beat her?" Iain asked.
Alec nodded. "She made him beat her so he wouldn't beat me."
The little boy suddenly remembered the ring Gillian had given him and pulled the ribbon over his head. "Gillian said she was gonna be my champion, just like Uncle Brodick, and she told me I could keep the ring until I got back home. She promised me she wasn't gonna let nobody hurt me and she didn't. I don't need the ring anymore to remind me I'm safe, but I still want to keep it."
"You can't, Alec," Gillian said softly.
He reluctantly handed the ring to her. "Uncle Brodick said I could keep his dagger forever."
She laughed. "I'm still not going to let you keep my grandmother's ring."
Judith placed her hand on top of her husband's. "You do realize that if it were not for this dear lady, our son would be dead."
"Of course, I realize-"
"Then I suggest, instead of shouting at her and treating her as though you hold her responsible for the actions of others, you thank her. I plan to get down on my knees and thank God for sending her to Alec. She was his guardian angel."
The emotional speech humbled Gillian, and she shook her head in protest. Judith dabbed at her eyes with a linen cloth and then stood.
"Gillian," Iain began, his voice hesitant. "I do thank you for protecting my son, and I certainly didn't mean to imply that I in any way hold you responsible. If I gave you that impression, I apologize. As difficult as it will be, I'll wait for Ramsey to join us to find out what happened."
Judith beamed with satisfaction. "I do believe that is the very first time I've ever heard you apologize. It's a momentous occasion. And since you are now in such an accommodating mood, may I suggest that you and Ramsey wait until after the celebration to hear what Gillian has to say. Tonight is Alec's homecoming and our friends and relatives will be here soon." Judith didn't wait for her husband's agreement. "Gillian will want to freshen up now."
"Gillian likes to take baths, Mama," Alec said. "She made me wash too. I didn't want to, but she made me."
Judith laughed. "She took good care of you, Alec," she said as she clasped hold of Gillian's arm. "How would you like a hot bath now?"
"I would like that very much."
"I'll find clean clothes for you and have these washed right away," she promised. "The Maitland plaid will keep you nice and warm," she added. "Though the days are warm, it gets quite chilly at night."
Hearing that Gillian would wear the Maitland plaid didn't sit well with Brodick. Without thinking how his words would be interpreted, he said, "She'll wear the Buchanan plaid for this celebration."
Iain folded his arms and leaned back in his chair. "Why do you want her to wear your colors? Are you claiming-"
Brodick cut him off. "My soldiers would be… upset. They would surely rebel if they saw her in your plaid, Iain. They've taken a liking to the lass and have become very possessive and protective of her. While she's in the Highlands, she'll wear our colors. I won't have the Buchanan soldiers insulted."
Iain grinned. "You're worried that your men will be upset? Is that what I heard you say? For God's sake, they're warriors, not…"
He was going to say "women," but quickly changed his mind when his wife gave him a sharp look. With a smile he substituted "children."
Judith laughed, for she knew her husband was trying to be diplomatic for her sake. She started toward the stairs then, but Gillian paused to turn back to Brodick.
"Brodick, you did promise your brother, Winslow, you would see his wife and children."
"I remember what I promised."
"Then you'll be here when I return?"
Exasperated that she still couldn't get up the courage to ask him a direct question, he said, "Yes."
She nodded before hurrying after Judith. She tried to hide her relief that Brodick would stay a bit longer, and then she became angry with herself for feeling the way she did. She was acting like a fool because she was letting herself become dependent on him, and she had no right to lean on the man. No, she couldn't ask anything more of him.
She diligently tried to put him out of her thoughts for the next hour as she bathed and washed her hair. Judith brought her a pale yellow gown to wear. It was a little too snug across her chest and showed a bit too much of the swell of her breasts, but Judith thought it was still proper. Brodick had sent up one of the Buchanan plaids and Judith showed Gillian how to pleat it about her waist. Then she draped one end over her left shoulder and tucked it into the belt, explaining, "It took me a long time to figure out how to do this. For the longest while I could never get the pleats straight. The only way to get the hang of it is to practice," she added.
"The plaid is very important to the Highlanders, isn't it?"
"Oh, yes," Judith said. "They… I mean to say, we… are a very fanciful people. The plaid should always cover the heart," she added. "We wear our colors proudly." She stepped back and inspected Gillian. "You look lovely," she announced. "Now come and sit by the fire and let me brush your hair. It looks almost dry. Will you mind if I ask you a few questions?" She laughed then. "I'm terrible, I admit. I made my husband wait, and now I'm impatient."
"I don't mind answering your questions. What is it you want to know?"
"How did you end up with Alec? Were you also taken captive?"
"Yes, I was."
"But why? You're English and surely you could appeal to your king for help."
"My king is fast friends with the men responsible for the trouble Alec and I were in, and in a way John is fully responsible for it all."
While Judith brushed her hair, Gillian told her about Arianna's treasure. Judith was captivated by the story, and when Gillian told her about the death of her father, the dear lady looked genuinely saddened.
"Prince John fell in love with Arianna, and though it sounds quite romantic,'tis the truth he was married at the time of his infatuation. It's tragic that Arianna was murdered, but I have no sympathy for my king. He betrayed his vows to his wife."
"He's been married twice now, hasn't he? And it's my understanding his first wife is still alive."
"Yes, she is," Gillian replied. "John was granted an annulment from Hadwisa after many years of marriage. They had no children," she added. "And they were second cousins. The Archbishop of Canterbury had forbidden the marriage, but John got a dispensation from Rome."
"If John's first marriage was recognized by the church, how, then, did he manage to marry a second time?"
"The Archbishop of Bordeaux and the bishops of Poitiers and Saintes pronounced that the first marriage wasn't valid."
"On what grounds?"
"Consanguinity," she answered.
"Because they were too closely related as second cousins."
"Yes," Gillian said. "John immediately married Isabella and stirred up all sorts of trouble for himself because she was already betrothed to another. She was only twelve years old when they married."
"John takes what he wants," Judith remarked. "Doesn't he?"
"Yes, he does," she agreed.
Judith shook her head. " England has changed considerably since I lived there."
"John is the culprit for all the unpleasant changes. He's alienated many powerful barons and there are whispers of insurrection. Worse, he's alienated the church, and our pope has retaliated by placing all of England under interdict."
Judith gasped. "Has John been excommunicated?"
"Not yet, but I believe Pope Innocent will be forced to do just that if John doesn't bend, and soon, to the pope's decision. The issue centers around the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. John wanted the Bishop of Norwich, John de Grey, to be elected, and the younger monks of Canterbury had already selected Reginald and sent him off to Rome to be confirmed by the pope."
"And the pope settled on Reginald, then?" Gillian shook her head. "No, he chose his own man, Stephen Langton. John was so furious he refused to let Langton enter England and took control of the monastery at Canterbury, and that is when our pope placed the entire country under interdict. No religious services can be performed. Churches are closed and locked, and priests must refuse to bless marriages. They can't administer any of the holy sacraments, except those that are of extreme necessity. It's a black time in England now, and I fear it will only get worse."
"I have heard that John acts out of anger."
"He's well-known for his ferocious temper."
"No wonder you didn't appeal to him for help."
"No, I couldn't," she said. "Do you have family worrying about you?"
"My uncle Morgan is being held captive now," she whispered. "And I've been given a… task… to complete before the fall harvest. If I fail, my uncle will be killed."
"Oh, Gillian, you've had a time of it, haven't you?"
"I need your husband's help."
"He'll help any way that he can," Judith promised on Iain's behalf.
"The man who holds my uncle is a close adviser to the king, and John will listen to him, not me. I thought about asking one of the more powerful barons for help, but they are all fighting amongst themselves, and I didn't know who I could trust. England," she ended, "is in chaos, and I worry about the future."
"I'm not going to hound you to answer any more questions," Judith said. "You'll have to go through it all with my husband and Ramsey later."
"Thank you for your patience," she replied.
A knock sounded at the door, but before Judith could answer, Alec came running into the room. He stopped dead in his tracks when he spotted Gillian.
She stood up and smiled at him. "Is something wrong, Alec?"
"You look… pretty," he blurted out.
Judith agreed. Gillian's long hair had dried into a riot of curls that spilled across her slender shoulders and framed her delicate facial features. She was a striking woman who was going to cause quite a stir tonight, Judith predicted.
"Mama, Papa bids you come downstairs right this minute. He says, 'Can't you hear the music?' Everybody's here, and they're ready to eat the food. Gillian, you got to come downstairs too. Uncle Brodick said so."
"Judith, you go ahead," Gillian said. "I've gotten this bandage all wet, but I'm supposed to take it off, anyway."
Judith wanted to help, but Gillian insisted she join her husband. Once she was alone, she sat back down and slowly unwound the bandage, dreading what she was going to see. The wound was more appalling than she'd expected, but thankfully it wasn't seeping, and the swelling appeared to be gone. The skin was puckered, blistered in spots, raw, and horribly ugly. She reminded herself it was a sin to be vain and she shouldn't care about scars. Besides, the arm would always be covered by the sleeves of her gowns, and no one other than herself would ever see it. The injury was still extremely tender to the touch, though, and she grimaced while she cleaned the area with soap and cool water. By the time she was finished following Annie Drummond's instructions, her arm was throbbing.
She patted the skin dry, pulled the sleeve back down to her wrist, and put the matter of her paltry injury aside. There were so many more important matters to worry about. Her thoughts turned to her Uncle Morgan. Was he being treated well? If his own staff had been allowed to stay with him, Gillian knew he would do all right, but if Alford had moved him…
She buried her face in her hands. Please God, take care of him. Don't let him catch cold or take ill. And please don't let him fret about me.
The sound of laughter intruded on her prayers, and with a sigh, she stood up and reluctantly went to join the Maitlands.
Just as Judith had predicted, Gillian did indeed cause a commotion.
Quite a crowd had gathered to celebrate Alec's return, and the mood was festive and loud. The hall was awash with candlelight. A young man was playing the lute in the corner as servants threaded their way through the throng balancing silver trays of drinks. A pig roasting on a spit was being watched over by an older woman with a poker in one hand and a wooden spoon in the other. She used the spoon as a weapon to discourage the soldiers from tearing off pieces of meat before it was ready to be served.
The lively music and joyful banter surrounded Gillian as she surveyed the great hall. She started down the stairs, and suddenly the music stopped. The lute player looked up, and then one by one the voices hushed as men and women turned their faces toward her.
Brodick was in the process of answering yet another question Iain had posed when he happened to glance up and see Gillian slowly descending the steps. He promptly lost his train of thought. He forgot his manners too, for he was in the middle of a sentence when he abruptly turned his back on his brother and his friend and walked to the stairs.
While Brodick had certainly noticed her shape before, the gentle curves of her body were more obvious to him now. He didn't much like the cut of her gown, thinking it flattered her figure a bit too much, and he seriously considered fetching another Buchanan plaid and draping it around her neck so that it would hang down and hide her feminine attributes from the spectators. Damn, but she was lovely.
Gillian took one look at the scowl on Brodick's face and felt a sudden urge to turn around and go back upstairs. But she was already halfway down and wasn't about to look like a coward by retreating now. The attention was mortifying, the silence defeaning. Several men, she noticed, appeared startled; others looked befuddled. Only Brodick's soldiers, loyal men, Robert, Stephen, Liam, Keith, and Aaron, smiled at her, and she decided to look at them and ignore the crowd, and Brodick, as she continued on.
Brodick wasn't about to be ignored, however. He waited at the bottom of the steps, and when she finally reached him, he put his hand out. Hesitantly, she placed her hand in his and looked up at him. Embarrassed to see that he was still glowering at her, she smiled sweetly and whispered, "If you do not stop glaring at me, I swear I will kick you soundly. Then you will have something to frown about."
He was so startled by her puny threat, he burst into laughter.
"You think you could injure me?"
He laughed again, a wonderful booming sound, and, Lord, how his eyes sparkled with devilment. She suddenly felt much more in control and sure of herself. She barely minded her audience at all. Besides, they couldn't gawk at her now, because Brodick's men surrounded her on all sides as was their peculiar habit.
"Laird, you shouldn't allow the Maitlands to stare at milady. It's unseemly," Robert muttered.
"And how would you have me stop them?" he asked.
"We'll be happy to see to that task," Liam offered, a glint of eagerness in his voice.
"Aye, we'll make them forget about their lustful thoughts," Stephen muttered.
Shoving an elbow into Liam's side, Aaron said, "Don't use the word 'lust' in front of milady."
Blessedly, the music started again, and the crowd resumed their celebration.
Brodick continued to hold her hand as he answered a question Liam had asked, and since he wasn't watching her, she pretended to be listening to what he was saying so she could stare at him. He was so ruggedly good-looking, she wondered if he had any idea how he surely affected women.
He also looked dangerous tonight, with his long golden hair about his shoulders and his day's growth of whiskers. He'd obviously washed, as his hair was only partially dry, and he was wearing a clean white shirt that either he had packed with him or Iain had loaned to him. His skin looked even more bronzed against the white fabric, and a strip of Buchanan plaid was draped over one of his broad shoulders.
He caught her watching him. The gleam in his eyes made her feel breathless, and she had a sudden urge to move into his arms and kiss that scowl right off his face. She sighed instead and thanked God the man couldn't read her unladylike thoughts.
"I say we take the Maitland soldiers outside and have a word with them, Laird," Robert suggested.
"A fist is more powerful than a word, Robert," Liam said. "What say we take them all on?"
Gillian hadn't been paying much attention to the Buchanan soldiers' grumblings until she heard the word "fist."
"You will not fight tonight," she ordered. "This is a celebration, not a brawl."
"But, milady, a good fight is always cause for celebration," Stephen explained.
"Are you telling me you enjoy fighting?"
The soldiers looked at one another, obviously perplexed by her question. The usually dour-faced Robert actually grinned.
"It's what we do," Liam told her.
Gillian kept waiting for Brodick to put a stop to the outrageous talk, but he didn't say a word. When she squeezed his hand, he merely retaliated by squeezing hers.
"I don't care if you enjoy fighting or not," she began. "Laird Maitland will be most displeased if you cause trouble tonight."
"But, milady, his soldiers continue to stare at you. We can't allow that."
"Yes, you can."
"It's insolent," Stephen explained.
"If anyone is staring, then it's my own fault."
"Aye, it is your fault." Brodick finally spoke. "You're too damned beautiful tonight."
She couldn't make up her mind if she was pleased or irritated. "Only you could make a compliment sound like a criticism."
"It was a criticism," he told her. "You simply cannot look the way you do and expect to be ignored. It's your own fault people are staring at you."
She jerked her hand away from his. "And just exactly what could I do to change the way I look?"
"It's your hair, milady," Aaron said. "Perhaps you could bind it up for tonight and cover it with a cloth."
"I'll do no such thing."
"It's also the gown she's wearing," Liam decided. "Milady, couldn't you find something less… fitted… for tonight?"
She glanced down at herself and then looked up. "Would a wheat sack do, Liam?" she asked.
The daft soldier looked as though he were actually considering the possibility. She rolled her eyes in vexation. "Those soldiers who might have glanced my way were probably just perplexed because they've noticed I'm wearing the Buchanan plaid. I shouldn't have put the thing on."
"Why not, milady?" Robert asked. "We like seeing you in our plaid."
"Only a Buchanan should wear your colors," she replied. "And I shouldn't proclaim to be something I'm not. If you'll excuse me, I'll just go back upstairs and put my old clothes on."
"No, you won't," Brodick said. He grabbed her hand and pulled her along behind him. His goal was to get her to Iain and Judith so that they could introduce her to those they wanted her to meet, but the Maitland soldiers kept interfering with eager requests to meet Gillian. One upstart, built like a bull, was a little too enthusiastic and persistent for Brodick's liking, and he had to knock the man to his knees to get him out of their path as they made their way forward.
Gillian was appalled by his behavior. "You're the Buchanan laird," she reminded him in a whisper.
"I know who I am," he snapped.
If he wasn't going to worry about being overheard, then she wouldn't worry about it either. "Then act like it," she snapped back.
He laughed. "I am. In fact, I'm upholding our reputation and our traditions."
"You and your soldiers are acting like bullies."
"It's good of you to notice."
She gave up trying to reason with him. Elbow shove by elbow shove, they finally reached Iain and Judith. The Maitland laird bowed to her before turning his attention and his obvious displeasure on Brodick.
"Control your soldiers," he ordered. "Or I will."
Brodick grinned. Gillian turned around to find out what Brodick's men were up to and was further distressed to see that they were all doing their best to incite the Maitlands to fight.
She had no right to give orders to the Buchanan soldiers, but she still felt somehow responsible for their actions. She had become quite fond of all of them in a very short while, and she didn't want them to get on Iain's bad side even though the five rascals seemed to thrive on trouble. Fighting, it appeared, was as enjoyable to them as sweets to a child.
"Pray excuse me for one moment, Laird Maitland. I would like to have a word with Brodick's soldiers."
She made a curtsy to her host and hostess, ignoring Brodick altogether because she was having to do his duty for him, and then hurried over to his soldiers, who were in the midst of antagonizing a large group of Maitland warriors.
In a voice loud enough to be overheard by the Maitlands, she said, "It would please me if you act like gentlemen tonight."
They looked crestfallen, but quickly nodded their agreement. She smiled as she turned to the Maitlands.
"Your laird has decreed that none of his soldiers will fight tonight. I realize what a disappointment that must be for all of you good men, but as you know the Buchanans are honorable men, and they will not provoke you further."
"If they cannot fight us, why bother?" Liam said. "Your laird has taken the fun out of the game."
One of the Maitland soldiers slapped his shoulder. "Then what say we break open a keg of ale? We'll show you how Eric can down a full jug without once swallowing. I wager you can't top that feat."
Aaron disagreed, and after bowing to Lady Gillian, the Buchanans followed the Maitlands to the buttery to fetch the ale.
The competition, it seemed, was on.
"Children, every one of them," she muttered as she picked up her skirts and hurried back to the Maitlands.
Judith pulled her away from the men to introduce her to her dearest friend, a pretty, freckle-faced, redheaded lady with two full names, Frances Catherine.
"Her husband, Patrick, is Iain's brother," Judith explained. "And Frances Catherine and I have been friends for many years."
Frances Catherine's smile made Gillian feel at ease in a matter of seconds.
"Judith and I have been whispering about you," she admitted. "You have captured Brodick's attention, and that is no small accomplishment, Gillian. He doesn't like the English much," she added, softening the truth.
"Did he tell you he and Ramsey went to England a long time ago to find brides?" Judith asked.
Gillian's eyes widened and she glanced at Brodick. "No, he didn't tell me. When did he and his friend go to England?"
"It was at least six or seven years ago."
"More like eight," Frances Catherine told her friend.
"What happened?" Gillian asked.
"They were both in love with Judith," Frances Catherine said.
"They were not," Judith argued.
"Yes, they were," she insisted. "But of course Judith was already married to Iain, so they decided they would find brides in England just like her."
Gillian smiled. "They were very young then, weren't they?"
"With foolish expectations," Frances Catherine added. "None of the ladies they met measured up to their Judith-"
"Oh, for heaven's sake, Frances Catherine. You needn't make me sound like a saint. They weren't looking for ladies like me. They were just restless and hadn't found mates here. They soon came to their senses, however, and came back home. Both vowed to Iain that they would marry Highlanders."
"And that was that," Frances Catherine said.
"Until you came along," Judith remarked with a smile.
"Brodick has been very kind to me," Gillian said. "But that is all there is to it. He's a very kind man," she added in a stammer.
"No, he isn't," Frances Catherine bluntly replied.
Judith laughed. "Do you have feelings for this kind man?"
"You shouldn't ask her such a question," Frances Catherine said. "But do you, Gillian?"
"Of course I care for him. He came to my aid and helped me get Alec home. I shall be forever indebted to him. However," she hastily added when both ladies looked as though they were going to interrupt, "I must return to England as soon as my duty here is finished. I cannot entertain foolish… dreams."
"There are complications you aren't aware of, Frances Catherine," Judith explained.
"Love is complicated," her friend replied. "Answer one last question for me, Gillian, and I promise I'll stop hounding you. Have you given your heart to Brodick?"
She was saved from having to answer the question when Frances Catherine's husband interrupted them. Patrick Maitland resembled his brother, Iain, in coloring, but he was sparsely built in comparison. He was just as protective of his wife, however, and Gillian noticed that both brothers didn't have any trouble letting others see how they felt about their wives. Their love was apparent, heartwarming, enviable.
Frances Catherine introduced her to Patrick and then proudly pointed out their children, six in all, twin girls who looked like their mother and four handsome sons. The baby couldn't have been more than a year old and was diligently trying to wiggle out of his father's arms. When the baby smiled, two shiny teeth were visible.
Alec tugged on Gillian's hand to get her attention then and presented his brother, Graham, to her. The firstborn Maitland was quite shy. He wouldn't look at Gillian, but he bowed formally all the way to his waist, then ran away to rejoin his friends.
"Our son Graham was named after a valiant soldier who trained my husband," Judith explained. "Graham's been gone almost eight years now, but we still mourn his passing. He was a wonderful man and like a grandfather to me. Ah, there's Helen waving to us. The food must be ready. Come, Gillian, you and Brodick must sit with Iain and me. Frances Catherine, fetch your husband and join us."
Darkness descended and additional candles were placed about the gigantic hall. All the women helped carry in platters of food. Though Gillian offered, she wasn't allowed to lift a finger. She was astonished that such a grand feast could be so quickly prepared. There were pigeon pies and pheasant, salmon and salted trout, thick crusty bread (black and brown), sugared cakes, and sweet apple tarts, and to wash it all down were glistening pitchers of wine and ale and icy cold water, fresh from a mountain stream. There was also goat's milk, and Gillian drank a full goblet of the creamy liquid.
During the meal, Alec was passed around from soldier to soldier. He was too excited to eat and was talking so fast, he stammered.
"My son has dark circles under his eyes," Iain said. "And so do you, Gillian. You will both have to catch up on your sleep."
"They both have nightmares." Brodick made the comment in a low voice so that only Iain would hear. "Where will Gillian sleep tonight?"
"In Graham's old room," Iain replied. "You needn't worry about her. Judith and I will make certain she isn't disturbed."
The music started again and Patrick immediately stood up. He put the baby in Judith's lap, then pulled his wife to her feet. Frances Catherine's face was flushed with excitement as she followed her husband to the center of the room. Other couples quickly joined them. They danced to the accompaniment of men stomping their feet and clapping their hands to the lively rhythm of the tune.
Several bold young soldiers came forward to ask Gillian to dance, but one dark look from Brodick sent them scurrying away.
He was getting angrier by the second. By all that was holy, couldn't they see she was wearing his plaid? And couldn't they leave her alone for one damned night? The lass was clearly all worn out. Why even Iain had remarked about the dark circles under her eyes. Brodick shook his head in disgust. What in thunder did he have to do to make certain that Gillian got a little peace and quiet?
And what right did he have to be so possessive? She didn't belong to him. They had simply been thrown together for Alec's sake.
"Hell," he muttered.
"Excuse me?" Gillian's arm rubbed against his when she leaned toward him. "Did you say something, Brodick?"
He didn't answer her. "He said, 'hell,'" Iain cheerfully informed her. "Didn't he, Judith?"
"Yes, he most certainly did," she replied, her eyes sparkling with mischief as she patted her nephew. "He said, 'hell.'"
"But why?" Gillian asked. "What's wrong with him?"
Iain laughed. "You," he answered. "You're what's wrong with him."
Brodick scowled. "Iain, let it alone."
"Milady, could I have a dance with you?"
Alec stood right behind Gillian, poking her between her shoulders to get her attention. When she turned around and smiled at him, he bowed low. Lord, he was adorable, and she had to resist the urge to scoop him up in her arms and hug him tight.
While Brodick was patiently explaining to the child that Gillian was too tired to dance, she stood up, curtsied as though the King of Scotland himself had honored her, and then put her hand out for Alec to clasp.
Alec thought that dancing meant circling until he was dizzy. Brodick moved to the side of the hall and leaned against a pillar with his arms folded across his chest while he watched. He noticed how Gillian's dark curls shimmered red from the light of the fire blazing in the hearth behind her, and he noticed her smile too. It was filled with such sweet joy.
Then he noticed he wasn't the only man noticing. As soon as the dance ended, soldiers, like vultures, came swooping in. At least eight men surrounded her, begging for her attention.
All of them wanted to dance with her, but she politely declined their requests. She found Brodick in the crowd, and without even thinking about what she was doing, she walked over to him and stood by his side. Neither looked at the other and neither spoke, yet when she moved closer to him, he moved toward her, until their bodies touched.
He stared straight ahead when he asked, "Do you miss England?"
"I miss my Uncle Morgan."
"But do you miss England?"
Several minutes passed in silence as they watched the dancers, and then she asked, "Tell me about your home."
"You wouldn't like it."
He shrugged. "The Buchanans aren't like the Maitlands."
"And what does that mean?"
"We're… harder. They call us Spartans, and in some ways I think perhaps we are. You're too soft for our way of life."
"There are other women living on the Buchanan land, aren't there?"
"Yes, of course."
"I'm not certain what you meant when you said I was too soft, but I have a feeling it wasn't flattery. Still, I'm not going to take offense. Besides, I'd wager that the Buchanan women aren't any different than I am. If I'm soft, then so are they."
He smiled as he glanced down at her. "They'd have you for their supper."
"Your feelings would be destroyed in a matter of minutes."
She laughed, and heads turned in response to the joyful sound.
"Tell me about these women," she asked. "You've made me very curious."
"There isn't much to tell," he replied. "They're strong," he added. "And they can certainly take care of themselves. They can protect themselves against attack, and they can kill as easily and as quickly as any man." With another glance at her he added, "They're warriors, and they sure as certain aren't soft."
"Are you criticizing them or praising them?" she wanted to know.
"Praising them, of course."
She moved so that she stood directly in front of him. "What was your purpose in telling me about the women in your clan?"
She shook her head. "You started this conversation. Now finish it."
He sighed. "I just wanted you to know that it could never work."
"What couldn't work?"
"You and me."
She didn't try to pretend she was outraged by his impudence or insulted by his arrogance. "You're a very blunt man, aren't you?"
"I just don't want you to get your hopes up."
He knew he'd pricked her temper with his last comment-her eyes had turned the color of an angry sea-but he wasn't going to take the words back or soften the truth.
He dealt in reality, not fantasy, yet the thought of walking away from her was becoming more and more unacceptable to him. What the hell was the matter with him? And what was happening to his discipline? It fairly deserted him now, for though he tried, he found it impossible to make himself look away from her. He focused on her mouth, remembering all too well how wonderfully soft her lips had been pressed against his. Damn, but he wanted to kiss her again.
His eyes narrowed, and he looked as though he were about to start growling at her any moment.
"You probably feel you're being very noble by telling me you could never love me…"
Surprised by her interpretation, he replied gruffly, "I didn't say I couldn't love you.".
"You most certainly did," she argued. "You just told me that a life together is out of the question."
"It is out of the question. You'd be miserable."
She closed her eyes and prayed for tolerance. She was riled and trying not to let it show. "Let me get this straight. You could love me, but you could never live with me. Have I got it right, now?"
"Just about," he drawled out.
"Since you've felt compelled to make your position clear, I believe I shall do the same. Even if I should suffer the misfortune of falling in love with an arrogant, opinionated, obstinate Spartan like you-which, I might add, is about as likely as being able to fly like a bird-I couldn't possibly marry you. So you see it doesn't matter a twit that you believe a life together is out of the question."
"Why can't you marry me?"
She blinked. The man was making her crazy.
"I must return to England…"
"So that the bastard who beat you near to death can have another opportunity to kill you?"
"I will protect my Uncle Morgan at all costs."
He didn't like hearing that. He clenched his jaw, causing the muscle to flex, his frustration more than apparent.
"And when you find your sister, will you ask her to give up her life as well?"
"No, I won't," she whispered. "If I can find Arianna's treasure…that will have to be enough to placate my uncle's captor."
"I find it curious that in all the time we've been together, you've never once said his name."
"We haven't been together all that long."
"Why haven't you spoken his name? You don't want me to know who he is, do you, Gillian?"
She refused to answer him. "I would like to sit down. Would you excuse me please?"
"In other words, you're through discussing the matter?"
She started to nod, then changed her mind. "As a matter of fact, I do have one more thing to say to you."
"Then say it," he ordered when she hesitated.
"I could never love a man who finds me so lacking."
She tried to walk away, but he caught her by her shoulders and pulled her back.
"Ah, Gillian, you're not lacking." His head slowly bent toward her. "You're… just… so… damned… sweet."
His arms went around her and he roughly pulled her against him. His mouth brushed against hers. The mere touch of her sweet lips was so intoxicating that what happened next was surely inevitable and meant to be.
Brodick stopped running.
His mouth covered hers with absolute possession. Yet there was an urgency there as well to make her feel the way he was feeling. He knew she cared about him, but he wanted and needed much more. The music and the crowd and the noise were completely forgotten in that suspended moment of time as Brodick kissed her long and thoroughly. He felt her tremble when his tongue swept inside her sweet mouth with blatant ownership, and he tightened his hold around her waist, thinking that he never wanted to let go. Then he felt her twine her arms around his neck and lean into him until their thighs were pressed against each other. She met his kiss with an equal fervor that was so honest and giving he actually shuddered with raw desire.
He was thinking hard about throwing her over his shoulder and finding the closest bed when someone shouted and he came to his senses in a flash. He ended the kiss so abruptly, her arms were still around his neck when he stepped back.
It took her several seconds to realize where she was and what had happened, and when her head finally cleared, she was promptly horrified by her own shameful behavior. Dear God, there were at least sixty strangers watching, and what would her Uncle Morgan say about her sinful exhibition of lust?
She was so confused she didn't know what to do. She wanted to tell Brodick never to kiss her like that again, yet at the same time she wanted to demand that he do exactly that, and right this minute. What was happening to her? She didn't know her own thoughts anymore. Angry and frustrated, she lashed out at him.
"You will not kiss me like that ever again." The command shook with emotion.
"Yes, I will."
He sounded gratingly cheerful, and she wasn't about to stand there arguing with him. She turned around and tried to walk away.
He grabbed her hand and jerked her back. "Gillian?"
"Yes?" she replied, rudely refusing to look at him.
Her head snapped up. "He is?"
Brodick nodded. "You will remember my kiss when you meet him. In fact, you're going to be thinking about it the rest of the night."
It wasn't a hope; it was a command, and she didn't know which offended her more, his arrogance or his bossy disposition.
"I will?" she challenged.
He smiled. "Yes."
Determined to have the last word, she took a step closer to him so she wouldn't be overheard and then said, "I will not love you."
He took a step toward her, no doubt trying to intimidate her, she supposed, and then he leaned down close to her ear and whispered, "You already do."
Every unattached female in the Maitland clan sprang to attention the second Laird Ramsey and the Sinclair entourage entered the hall. A collective sigh went up from the young girls, who acted very like a covey of quail following Ramsey as he crossed the long hall to get to Iain Maitland.
Brodick watched Gillian's reaction to the Adonis. Before Ramsey came inside, Brodick had suggested rather firmly that she sit in the corner and wait until the greetings were over to speak to him.
Her response to his friend pleased Brodick considerably. Unlike the other women, she didn't leap to her feet and go chasing after the laird. Instead, she appeared curious and somewhat relieved when she spotted Ramsey's little brother, Michael, trailing behind him. 'Twas a fact, she seemed far more interested in finding out who was with him. With a worried look on her face, she intently studied each man walking into the hall. When she suddenly relaxed in the chair, Brodick realized she had been waiting to see if the traitor was in the group.
Dylan was the last to enter. He immediately went to his laird to give his report, and when he was finished, he asked, "Where is Lady Gillian? I don't see her dancing with the others."
Brodick nodded toward the corner. Dylan turned, spotted her, and then smiled. "She wears our plaid," he remarked proudly. "Is she not the most beautiful lady here?"
"Aye, she is," Brodick agreed quietly.
"Laird, this is a celebration, yet I notice milady sits all alone. Why is that? Are the Maitlands ignoring her? Does the clan consider her an outsider? Hasn't Iain told his followers that she is the sole reason they have something to celebrate? By God, don't they realize Alec would be dead if it were not for her courage and strength?"
With each question he posed, Dylan became more outraged until his face was red with anger. The possibility that Lady Gillian was being slighted obviously infuriated him.
"Do you believe I would allow anyone to ignore Gillian? Find your soldiers and you'll know the reason why she sits all alone. They won't let anyone near her."
Dylan glanced about the hall and relaxed. His anger quickly turned to satisfaction. Robert and Liam had stationed themselves near the hearth so that they could easily intercept any eager soldier foolish enough to attempt to get to Gillian. With the same determination, Stephen, Keith, and Aaron had taken up positions on the opposite side so that they could effectively block access to the lady from both the entrance and the south side of the hall.
Brodick changed the subject then. "How did Ramsey take the news that it was Michael they wanted?"
"I didn't tell him."
"There were too many others there, including the bastard MacPhersons," he explained. "Not knowing who to trust-"
"You shouldn't trust any of them," Brodick interjected.
"That's true," Dylan agreed. "So I simply told him that Iain and you wanted a conference with him as soon as possible. I also insisted that Michael come with us. When I was finally able to get him alone, I told him that Alec had been found."
"I imagine Iain's telling Ramsey the full truth now," Brodick remarked when he saw the two lairds in deep discussion. Iain's anger darkened his expression and his gestures were animated as he related what had happened to his son, but Ramsey didn't show any reaction to the startling news. He stood with his hands at his sides, looking as though he were hearing complaints about the weather.
"Ramsey seems to be taking the news well," Dylan remarked.
Brodick disagreed. "No, he isn't. He's furious. Can't you see how his hands are clenched? Ramsey's better than Iain and me at masking his feelings," he added.
"Laird Maitland's beckoning you," Dylan said. Brodick immediately went to join his friends. He showed his affection for Ramsey by slapping him on his shoulder and shoving him hard in his side with his elbow. Ramsey shoved back. "It's good to see you again, old friend," Ramsey began. "There's a foul rumor spreading through the Highlands about you, Ramsey, but I refuse to believe it. They say you've taken the MacPherson weaklings under your wing, but I know such odious gossip couldn't possibly be true."
"You know good and well the MacPhersons have joined my clan. They wanted to be Sinclairs," he added. "But they aren't weak, Brodick, only poorly trained. They didn't have the good fortune of a chieftain like Iain to train them properly the way you and I did."
"That's true," Brodick conceded. "Iain, what have you told him?"
"I told him Alec was taken by mistake and that Michael was the target."
"Where's the woman who brought Alec home?" Ramsey demanded. "I would have a word with her now."
"And so would I," Iain announced. "The party is over."
Iain signaled to the elders, and within minutes the crowd of well-wishers left. Ramsey said good night to his brother and asked him if he would like to stay with the Maitlands for a while.
Michael was thrilled. "Alec said his papa would take us fishing and he won't let us drown."
"I would hope not," Ramsey replied. "While you are here, you will remember your manners and you will obey Lady Maitland."
Michael went running up the stairs with Alec and his older brother, Graham, as Winslow came back inside. The Maitland commander went directly to Gillian, who had just said good night to Frances Catherine.
"My wife was upset with me because I didn't introduce her to you. If you could make time tomorrow…"
"I would love to meet your wife before I leave."
"Leave?" he repeated, sounding puzzled. "Where will you be going?"
"To the Sinclair holding with Ramsey."
"Brodick's allowing this?" he asked incredulously.
"I haven't asked his permission, Winslow."
"My brother would never let you go anywhere with Ramsey," he announced.
"Why wouldn't he?"
"My wife's name is Isabelle."
The abrupt change in topic was deliberate, of course. He wanted to end the discussion. His behavior reminded her of his brother's, for Brodick was just as abrupt.
And just as bossy, she decided when he told her she would like his wife. He hadn't made the statement as a hope. No, he'd ordered her to like Isabelle.
"I'm sure I will like your wife, and I look forward to meeting her."
Winslow nodded approval and then said, "The lairds are waiting for you."
With a deep breath, she straightened her shoulders and nodded.
The hall was still ablaze with light from the burning candles and the roaring fire in the hearth. The imposing assembly was gathered at the far end of the massive oak table, waiting tor her to join them. Iain sat at the head with Ramsey to his left and Brodick to his right. As soon as the lairds saw Gillian coming, they rose to their feet. She pulled out a chair at the opposite end and sat down. Dylan and Winslow took their places behind their lairds.
"I would hear now exactly what happened to my son," Iain said.
Brodick dragged his chair to her end of the table, sat down next to her, folded his arms across his chest, and gave his friends a glare that suggested he'd bloody them if they said a word about his seating preference.
Ramsey kept his thoughts contained, but Iain looked quite smug and satisfied. Dylan actually nodded, as though giving his approval, and then walked over to stand behind his laird.
Iain seemed amused as he watched Brodick, and it suddenly occurred to Gillian that the Maitland laird was actually a very kind man. When she had first met him, she'd found him intimidating and gruff, but she didn't any longer. Perhaps it was the affection she had seen him show his wife and children that had changed her opinion.
Ramsey, on the other hand, was more difficult to judge. He seemed far more relaxed than Brodick, which was amazing, given the fact that he had just learned that someone wanted to harm his brother. What would he do when he heard the rest of the story?
"I should have thought to have Dylan tell you to bring your commander," Brodick said to Ramsey.
"I'll tell Gideon what he needs to know when I return home," Ramsey said.
"My commander, Winslow, and Brodick's commander, Dylan, are here for a specific reason, Gillian," Iain explained.
She folded her hands on the tabletop. "For what specific reason, Laird?"
Brodick's arm rubbed hers when he leaned forward. "Retaliation." He said the word in a hard voice that sent chills down her spine. She waited for further explanation, her mind racing with questions, but Brodick didn't say another word.
"What kind of retaliation? Do you mean war?"
Instead of answering her, Brodick turned to Iain. "Let's get on with it. She's tired."
"Gillian, why don't you start at the beginning, and I promise not to interrupt," Iain said. "We'll get through this quickly and you can get some rest."
She had half expected Ramsey to rant and rave at her and blame her by association for the treachery of other Englishmen. Thankful she had been mistaken, she relaxed, leaning into Brodick's side.
"I'm not so overly tired tonight," she insisted. "But I appreciate your concern. I should start at the very beginning, the night my father awakened my sister and me and tried to get us to safety."
For the next hour Gillian took the men through her history. Her voice didn't falter and she never once hesitated in her recitation of the facts. She simply told them everything that had happened in concise, chronological order. She tried not to leave anything of importance out, and by the time she was finished, her throat was dry and scratchy.
The men never interrupted her, and only the burning logs crackling in the fire could be heard in the silence that followed. She must have sounded hoarse because Brodick poured a goblet of water for her. She drank it down and thanked him.
To their credit, Iain and Ramsey were amazingly calm, considering what they had just heard. They took turns questioning her, and for another hour she was subjected to an intense grilling.
"Your enemy thought to use your brother to draw you out, Ramsey, so he could kill you," Brodick said. "Who hates you so much that he would go to such extremes?"
"Hell if I know," Ramsey muttered.
"Ramsey, do you know Christen?" Gillian asked. "Have you heard of the family who might have taken her in and claimed her for their own?"
Ramsey shook his head. "I'm only just now getting to know all the members of my clan," he said. "I had been away from home for many years, Gillian, and when I returned to the Sinclairs and became laird, I only knew a handful of my father's followers."
"But Christen isn't a Sinclair," Gillian reminded him.
"Yes, you told me she's one of the MacPhersons, but unfortunately, I haven't had time to get to know many of them either," he admitted. "I honestly don't know how we'll find her."
"Then you'll help me?"
He seemed surprised by her question. "Of course I'll help."
"The old men will know about Christen." Brodick drew everyone's attention when he made the comment.
Iain agreed with a nod. "You're right. The old men will remember. They know all the families and all the gossip. How old was Christen when she came here?"
"Six or seven years old," Gillian answered.
"If a family suddenly claims a little girl as their daughter-" Ramsey began.
Iain interrupted him. "But Gillian just told us that the family lived near the border for several years before going north to join their relatives."
"Still, word would have gotten out if she wasn't their own child," Brodick insisted.
"I'll make inquiries," Ramsey promised.
"Finding her may not be as difficult as you're assuming," Iain said. "Brodick's right about the old men. When Graham and Gelfrid were alive, they knew everything that went on."
"Aye, they did," Ramsey agreed before turning to Gillian again. "Tell me, what will you do when you find her? Will you ask her to return to England with you?"
She bowed her head. "No, I won't," she said. "But it's my hope that she'll remember Arianna's treasure and that she might even know where it's hidden."
"She was very young when she was given the box," Iain said. "You're expecting her to have a strong memory. I doubt she'll remember anything."
"She may not even remember you," Brodick said.
Gillian refused to believe that possibility. "Christen is my sister. She'll know me," she insisted.
"You told us that Christen is a year older than you are," Ramsey said.
"Almost three years older," Gillian corrected.
"Then how is it you remember the details so vividly? My God, you were little more than a baby."
"Liese, my dearest friend, God rest her soul, helped me hold on to the memories. She constantly talked about that night and what she had learned from the others who survived. Liese didn't want me to forget because she knew that one day I would want…"
Brodick nudged her when she suddenly stopped. "She knew you'd want what?"
"And how do you plan to accomplish that?" Ramsey asked.
"I'm not sure yet, but one thing I do know. I won't have my father's name slandered. The man who holds my uncle Morgan captive thinks he can prove that my father killed Arianna and stole the treasure. I mean to prove he didn't. He will rest easy in his grave," she added, her voice shaking with emotion. "I do have a glimmer of a plan," she said then. "Greed motivates the monster," she added, referring to Baron Alford, though she deliberately withheld his name. "And he likes games. He thinks he's so clever, but perhaps I can find a way to turn that against him. That is my hope, anyway."
Weary from having to revisit the past, she took another drink of water and thought to end the discussion. "I don't think I've left anything out," she said. "I tried to tell you everything."
She was about to add her request that she be excused for the evening, but Iain changed her mind with his comment.
"Not quite everything," he said softly.
She leaned back in her chair and put her hands in her lap. "What did I leave out?" she asked, feigning innocence.
Brodick put his hand on top of hers. "They know you saw the Highlander who made this pact with the English devil," he said.
"You told them?"
"Alec told his father, and he told Ramsey," he explained. "But just so you understand, Gillian. If the boy hadn't mentioned it, I sure as certain would have."
"Why did you ask Alec not to tell us about the traitor?" Ramsey asked.
She took a deep breath. "I worried that you might think to keep me here until I pointed out the man who betrayed you."
Iain and Ramsey exchanged a quick look, and she instinctively knew that was their exact plan. They were planning to keep her in the Highlands. She wanted them to admit it. "Is that what you're thinking to do?"
Both lairds ignored the question. "What did he look like?" Ramsey asked.
"He was a big man with long dark hair and a firm jaw. He wasn't unpleasant to look upon," she admitted.
"You've just described most of the men in the Highlands, Gillian. Were there no distinguishing marks that would help us find him?"
"Do you mean scars?"
"Anything that would help us recognize him."
"No, I'm sorry, there really wasn't anything unusual about him."
"I was just hoping… it would make it easier," Ramsey said, and then he leaned forward once again to ask her more questions. She was surprised by the Sinclair laird's restraint. He sounded so calm and in control, yet she knew he had to be sickened and furious by what he had heard thus far. He wasn't letting his emotions get the upper hand, though, and she thought his self-control was quite admirable.
Alec came running down the steps. "Papa, can I bother you?" he called out.
His father's smile was all the permission the child needed. Barefoot, he ran across the hall.
"Alec, why are you still awake?"
"I forgot to kiss you good night, Papa."
Iain hugged Alec, promised he'd look in on him before he went to bed, and sent him back upstairs.
Gillian watched Alec take his time crossing the room, obviously trying to delay going to bed. The young fought sleep, she thought, but the old relished it, and at the moment, she felt absolutely ancient.
"Are there any more questions?" she asked wearily.
"Just one," Ramsey said.
"Yes, just one," Iain agreed. "We want their names, Gillian, all three of them."
She looked from one laird to the other and then said, "And when you know who they are? What do you plan to do?"
"Let us worry about that," Iain said. "You don't need to know."
She disagreed. "Oh, but I think I do need to know. Tell me," she insisted.
"What the hell do you think we're going to do?" Brodick asked in a low voice.
Jarred by his anger, she ordered, "Don't you dare take that tone with me, Brodick."
He was astounded by her outburst and wasn't quite sure how to respond. Had they been alone, he probably would have pulled her into his lap and kissed her, just for the hell of it, but they weren't alone, there was an audience watching and waiting, and he didn't want to embarrass her. He did want to kiss her, though, and that realization irritated him. Where had all his discipline gone? When he was close to her, he couldn't seem to control his own thoughts.
"Hell," he muttered.
"And don't curse in front of me either," she whispered.
He grabbed her arm, pulled her into his side, and bent down to whisper into her ear. "It pleases me to see you've got the courage to stand up to me."
Would she ever understand him, she wondered. "Then I'm about to make you delirious, Laird."
"No," he countered. "You're about to answer the question. We want the names of the Englishmen."
No one noticed that Alec was still lingering in the hall. When he had heard the briskness in his father's voice, he'd turned around to watch and listen, then slowly crept forward. He was worried his papa might be angry with Gillian, and if that turned out to be true, then the boy decided he would become her champion. If that didn't work, he would go and get his mama.
Brodick had leaned back in his chair and was now patiently waiting for her to do as she had been instructed by all three lairds.
"Yes," she suddenly said. "I will be happy to give you their names, just as soon as you promise me you will not do anything until after the fall festival."
"We need their names now, Gillian," Ramsey insisted, completely ignoring her demand.
"I need your promise first, Ramsey. I will not let you put my Uncle Morgan in danger."
"He's already in danger," Iain pointed out.
"Yes, but he's alive now, and I mean to keep him that way."
"How can you be certain he's still alive?" Ramsey asked.
"If he were killed, I would have no reason to return to England. The monster knows that. I won't give him anything until I see my uncle," she explained. "He won't harm him."
Iain sighed. "You're putting all of us in a difficult position," he began, trying to be diplomatic. "You've brought my son home to me and for that I will be eternally grateful. I know how much your uncle means to you, and I promise that I will do everything within my power to free him, but Gillian, I want the name of the man who locked my son away like an animal, the man who beat you near to death-"
"Papa, don't be mad at Gillian." Alec shouted his plea as he ran to his father. Tears clouded the boy's eyes. "She didn't do anything wrong. I know the man's name."
Iain lifted Alec into his lap and tried to reassure him. "I'm not angry," he promised. "And I know Gillian didn't do anything wrong."
"Alec, did you hear all the names?" Brodick asked.
The little boy leaned against his father's chest and slowly nodded. "Yes," he said. "I heard all of the names, but I don't remember the other two… just the man who hurt Gillian."
"That's the name I most want," Brodick said softly. "Who is he, Alec?"
"Alec, please," Gillian began.
"Tell me, Alec. Who is he?"
"Baron," Alec whispered. "His name is Baron."
The screams began in the middle of the night. Judith Maitland awakened with a start, realized she was hearing Alec's bloodcurdling cries, and threw the covers off, but before she could get out of bed, Iain had already reached the children's chamber.
Graham and Michael were sitting up on their mats wide-eyed with fear. Alec fought his father, kicking and scratching. The boy was trapped in his nightmare, and no amount of soothing or shaking could bring him back. His son's tormented screams were unbearable, and Iain didn't know what to do to make him stop.
Judith sat down next to her son, took him into her arms, and rocked him. After several minutes, the child calmed down. His body relaxed against his mother, and he appeared to be sleeping peacefully again.
"Dear God, what hell did my son go through?" Iain whispered.
Tears streamed down Judith's face. She shook her head, her sorrow so overwhelming she couldn't speak. Iain lifted Alec from her lap, kissed the top of his head, and then put him back into bed. Judith covered him with his blanket.
Within the next hour they were awakened twice more by their son's screams, and both times they ran to his side. Judith wanted to bring Alec into their bed, and Iain promised her that if he screamed again, he would let Alec sleep with them.
It took a long time for Judith and Iain to get back to sleep, but when they finally did, they weren't disturbed again. They both slept late, past dawn, until their older son, Graham, came running into their chamber. He went to his father's side of the bed, touched his shoulder, and whispered, "Papa, Alec's gone."
Iain didn't panic. Assuming his son was already up and about, he motioned for Graham to be quiet so he wouldn't disturb his mother. Then he got out of bed, washed and dressed, and went out into the hallway, where Graham waited with Michael.
"He's probably downstairs," Iain whispered as he pulled the door closed behind him.
"He wouldn't go downstairs, Papa," Graham blurted.
"Stop worrying," he ordered. "Alec hasn't disappeared."
"But he did before, Papa," Graham whispered, growing more fretful by the second.
"Both of you, go downstairs and find Helen and have your breakfast. Let me worry about Alec."
Neither boy moved. Michael's head was bowed, but Graham looked his father right in the eyes when he said, "It's dark down there."
"And you don't like the dark." Iain tried his best not to sound perturbed.
"I don't like the dark neither," Michael admitted, his gaze still directed on the floor.
The main door opened, and Brodick and Ramsey came inside. As was their preference, they had both slept outside under the stars. They didn't like being cooped up with walls pressing in on them. They were used to being lulled to sleep with the scent of pine and the brisk wind surrounding them. 'Twas a fact, the only time they liked beds was when they had women with them, but they never slept the night through with any of their female companions.
Michael spotted his brother and went running down the stairs. "Ramsey, Alec's gone."
"What do you mean, he's gone?"
"He's not in his bed."
Iain came bounding down the stairs then. He went into the great hall and pulled the tapestries back from the two windows near the entrance. Light flooded the room.
"He's around here somewhere," Iain said, trying not to become alarmed.
"The guards would have seen him if he'd ventured outside."
Ramsey said. "Where the hell is he?"
Ramsey was obviously concerned, but Brodick, on the other hand, wasn't the least fazed.
"He's with Gillian."
Both Ramsey and Iain looked at their friend. "Why would he be with Gillian?" Iain asked as he rushed back up the stairs.
"He feels safe with her."
Iain whirled around. "And he doesn't feel safe with his mother and his father?"
Brodick started up the stairs. "Of course he does, but he knows she'll let him in her bed. He's sleeping with her, and you aren't going in her room unless I'm with you."
"For the love of…" Iain didn't finish his thought. He strode down the hallway, and without bothering to knock, opened Gillian's door. The room was dark, Brodick brushed past him and went to the window. He lifted the tapestry, tied it with the cord hooked to the wall, and then turned around.
Alec was in her bed all right, just as Brodick had predicted. He was cuddled up against her, his head resting on her shoulder. Gillian was sleeping on her back with her right arm wrapped around the little boy as though she were trying to protect him, even in sleep. Her other arm was stretched across the bed, palm up, and in the light, the scars and raw abrasions were startling to see.
Ramsey stood in the doorway, and though usually diplomatic, he reverted to the days when Brodick's manners had rubbed off on him. "What the hell happened to her arm? It's a mess."
Fortunately, he'd whispered the comment and hadn't disturbed Gillian or Alec.
Brodick pulled the tapestry back in place so that the sun wouldn't bother them, and nudged Iain to leave.
Iain didn't budge. "One angel protects another," he whispered. He turned then and went into the hallway. "We will do what she asks," he told Ramsey.
"We wait to retaliate?" Ramsey asked, already frowning over that possibility.
"Yes, we wait."
Brodick was still in the bedchamber. He'd spotted his plaid on the chair, picked it up, and covered Gillian and Alec with the Buchanan colors. He looked at her once again as he was pulling the door closed and felt a strange contentment wash over him. It suddenly dawned on him that he was never going to let her go.
Like it or not, she was going to belong to him.
Gillian awakened an hour after dawn and felt thoroughly rested. She washed and dressed with care in her own clothes. The servants must have washed her gowns last night and then hung them in front of the fire, for they were dry and spotless.
The tunic she wore over her pale yellow gown was a deep, emerald green that her uncle had often told her enhanced the color of her eyes. After securing the braided cord around her waist so that it would droop just so on the tilt of her hips, she brushed her hair, pinched her cheeks for color, and went downstairs.
She ate breakfast with Judith and the boys. Graham begged his mother to let him take Michael and Alec to the field to watch the soldiers training, and after she gave her permission, they grabbed the wooden swords they would spar with and went running out the door.
"Now we can talk," Judith said. "Did you sleep well? You're up early. I was sure you'd stay in bed until noon at the very least. You have to be exhausted."
"I did sleep well," she replied. "And I wanted to get up early. I must leave today."
"Leave us so soon?"
"Yes," she replied.
"Where are you going?"
"Home with Ramsey."
Judith's eyes widened. "Does Brodick know?"
"Not yet. Do you know where he is?"
"He's down at the stables with Iain and Ramsey. Would you mind if I tagged along? I really would like to see Brodick's reaction to hearing you want to leave with Ramsey."
"Why would he object? He knows I have to search for my sister, and he also knows she's a MacPherson, so he surely understands I have to go to the Sinclair holding to look for her."
"Why do you look so incredulous? Do you know Winslow acted the very same way last night when I mentioned I'd be going home with Ramsey today. He also asked me if Brodick knew about my plans. It was most peculiar."
"I can see I'm going to have to explain."
"Yes, please," Gillian said.
"Ramsey and Iain and Brodick are like brothers," she began. "And they are extremely loyal to one another. But surely you've noticed in the time you've been with Brodick that he's a very possessive man. All the Buchanans are," she added with a nod.
"What are you trying to tell me?"
Judith sighed. "When Iain and I were newly married, my husband didn't like it when Ramsey was near me."
"Why? Didn't he trust him?"
"Oh, yes, he trusted him all right, and so does Brodick, but women, you see, tend to lose their heads over Ramsey. You've got to admit he's a handsome devil."
"Yes, but so are Iain and Brodick."
"Iain was a bit… insecure… but after a while, he calmed down because he knew my heart belonged to him. Brodick doesn't know, you see, and he's therefore going to be difficult about you leaving with Ramsey."
"He won't be difficult," Gillian assured her.
Judith laughed. "You think you know him so well, then?"
"Yes, I do," she said.
"There's also a little rivalry between Ramsey and Brodick. It should have caused a rift, but it didn't. As I told you last night, about eight years ago, the two of them went to England to find brides. What I didn't tell you is that Brodick found a woman he thought might do."
"What happened?" she asked when her friend hesitated and began to blush.
"This woman gave herself to Brodick."
"They were betrothed?"
Judith shook her head. "No, but she gave herself to him. Do you understand?"
"Do you mean she took him to her bed?"
Their voices had dropped to whispers and they were both blushing now.
"Knowing Brodick as I do, I'd say he took her to his bed, but she had to have agreed or he wouldn't have touched her."
"And he told you this?"
Gillian looked flabbergasted. Judith laughed as she answered, "Good Lord, no, he didn't tell me. Iain did, but it took a good six months of nagging to get my husband to finally confide in me. You mustn't ever let the men know I've told you this story. Promise me."
"I promise," Gillian hastily agreed so she could hear the rest of the tale. "What happened to the woman? Brodick is a very honorable man and he wouldn't take an innocent-"
"But she wasn't innocent," Judith whispered. "She had been with other men."
"Oh, dear," Gillian whispered, thinking that it was a pity the woman was English.
"One of the men happened to be Ramsey."
"Hush," Judith whispered. "I don't want the servants to overhear."
"Both of them took her to their beds?"
"Yes, but neither knew for a time that she was playing one against the other."
Gillian's mouth dropped open. "No wonder Brodick dislikes the English so. What happened when they figured it all out?"
"Neither one of them wanted her, of course. They came home and vowed they would marry one of their own or not marry at all."
"Did Brodick love her?"
"I doubt that he did," she replied. "If he'd loved her, he would have been furious with Ramsey, but as it was, he was barely bothered."
"What about Ramsey?"
"He took it all in stride. Women throw themselves at him," she added. "And that's why Brodick will be difficult about your leaving with him."
"You told me he trusts Ramsey."
"It's you he'll be concerned about," Judith told her bluntly. "As I said before, women tend to lose their heads over Ramsey."
"And he'll be concerned that I… oh, for heaven's sake," Gillian cried out, and then laughed. "You're wrong, Judith. Brodick won't care one way or another."
Judith stood up. "Shall we go find out?"
The two women walked side by side down the hill. The lairds were easy to spot, for they stood together beyond the stables, like towering trees in the center of a field, as they observed the soldiers sparring with their swords.
All three turned as the two ladies came toward them. Gillian noticed that Iain couldn't seem to take his eyes off his wife. Love obviously hadn't lessened in the years they had lived as man and wife. "Gillian has something to tell you," Judith announced.
"Laird," she began.
"Iain," he corrected.
With a quick nod, she began again. "Iain, I would first thank you for your kindness and your hospitality."
"It is I who should be thanking you, Gillian, for bringing my son home to me."
"She wants to go home with Ramsey, and I think she should," Judith announced emphatically so that her husband would know she supported Gillian's plan. "She wants to leave today."
"Is that so?" Iain replied with a glance at Brodick.
"Ramsey, did you plan to go home today?"
"I did," he answered, and she noticed he, too, looked at Brodick.
"I know how important it is for you to find the man who betrayed Ramsey."
Iain interrupted. "He betrayed all of us, lass."
"Yes." She hurriedly agreed so she could explain her position before she lost her nerve. Telling the giants what they were going to do took courage, especially when she was standing so close to them. She wanted to get the speech she'd rehearsed with Judith on the way down the hill said as quickly as possible.
"I have until the fall festival to accomplish what I came here to do, which means I don't have much time. I'm going to find my sister, God willing, and since she's one of the MacPhersons and the MacPhersons are now part of Ramsey's clan, I'm going home with him today to start searching. I expect all of you to cooperate."
After giving her speech, she folded her arms across her waist and tried to look confident.
"I see your mind's set," Iain said dryly. "We expected you would want to go to Ramsey's holding."
"You had me worried for nothing," she whispered to Judith.
"We'll see," Judith whispered back.
"Ramsey, what say you? Will you take Gillian home with you today?" Iain asked.
"We can leave immediately if that is Lady Gillian's wish."
"What about you, Brodick?" Judith asked. "What do you think of Gillian's plan to go home with Ramsey?"
Gillian didn't give him time to answer. "Brodick's going to come with me," she blurted out. "Is that right?" he asked quietly.
Her heart was suddenly pounding a furious beat and she could barely catch her breath. She realized then that she was in a panic, and it was all because she was terrified Brodick would leave her. Dear God, why and how had she allowed herself to become so attached to him in such a short time? She knew she shouldn't involve him in her problems, and yet the thought of watching him walk away from her knowing she would never see him again was simply unbearable.
"The Buchanans are feuding with the MacPhersons," Judith whispered softly. "I think perhaps you ask too much of Brodick."
"She has yet to ask me anything," Brodick said. "Judith, the Buchanans aren't feuding with the MacPhersons." Iain corrected his wife's misconception. "They just don't like them. They don't like anyone they perceive as a weakling."
"Not everyone can be as strong as you are, Brodick. You should defend the weak, not trample on them," Gillian said.
All three lairds grinned as they glanced at one another, and it dawned on her then that they were actually amused by her attitude. They obviously thought she was naive. "Is this not so?" she challenged.
"No, it isn't so," Brodick answered. "The weak don't survive in the Highlands."
Both Ramsey and Iain nodded their agreement. "The MacPhersons are leeches," Brodick said, addressing his remarks to Ramsey now. "They'll drain the strength out of all the Sinclairs, including you. They like being taken care of," he added. "And they sure as certain don't want to be strong. Once they've used up and destroyed you, they'll simply go to another compassionate laird and beg him to take them in."
"You make compassion sound like a sin," Gillian said.
"In this instance it is," he answered.
"Ramsey has only been laird for a short time, but he's already earned the reputation of a compassionate man," Iain remarked. "That's why the MacPhersons came to him."
"I, too, have little tolerance for a fit man who would deliberately embrace sloth and let others take care of him and his family. However, I think you're both mistaken about the MacPhersons. Their soldiers are poorly trained, and that is all there is to it. They aren't weak; they're inept."
The discussion continued, but a movement to the east caught Gillian's attention. There were four young ladies standing together near the tree line watching the lairds. All of them were busy primping. One redheaded woman kept pinching her cheeks, while the others groomed their hair and smoothed their skirts. All of them were giggling. Their carefree attitude made Gillian smile. She assumed the women wanted to look their best when they spoke to Laird Maitland, but were politely waiting until he was no longer engaged in conversation.
"That's exactly our concern, Ramsey," Iain said. "You'll train the MacPhersons, and then they'll turn on you."
"Fortunately, Iain and I won't let them destroy you," Brodick said. "If you won't watch your back, we will."
"I know what I'm doing," Ramsey announced authoritatively. "And you will both stay out of my affairs."
"Do you think it was a MacPherson that Gillian saw? Could one of them be your traitor?" Judith asked.
"The thought has crossed our minds," Iain replied.
Judith looked at Brodick. "If this man hears that Gillian has seen him… if he knows she can point him out, then won't he try to silence her? Alec told us there were three men who took him, so we know this traitor isn't acting alone."
"But he doesn't know I saw him," Gillian argued. "So I am quite safe."
"Who besides the three of you know that Gillian saw the traitor?" Judith asked her husband.
"My brother, Patrick, was told, and while I'm away, he will watch over you, our sons, and Ramsey's brother. Dylan and Winslow were also told, and Ramsey plans to explain the situation to his commander, Gideon, as well."
Turning to Ramsey, he added, "Patrick won't let Michael out of his sight until this is over."
"My brother couldn't be in safer hands," Ramsey replied.
"Why was Winslow told?" Judith asked softly.
"Surely you trust Brodick's brother," Gillian stammered. "You cannot be concerned he would break his laird's confidence."
"I trust Winslow with my life," she said. "That isn't why I asked my husband the question, but as you know, Winslow is commander over our troops," she explained. "And I know Iain had a good reason for telling him. I want to know what it is."
Iain looked uncomfortable. He glanced at Gillian and then turned to his wife.
"Winslow needed to know so that he could prepare."
Judith wouldn't let it go. "Prepare what?"
Gillian stiffened. "For battle?"
"You're going into England?"
"When?" Gillian demanded.
"When you give us the names of the Englishmen," Brodick answered.
She took a step toward him. "Us? Then Dylan is also going to prepare your soldiers?"
He smiled. "My soldiers are always prepared. He will simply see to the details."
"How can you ask me such a question? Iain's my ally and my friend, and Alec is my godson. It's my duty to retaliate on the boy's behalf."
"But there's another reason as well, isn't there?" Ramsey asked.
Brodick, guarded now, slowly nodded. "Yes, there is another reason."
"And what would that reason be?" Judith asked.
Brodick shook his head to let her know he wasn't going to explain. Gillian turned to Ramsey. "What about your commander? Is he going to prepare your troops?"
Incredulous, she addressed the one person she believed was still sane. "Judith, they cannot think to invade England."
"They think they can," Judith answered.
"We're only going after three men, not the entire country," Iain said dryly.
"But they are three powerful barons," she said. "If warriors ride into England armed for battle, I assure you King John will hear of it. You will risk war with England, whether you intend to or not."
"Ah, lass, you don't understand," Brodick told her. "Your king won't even know we're there. No one's going to see us."
"Do you think you're going to become invisible?"
"Now, Gillian, there's no need for sarcasm," Ramsey said, flashing a heart-stopping grin she would have found charming if the topic hadn't been so obscene.
"Of course King John will know you're there," she cried out in frustration. "Tell me, Brodick. When exactly are you planning this invasion no one's going to know about?"
"Iain already answered that question," he replied. "We'll leave as soon as you give us the names of the English pigs."
"I see," she said. "Now that I thoroughly understand your plans, I'm never going to give you their names. I'll find a way to deal with them. One way or another, justice will prevail."
Iain scowled. "Gillian, what do you think you could do? You're a woman-"
Brodick defended her. "She's strong, and she's determined, and very clever. I honestly think she would find a way to defeat the bastards."
"It wasn't praise," he countered. "I'm simply stating what I know to be true. However, I cannot let you rob us of our rights, Gillian. We have just as much at stake in this as you do."
"Revenge isn't my primary motive," she argued. "But it's yours, isn't it?"
He shrugged. She turned to Ramsey in hopes of ending the discussion. "I could be ready to leave in just a few minutes."
Ramsey nodded. "Are you coming with us, Brodick?"
"It's time for that direct question, lass."
"Brodick, I seem to remember that when Annie Drummond was about to pour that godawful mother's fire on my arm, you told her I wouldn't make a sound."
"And you didn't, did you?"
"No, I didn't," she answered. "But you didn't ask me. You told me. I'm just following your lead."
"For the love of God," he muttered, his patience at an end. "If you want me to come with you, then ask. Do it now, Gillian, or I'm leaving."
"You would leave me?" she whispered, appalled he would threaten such a thing.
He looked like he wanted to throttle her. "Ask me," he demanded again.
"I don't want you to think that I need you…"
"You do need me."
She took a step back. He followed. With a sigh, she tried again. "It's just that I've gotten to know you quite well and I trust you."
"I already knew you trusted me."
"Why are you making this so difficult?"
"I'm a difficult man."
"Aye, he is," Ramsey agreed.
The others had obviously heard every word she'd said. Feeling like a fool, she asked, "Will you come with me?"
Brodick tilted her chin up with his thumb. "I'll stay with you until you get back home. I give you my word," he promised. "Now you can stop worrying."
Oblivious to their audience, he leaned down and kissed her. It was a gentle touch of his mouth against hers, and it was finished before she even had time to blink, yet it still made her heart race.
A burst of laughter startled her, and she turned to the sound. Her eyes widened then, for now there were at least twelve women waiting by the trees.
"Laird Maitland, there are quite a few young ladies waiting to speak to you," Gillian said.
Judith laughed. "They aren't waiting to speak to my husband. He's already taken."
"Taken?" Gillian asked.
"Married," Judith explained.
"For as long as Gillian is in the Highlands, she's my responsibility," Iain began. "She is the reason my son is alive," he added. "I will therefore act as her guardian."
"I also feel a tremendous responsibility for Gillian," Ramsey said. "Because of her, my brother will remain safe, and I now know I have an insurrection on my hands."
Iain stared at Brodick now and said, "I won't have her reputation blackened."
"Meaning?" Brodick demanded.
"People are going to talk," Judith said. "I don't want Gillian's feelings injured."
"And what will they say?" Gillian asked.
Judith deliberately avoided giving a direct answer so that she wouldn't embarrass her new friend. "Some will be cruel. Not the Maitlands, of course, but others will say terrible things."
"She's trying to tell you that there will be speculation you're Brodick's mistress."
"Iain, must you be so blunt?" Judith cried out.
"She needs to understand."
"Is there talk now?" Gillian asked.
"That isn't a satisfactory answer," Brodick said. "Is her reputation being blackened now?"
He sounded outraged by the possibility. Gillian straightened her shoulders. "I don't care what the talk is," she said. "I will admit I hadn't thought about… that is to say, with everything else on my mind, I didn't stop to consider…" She suddenly stopped trembling, and though she could feel her face burning with mortification, her voice was firm when she said, "People who spend their time gossiping are petty and foolish. They may call me harlot for all I care. I know what's in my heart, and I only have to answer to God."
"I damn well do care," Brodick said angrily. "And I'm not going to let anyone slander you."
"How do you plan to stop them, Brodick?" Ramsey asked.
"Yes," Iain said, "tell us what you plan to do about it."
In Brodick's mind there was really only one possible solution. With a long drawn out sigh he said, "Marry her, I suppose."
Gillian's gasp nearly knocked her over. "You suppose wrong."
Everyone, including Judith, ignored her protest. "It makes sense to me," Iain said.
"Yes, it does," Ramsey agreed. "Brodick's been acting very possessive of her. Last night he wouldn't let me near her except when he was by her side."
"He's well aware of how women tend to forget themselves when they're around you," Iain remarked. "And there was that unfortunate incident in England when you and Brodick went to find brides. He's probably still chafed about that."
"I'm not chafed," Brodick snapped.
His friends ignored his protest. Ramsey shrugged. "It happened over eight years ago," he reminded Iain. "Besides, Brodick wouldn't have been happy with a woman who could so easily turn her attentions to other men."
"Which is why neither one of you brought her home."
"Neither one of us wanted her. She lacked morals."
"That's an understatement," Iain said with a chuckle.
Brodick looked as if he wanted to kill Iain and Ramsey, but his friends remained unconcerned.
"There's more to this story than you're telling, isn't there?" Judith asked.
No one answered the question. Iain winked at her, and she decided she would find a way to get the details later.
"She was wearing your plaid last night, Brodick," Ramsey said then.
"He insisted she wear his colors," Iain said. "It's little wonder people are speculating about her position."
"I heard that during the celebration you kissed her in front of the entire Maitland clan."
Brodick shrugged. "Not the entire clan, just some."
"You wanted everyone to know-" Iain began.
Brodick cut him off. "Damned right I did."
"He wanted everyone to know what?" Judith asked after giving Gillian a worried look.
"That Gillian belongs to him," Iain explained.
"That's why he kissed her in front of witnesses all right," Ramsey said.
Poor Gillian looked as though she'd just been struck hard on her head. Judith took mercy on her, for she knew she didn't understand the blunt ways of the Highlanders.
"I'm sure it was just a friendly little kiss, the kind one cousin would give another in greeting."
Gillian was frantically nodding when Brodick muttered, "The hell it was."
With a little sigh, Judith gave up. If she'd learned anything in her years living with Iain, it was that none of the Highlanders knew how to be subtle. If they wanted something done, they did it themselves, and if one of them wanted a woman, he took her. It was that simple. The men respected women, of course, and for that reason they usually married them before they took them to their bed, but once they made the commitment, they kept it until the day they died. In this instance, Brodick obviously wanted Gillian, and no amount of arguing would change his determination. He would take her, and his two loyal friends with their outrageous banter were simply letting him know they approved the match and would do anything they could to help.
None of them, however, were considering Gillian's feelings in the matter. Judith patted her friend's hand to let her know she sympathized. Gillian looked positively dazed.
"Do you love Gillian?"
Dead silence followed the question. If looks could kill, Iain would be without a wife by now, Judith thought. It was very apparent that Brodick didn't like being pinned down with such a personal question. Judith didn't back away, though; she had Gillian's best interests at heart after all. "Do you?"
"Sweetheart, that isn't a question you should be asking," Iain said.
"I think it is," she argued. "Someone has to look out for Gillian."
"We're looking out for her," Ramsey said.
"And Brodick obviously wants her," Iain interjected.
"Wanting isn't enough," Judith said. "Have you all forgotten she's English?"
"She used to be English," both Ramsey and Iain said at the same time.
Judith let them see how exasperated she was. "Didn't you and Brodick vow to marry Highlanders or not marry at all?" she asked Ramsey.
"Yes, they did," Iain answered. "After that unfortunate incident in England -"
"Will you quit calling it an 'unfortunate incident?'" Brodick demanded.
"We did make that promise," Ramsey admitted. "But Brodick has obviously changed his mind."
"I'm thinking of her reputation," Brodick muttered.
"Then simply stay away from her," Judith suggested.
"That is not an acceptable solution," Brodick said.
"Why isn't it?" Judith prodded.
"Because he doesn't want to stay away from her," Ramsey said. "That much should be obvious to you, Judith."
She decided to try another direction. "Brodick, have you told her what her life will be like living with the Buchanans?"
He shrugged. "I only just decided to marry her," he admitted.
"He told me I'd be miserable." Gillian's voice was but a hoarse whisper. She was still reeling from Brodick's outrageous impudence in dictating her future, but anger was quickly replacing disbelief, and within seconds she was trembling. She kept telling herself that any minute now they would have their laugh and tell her it was all just a game.
And when that happened, she knew she'd feel a glimmer of disappointment.
"Aye, she will be miserable," Brodick said.
Ramsey burst into laughter. "You told her the truth, then. I don't envy anyone, man or woman, who would try to fit in with those savages you call Buchanans."
"I won't be miserable," Gillian cried out. "And do you know why?"
The men acted as though they hadn't heard her question. Iain siezed on her first comment. "There, do you see? She already has an optimistic outlook. That's a fair start."
"Will you gentlemen stop jesting?" Gillian demanded. She had finally regained her senses and was determined to put an end to the discussion.
"I don't think they're jesting," Judith said. She moved closer to Gillian and whispered, "If you haven't already figured it out, I feel I should probably explain…"
Gillian threaded her fingers through her hair in agitation. "Explain what?" she asked frantically.
"They never jest. I do believe Brodick means to marry you."
"Brodick, I would like a word in private with you." Her clipped words didn't leave room for discussion, and she didn't even try to mask her anger. She wanted him to know she was furious.
"Not now, Gillian," he replied impatiently, seemingly unaffected by her show of temper. "Ramsey, we'll leave in ten minutes. Can you be ready by then?"
"Of course," Ramsey answered, and after bowing to Gillian and Judith, he started back up the hill.
Iain threw his arm around his wife's shoulders and turned to the west. "Before I go back to my duties, let's look in on the boys. They just went to Patrick and Frances Catherine's home."
Judith didn't have much choice, for her husband was pulling her along. "You promised to take them fishing," she reminded him.
"No, Alec promised on my behalf."
"But you will take them?"
"Of course I will." He laughed. "And I won't let them drown," he added, repeating Michael's promise to his brother.
Brodick continued to stand beside Gillian, but he wasn't paying any attention to her. He was fully occupied trying to locate Dylan in the field below, where over a hundred Maitland soldiers were training.
Gillian watched the group of women as they picked up their skirts and ran together up the hill. Most of them were giggling like little girls.
"What are they doing?"
Brodick glanced at the women. "Chasing Ramsey," he answered very matter-of-factly before returning to his task of scanning the field.
"Why what?" he asked as he continued to search.
She sighed. "Why are the ladies chasing him?"
The question startled him, for what should have been obvious to Gillian appeared not to be obvious at all. With a shrug, he said, "It's what they all do."
"All the ladies chase him?" she asked, still not understanding.
He finally gave her his full attention. "Yes, they do," he said quietly.
"You don't know?"
"I wouldn't ask if I knew, Brodick," she said, thoroughly perplexed.
"They find him… handsome," he finally said for lack of a better word. "That's what I've been told anyway."
"He's very nice and quite polite, but I can't imagine chasing after him just because he's attractive."
"The women don't care about his behavior or his character. They like looking at him."
She shook her head. "I know what you're trying to do. You're just trying to make me laugh so I'll forget about your arrogant claims in front of your friends."
"I swear to you, I'm telling the truth. Women like to look at Ramsey, and that's why they chase after him. You don't think him handsome?"
"I hadn't really thought about it until now, but I suppose he is," she said. "Yes, of course he is," she added with a bit more conviction so Brodick wouldn't think she was trying to find fault with his friend. "Iain's also very handsome. I'm surprised that the ladies don't chase after you. After all, you're much more…"
She stopped herself in time. Heaven help her, she was about to tell him how attractive he was. His earthy masculinity bordered on downright sinful. Just being near him made her want to think about things that were wanton and certainly unladylike, but strumpets had those kinds of thoughts. They were lustful; she wasn't. At least not until Brodick came into her life and turned it upside down.
Oh, she wasn't about to let him know how he affected her. The last thing she wanted to do was build his arrogance. Brodick already had enough to last a lifetime. "I'm much more what?" he asked.
She shook her head and tried to ignore his penetrating gaze. "I know why ladies don't chase you," she said. "It's because you scare them."
He laughed. "That's good to know."
"And you frown all the time."
"Ah, there's Dylan."
Without so much as a fare-thee-well, Brodick strode away. She couldn't believe his lack of courtesy; he hadn't even bothered to glance her way first. He just took off.
"Oh, no you don't," she whispered. "You're not getting away from me." Muttering to herself, she picked up her skirts and hurried down the hill.
"Brodick, I insist on having a word with you, and I don't care if you want to listen or not," she called out, but since he was so far ahead of her, she doubted he heard a word she said.
She didn't mean to pick up the pace, but the hill was much steeper than she'd judged, and before she realized what was happening, she was running and couldn't seem to slow down.
She propelled herself right into the middle of a sword fight. "I beg your pardon," she stammered when she bumped into a soldier.
The man didn't hear her, but he obviously felt her ram into his back. Believing another soldier was trying to best him from behind, he whirled around, raised his sword, and was swinging it downward in a wide arc when he discovered whom he was about to strike.
His startled shout reached the treetops. Gillian jumped back and collided with another soldier. She quickly turned to him and said, "I'm so sorry."
Then he shouted. Mortified by the turmoil she was causing, and not knowing where to turn, she whirled in a circle and then stood in the thick of the mock battle, surrounded by large, panting soldiers who were fighting as though their lives depended on it. None of them seemed to realize they were merely training.
In the chaos, she lost sight of Brodick.
"Please excuse me for interrupting you," she apologized as she gently pushed her way through the crowd.
Brodick let out a roar that caused her heart to miss a beat. Then everyone began to shout. With a resigned sigh, she knew that she was the reason why.
The fighting had stopped, and she was circled by a ring of incredulous warriors staring down at her as though she had just dropped out of the sky.
"I'm so sorry, gentlemen. I didn't mean to interrupt your training. I really am… oh, there's Brodick. Please let me pass."
The men appeared too stupefied to move. Brodick's bellowed command got through to them, however, and within seconds a wide path was formed. Brodick stood at one end with his legs braced apart, his hands on his hips, and a scowl on his face.
She thought it would be a good idea to go the other way, but when she glanced over her shoulder, she saw that Dylan and Winslow were blocking that end. Winslow looked as though he wanted to kill her. Dylan just looked plain astonished.
Feeling trapped, she decided she was going to have to bluster her way through this embarrassment, and straightening her shoulders, she slowly walked to the man who she believed was solely responsible for turning her into a simpleton.
"For the love of God, Gillian, what were you thinking? You could have been killed."
A loud grumble of agreement washed over the crowd. Her face burning, she forced herself to turn to her disgruntled audience. She folded her hands together as though in prayer and repeated, "I am so sorry. I started down the hill, and before I knew what was happening, I was running. I apologize, gentlemen, for interrupting you and causing you concern."
The sincerity in her voice and her heartfelt apology both placated and pleased the soldiers. Several actually bowed to her, while others nodded to let her know they forgave her her transgression. She was beginning to feel better, but then she turned back to Brodick, and that feeling immediately evaporated. His scowl was hot enough to make the sun break out in a sweat. "I wanted to speak to you," she said.
His head down like a bull, he charged toward her. When he reached her, he didn't slow down. He simply clasped hold of her hand and kept right on going. She didn't have any choice. She could either walk with him-which meant run, because his stride was much longer and quicker than hers-or she could be dragged along behind him like a rag doll.
"Let go of me or slow down," she demanded as she tried to keep pace with him.
He slowed down. "I swear to God, you try the patience of a saint."
"You aren't a saint, Brodick, no matter what your mother might have told you."
The bull actually smiled. "Ah, but you do please me, Gillian. 'Tis the truth you do."
She wasn't in the mood for compliments, especially when given in such a bewildered tone.
"Then I'm about to make you-"
"Delirious?" he asked, remembering her comment from the night before.
"Yes, you will be delirious, and do you know why?"
"No," he replied dryly, "but you're going to tell me, aren't you?"
He sounded resigned. She refused to take insult. "I'm letting you off the hook."
"You don't have to worry about my reputation any longer. If I'm not going to be concerned about it, then why should you?"
"You don't have to marry me."
"Is that right?"
He suddenly veered to the line of trees where Ramsey's admirers had gathered earlier.
"Where are you dragging me now?"
"We need some privacy."
She didn't argue or point out the fact that she had asked him for a moment of privacy just minutes before he went chasing after Dylan. The sooner she explained her position the better, she thought, before they were interrupted or he went running away again.
"I know why you offered."
"Offered what?" he asked with a glance at her.
"Will you please pay attention. You were just being gallant when you made the suggestion to marry me."
"Suggestion?" he scoffed. "Gillian, I don't make suggestions. I give orders. See the difference?"
She refused to waste time trying to appease him. "This isn't the time for diplomacy," she said. "I have to make you understand that you don't have to be noble. It's all my fault, really it is. I realize that now. I shouldn't have asked you to come with me to Ramsey's home. I backed you into a corner, and that was wrong of me."
"No one's ever backed me into a corner," he said, highly insulted by her remark. "I did what I wanted to do and what I felt was necessary."
"You aren't responsible for me."
He pulled her along to a secluded spot in the woods as she rambled on and on about his reasons for doing what he had done. She had obviously thought it over and worked it all out in her mind. She had it all wrong, of course, but he decided to wait until she was finished explaining his motives to him before he set her straight.
When they reached an open circle of trees, he let go of her hand, leaned back against a fat tree trunk, folded his arms across his chest, and waited for her to finish lecturing him.
He tried to concentrate on what she was saying, but he became distracted. She was such a sight with her cheeks flushed and her golden brown hair curling about her shoulders. He knew she didn't have any idea how beautiful she was. Appearances weren't important to her, and he thought that a refreshing difference between her and other women he'd known. Her eyes had turned a deep emerald color. There was definitely passion simmering below the surface, and he had a sudden, almost overwhelming need to take her into his arms and never let go.
"Now do you understand?"
What the hell was she talking about now? "Understand what?" he asked, realizing then he hadn't heard a word she'd said.
"Haven't you been listening?" she cried out in frustration.
Her shoulders slumped. "Brodick, I'm not going to marry you." She shook her head. "I won't let you be noble."
"Do you like being with me?"
She pretended not to understand because it was safer than allowing him to push her into admitting all those feelings she was desperately trying to keep hidden.
"Do you mean… now?"
"You know exactly what I mean."
She bowed her head. "Yes, I do like being with you… very much," she admitted. "But that doesn't matter," she added in a rush. "We've known each other a very short time, and you have to go home. I'm sure you have many pressing duties waiting for you. You are the Buchanan laird, after all."
"I know what the hell I am," he snapped.
She snapped back, giving him a dose of his own tactics. "Don't you dare take that tone with me. I won't put up with it."
When he suddenly broke into a grin, her temper flared. "Do you find my criticism amusing?"
"I find you utterly refreshing."
She had trouble catching her breath. "You do?"
"Yes, I do. Not many women would speak to me the way you do. 'Tis the truth you're the first," he added a bit sheepishly. "I shouldn't allow such insolence," he added.
"I don't believe I was being insolent, and I'm not usually critical of others, but you make me lose my senses."
"That's good to know."
Exasperated, she took a step toward him and shook her head. "I wish you would stop trying to confuse me by changing the subject. You're making this very difficult for me. I'm simply trying to-"
"Let me off the hook?"
She sighed. "Yes."
He reached for her, but she backed away and put her hand out as a command for him to stay where he was. "Don't."
"Kiss me. That's what you were going to do, isn't it?"
He leaned back against the tree again. "Do you want me to?"
She threaded her fingers through her hair in agitation. "Yes… I mean, no. Oh, stop asking me questions," she cried out. "You're making me daft. I can't marry you. I have to find my sister and that cursed box and go back to England. If I married you, you'd end up alone."
"Have you so little faith in me? Don't you think I can protect you?"
She didn't hesitate. "Of course I have faith in you. I know you can protect me, but this isn't your battle. It's mine, and I will not put you in the middle of it. If anything happened to you, I don't think I could bear it."
A sudden thought struck him and shook him to the core. "Is there a man in England waiting for you?"
For the first time since they had begun the heated discussion, he sounded unsure of himself. His vulnerability was endearing. Though she knew she could lie and end the discussion now and forever, she felt compelled and honor-bound to tell him the truth.
"No, there isn't any other man. I'm going home to my Uncle Morgan… but no other."
"Has your uncle chosen a husband for you?"
He tilted his head as he studied her, and then quietly said, "He would find me acceptable."
She didn't argue with him. "Yes, he would."
"Would it please him to know you married a laird?"
Brodick's armor was fully back in place, and any uncertainty she had glimpsed in him had completely vanished. The arrogant warrior faced her now, cocky and full of himself.
"It would please my uncle to know you had attained such an important position in your clan, but that isn't why he would find you acceptable."
"Why then?" he asked curiously.
"Because he would easily see through your gruff exterior. You're hot-tempered and passionate in your beliefs, and you're extremely loyal to those you love. You're an honorable man, Brodick, and you couldn't fool my uncle. He would know what's in your heart." what about you, Gillian? Do you know what's in my heart?"
His voice was whisper soft, and a jolt of longing rushed all the way down to her toes. In the sunlight filtering through the branches of the trees surrounding them, Brodick's body had taken on an iridescent glow. His skin glistened and his long golden hair shimmered. Looking at such a fit man made her mouth dry and her stomach churn. Her fantasies heated her face, and when she realized she was staring at his mouth, she forced herself to look at the ground until she could get her errant thoughts under control. She had never thought much about mating with a man until she had met Brodick, and thanks to him, she knew she was going to have to spend a good deal of time in the confessional, telling a priest how depraved she had become.
"Have you been with many women?" She couldn't believe she had the nerve to ask him such an intimate question, and more than anything she wished she could take the words back. "Don't answer," she blurted out. "I shouldn't have asked."
"You can ask me anything," he said. "And yes, I've been with women," he answered very matter-of-factly. "Would you like me to speculate on the number?"
"No, I would not," she answered. She continued to stare at the ground when she asked, "Is there a woman waiting for you?"
"I imagine there are several waiting for me."
Her gaze flew to his. "You cannot marry several women, Brodick. Only one."
Her cheeks were flushed. It took all he had not to laugh. "There are always women waiting and willing to share my bed," he explained. "None of them have the expectation of marriage."
She decided she hated every single one of those women. The burst of jealousy she felt didn't make a lick of sense but made her feel miserable. She wasn't going to marry him, yet she detested the thought of Brodick sharing his bed with another woman.
Unable to hide it, the anger radiated in her voice when she asked, "And will these women continue to share your bed after you are married?"
"I hadn't thought about it," he admitted.
"Then think about it now," she snapped.
She realized he knew exactly what was going on inside her head when he smiled at her. Oh, yes, he knew she didn't like hearing about his women, and he was thoroughly enjoying her reaction. She suddenly wanted to kick him and kiss him at the same time.
She chose to behave instead. "Your wife would not wish you to take other women to your bed."
"Gillian, when we marry, I will have only you and no other. We will both be faithful to each other, during the good and the bad times we share. You needn't worry about such inconsequential things. I want only you. Will your Uncle Morgan know I will take care of you?"
"He would know I could take care of myself. I'm not a weakling. My uncle taught me how to defend myself. Did you get the notion that I was weak because Alec told you I was beaten?"
"No," he answered. "You showed strength, not weakness. You protected the boy from harm by turning the bastard's rage on yourself. Besides," he added arrogantly, "I would never marry a weakling."
The warmth in his voice and his praise were almost her undoing. Oh, how she wanted to throw herself into his arms and hold him. She didn't know how to protect herself from him, and she was already beginning to mourn her loss, for when she returned to England, she knew she would never be the same.
"Tell me you love me," he said.
"I do love you," she confessed. "But I'm not happy about it. I don't know how it happened… so fast… I didn't have time to protect myself from you, and I certainly didn't mean to fall in love." She shook her head as if to settle her thoughts. "It doesn't matter, though. I still can't marry you."
Brodick's entire body relaxed. Although he already believed she loved him, hearing her say the words reassured him. The tension eased out of him and he suddenly felt reborn. She made him feel clean and new and indestructible.
"I will have you, Gillian."
Taken aback by the vehemence in his voice, she shook her head. "No."
"Yes," he countered, his voice hard now, determined. "Know this. No other man will ever touch you. You belong to me."
"When did you make that decision?"
"When you told me you loved me. I already knew, but it seems I needed to hear you say the words."
She burst into tears. "Why won't you understand? I can't ever have Annie Drummond's house. Not now, not ever. You're trying to put foolish thoughts into my head, and I want you to stop. It's cruel to make me long for what I can never have. No," she added in a near shout, "I will not dream. It's dangerous."
"You want Annie Drummond's house?" he asked, thoroughly puzzled by the bizarre wish. "Why?"
"Oh, never mind. You wouldn't understand."
"Explain then so that I will understand."
"It's what Annie's cottage represents," she said, her voice hesitant. "She has a home and a husband who loves her, and her life is… idyllic."
"You cannot know what her life is like unless you walk in her shoes," he countered.
"Stop trying to be logical," she demanded. "I'm simply trying to make you understand that I can't ever have a life like Annie's. I have to go back to England."
Brodick suddenly stiffened. The truth struck him hard. He finally guessed her real reason for refusing to marry him, and he realized that even now she was trying to protect him.
"You believe you're going back to England to die, don't you, Gillian? That's what you're not telling me."
She looked away when she answered him. "There is that possibility." She burst into tears again.
"I don't like seeing you cry. You will stop it at once."
She blinked. Only Brodick could give such a ludicrous command. Did he think she was crying on purpose just to upset him? "You are the most difficult man, and I will not marry you." He moved so quickly she didn't have time to react. In two long strides he had her in his arms.
"You've already made your commitment to me when you admitted you loved me. Nothing else matters. I don't give a damn how complicated it all becomes. You're mine now. Do you honestly believe I'm ever going to let you go?"
Telling herself she had to remain strong and not give in to him, she shook her head and struggled to get free. She pushed against his chest with all her might, desperately trying to put some distance between them. When she was close to him, all she wanted to do was wrap herself in his warmth and let the world pass her by. She wanted time to stop… and that was impossible.
Her struggles proved useless. She couldn't get him to budge. His superior strength was at least ten times her own, and after a moment she ceased squirming and bowed her head.
"What are we going to do?" she whispered, once again on the brink of tears.
She had no idea how telling her question was. She hadn't asked what she was going to do, but what they would do. Content for the moment to simply hold her, he bent down, kissed the top of her head, and closed his eyes as he inhaled her light feminine scent. Her hair smelled of roses. She was unlike the Buchanan women, and he realized he was actually a little in awe of her. Her skin was as smooth and soft as he imagined a cloud would be, and her smile enchanted him. It was as beautiful as baby's first, and just as pure. There wasn't a hint of cunning in her. No, she wasn't like other women. He remembered that when he'd first met her, he'd judged her almost painfully prim and proper, and frail, too frail for his way of life. Yet almost immediately he had seen the steel strength inside of her. She was courageous and honorable, and those were but two of the hundred or so reasons he was never going to let her leave him.
"I'll give you a promise," he said gruffly. "And then you will cease your worrying."
"And what is this promise?"
"If you go back to England, I'll go with you."
"If I go back?"
"It hasn't been decided yet."
"What are you saying? I don't understand. The decision is mine to make."
He didn't argue, and his silence worried her. She once again tried to get him to explain his remark, but he stubbornly refused.
"When I go back, I'll go alone. You must stay here. I couldn't bear it if anything happened to you."
Her voice shivered with emotion, and the fear he heard surprised and pleased him. He'd never had anyone care about him the way she did. His only family was his brother, Winslow, but it was a distant, rigid relationship. They loved each other as brothers did, but never showed any outward affection.
"You will have confidence in my ability to protect you," he ordered.
"You don't know what you're up against. These aren't ordinary men. They have the king's support and friendship, and surely the Devil's on their side."
"None of them have Highland blood running through their veins, and that makes them vulnerable."
"Will you be serious?" she demanded. "A Highlander can bleed as easily as an Englishman."
"You will have faith in me. I command it."
She gave up arguing with him, feeling as though it would be easier to get a stone wall to understand.
"I do have faith in you, and I will try not to worry, but that's all I will promise. You can give me as many commands as you wish, and it won't change how I feel."
"Every man has a weakness," he patiently explained. "I'll find theirs, I promise you."
"Yes," he answered emphatically.
His hand moved to the back of her neck. Twisting her curls around his fist, he jerked her head back. His face loomed over hers, his breath warm and sweet as he stared down into her eyes.
"What is your weakness, Brodick?" she asked.
He lowered his head and kissed her, effectively sealing any protest she might have made. It wasn't a gentle caress of his lips against hers, but a hard, demanding kiss that let her know in no uncertain terms how much he wanted her. His tongue sank into her sweet warm mouth to stroke and caress, and within seconds she was kissing him just as thoroughly. Timid at first, the tip of her tongue touched his fleetingly, but when she felt him tighten his hold and heard him growl low in his throat, she grew bolder. His passion overwhelmed her, yet she wasn't frightened, trusting him to know when to stop. He didn't seem inclined to at the moment, though, and, Lord, his mouth was doing such magical things to her body. A yearning deep in the pit of her stomach burned for more, and as his mouth slanted over hers again and again, all she could think about was getting closer.
His hands stroked her back, then splayed wide as he lifted her up against the junction of his thighs so that they were pressed intimately against each other. Her breasts rubbed against his chest and his thighs felt like hot steel. He made her burn for more of him, and she couldn't seem to catch her breath as she frantically returned his kisses.
"Brodick, I want-"
He kissed her once again, almost savagely, and then he abruptly pulled back and let her slowly slip down to the ground. His face was buried in the crook of her neck, and he took several long deep, shuddering breaths as he tried to regain his discipline.
She didn't want to let go of him, and when he began to nibble on her earlobe with his teeth and his tongue stroked her sensitive skin, she felt a jolt of pleasure course through her.
"Don't…" Her voice cracked and she shivered in his arms.
He kissed his way down the side of her neck. "Don't what?" he asked.
She tilted her head to the side to give him better access and with a sigh said, "Don't stop."
He gently lifted her away from him and would have let go of her if she hadn't swayed. Displaying a wicked look of male satisfaction, he was arrogantly pleased he'd been able to arouse and confuse her in so little time. Her passion matched his own, and he knew that once he rid her of her shyness, she would be as uninhibited and wild as he planned to be on their wedding night. God help him, they'd better be wed soon because he didn't think he could wait much longer, and he certainly didn't want to disgrace her by taking her before their vows were spoken and blessed. But she was making it difficult. Just looking at her stirred a burning desire in him. Those incredible green eyes looked thoroughly ravaged now. Her hair was a riot of curls about her shoulders, and her mouth was rosy and swollen from his kisses.
Waiting for her to come to her senses and agree to marry him was out of the question. By the time she got around to making up her mind, they could have at least two children.
The world around them intruded, forcing both of them back to the present. Ramsey shouted Brodick's name, and with a long, regretful sigh, Brodick stepped back.
"Go and collect your things. It's time for us to leave." He turned and started back toward the fields.
She ran after him. "Thank you for understanding."
"That I cannot marry you."
As he continued on his way, his hardy laugh echoed back to her.
By the time Gillian returned to the Maitland home, Helen, the housekeeper, had her things packed, and as Gillian was thanking her for her help, she remembered a promise she'd made. Fortunately, Helen was able to help and showed her a shortcut to her destination out the back door.
Ten minutes passed and then ten more, and Brodick, impatient by nature, was growing more irritated by the second as he waited for Gillian in the courtyard.
Ramsey and Winslow waited by his side, and every couple of seconds one or the other would glance toward the doors.
"What in thunder's keeping her?" Brodick muttered.
"Maybe she's waiting for Iain and Judith. Here they come now. Gillian surely wants to say good-bye to them."
Ramsey was the first to see Gillian walking toward the courtyard from the opposite side of the hill.
"Here she comes."
"She didn't forget," Winslow said, smiling.
His wife, Isabelle, was walking with Gillian, and Winslow's two boys trailed behind. His younger son, Andrew, soon to be five years old, ran forward and took hold of Gillian's hand. Winslow watched her as she smiled at his son and spoke to him. Whatever she said amused Andrew, for he burst into laughter. Isabelle was trying hard not to laugh.
"What didn't she forget?" Brodick asked his brother.
"I told her Isabelle was upset with me because I hadn't introduced her. She didn't forget."
Winslow suddenly figured out why his family was so amused with Gillian. "I don't think Isabelle understands a word she's saying. Your woman's Gaelic needs improvement."
Brodick nodded. "She has a quick mind. She'll learn."
"Are you going to keep her?"
"Does she know it?"
Ramsey overheard the conversation and laughed heartily. "I assume you've considered all the problems, Brodick."
"It won't be an easy life for her living with-" Ramsey began. Brodick finished his sentence for him. "Living with the Buchanan clan. I know, and I worry about her adjustment."
Ramsey grinned. "That's not what I was going to say. It won't be easy for her living with you. Rumor has it, you're a difficult man to be around."
Brodick didn't take offense. "Gillian's aware of my flaws."
"And she'll still have you?" Winslow asked.
"As a matter of fact, she has refused to marry me."
Knowing Brodick as well as they did, both Ramsey and Winslow began to laugh again.
"So when's the wedding?" Ramsey asked.
Love wasn't supposed to happen this suddenly.
Gillian spent most of the ride to Ramsey's holding thinking about Brodick and wondering how in heaven's name he had managed to capture her heart so completely in so little time. The man had all but robbed her of her senses. She was well aware of his flaws, most of them anyway, but she still loved him all the same, and how was such a thing possible? Love was supposed to be nourished. It was a slow realization that occurred after months and months of courting, and sometimes that awareness took years. Love certainly didn't strike like lightning.
Maybe it was lust, and if it was, then how was she ever going to be able to tell that atrocious sin in the confessional without dying of mortification? Was it lust? Brodick was a handsome devil, and she would have had to be dead not to notice. Yet Ramsey and Iain were also handsome, and her heart didn't race when either of them was near. Brodick had a mesmerizing effect on her, though. All he had to do was glance her way and she became quite breathless.
He wasn't paying her the slightest bit of attention now. He and Ramsey rode well ahead of their soldiers and Gillian, and Brodick never once looked back to see how she was doing. She spent a good deal of time staring at his broad shoulders while she tried to figure out how she could regain her senses.
She didn't want to think about her reason for going to Ramsey's home, yet reality kept intruding, no matter how she tried to block her worries. What if her sister wasn't there? What if she had married and moved away from the MacPhersons? Worse, what if Christen didn't remember her? Her sister hadn't had Liese to help her keep the memories alive the way Gillian had, and what if Christen had forgotten everything that had happened?
So caught up in her thoughts, Gillian didn't notice that Brodick and Ramsey had stopped. Dylan reached over and grabbed Gillian's reins, forcing her mount to halt. She and the soldiers waited a good distance behind the lairds, and just as she was about to ask the commander why they weren't continuing on, she saw a horse and rider galloping up the hill from the west. Making a wide sweep around them, the stranger rode on ahead to join Brodick and Ramsey.
Gillian patiently waited to find out what was going on as she watched what appeared to be an argument between the stranger and Brodick. It couldn't have been much of a disagreement, though. Even though Brodick was scowling and the stranger was repeatedly shaking his head in obvious disapproval, Ramsey, Gillian noticed, was smiling.
"Dylan, who is that man shaking his head at your laird?" Gillian asked.
"Father Laggan. He serves the Sinclairs, the Maitlands, and many others."
"Does he serve the Buchanans as well?"
"When there's no getting out of it, he does."
"I don't understand. Doesn't he like the Buchanans?"
Dylan chuckled. "No one likes us, milady. We're proud of that fact. Most of the clans leave us alone, as do the clergy, including Father Laggan."
"Why don't they like you?"
"They fear us," the Buchanan commander explained cheerfully. "Father Laggan believes we're savages."
"Where would you get such an idea?"
"From Father Laggan. It's what he calls us."
"I'm certain he doesn't really believe any such thing. You aren't savages. You're just a bit… intense… that's all. The priest seems to be holding his own with Brodick now. Do you see how he's shaking his head?"
"Brodick will still win," Dylan predicted. "He always does."
As though he knew they were discussing him, Brodick suddenly turned in his saddle and looked at her while the priest continued to argue with him. Obviously upset, Laggan was now waving his hands in agitation.
Then Brodick winked at her. She didn't know what to make of his behavior. It wasn't like Brodick to be flirtatious in front of others, and the silly little gesture warmed her heart.
"Do you know what they're discussing?" she asked Dylan.
"I do," he answered.
Father Laggan then twisted in his saddle to look at her. He had shocking white hair and deeply tanned and leathered skin. His lips were pinched together, indicating his displeasure, and for that reason she neither smiled nor waved to him. She simply inclined her head in silent greeting.
As soon as the priest turned back to Brodick, Gillian demanded, "Tell me what they're arguing about."
"I beg your pardon?"
"I do believe you're the topic of their discussion, milady."
"Surely not," she said. "The priest doesn't even know me."
"Iain sent him to Brodick, and I do believe that now Laggan is acting as your guardian. He wants to make sure you aren't being forced to do anything you don't want to do."
"But I want to go to Ramsey's," she countered. "Iain must have explained my situation to Father."
Dylan sincerely hoped she wouldn't ask him to elaborate on the priest's motives. In his opinion, the less she knew, the better.
Brodick motioned for her to come forward as the priest, still frowning, nudged his horse to the side to give her room. Ramsey flanked Gillian on one side and Brodick on the other. Gillian smiled at the priest as Ramsey made the introductions, but that smile vanished in a heartbeat when she realized where she was. She had thought Brodick had stopped at the edge of a gentle slope, but now that she was only a few feet away from the edge, she could see the sheer drop below her. So forcefully did she pull on the reins, the horse reared, but Brodick's quick action saved her from being thrown.
He had to pry the reins away from her hands. "Gillian, what's come over you?"
She made herself look at him and only him. "I don't like looking down at such depths," she whispered. "It makes me lightheaded."
Seeing the panic in her eyes, Brodick quickly forced both mounts to back up several feet. Ramsey did the same.
She exhaled as she relaxed. "Yes, much better, thank you," she whispered before turning to Father Laggan.
"Ramsey, I'll need your help with this," Brodick said quietly.
"I'll do what I can," his friend promised just as softly.
Curious, Gillian looked at Brodick. "Would you also like my help?"
He grinned. "Your help is a definite requirement."
"Then tell me, please, what it is you need assistance with, and I shall be happy to help in any way that I can."
He glanced at Ramsey, who quickly said, "The priest is waiting to speak to you. Do you want him to think you're ill-mannered?"
The possibility that she might have inadvertently insulted a man of God made her blush. "No, of course not," she said hastily. "Good day to you, Father. I'm happy to meet you."
"Good day," he replied with a hint of civility that was gone in the blink of an eye when he continued. "Now, I have a few important questions to ask you to satisfy the Church."
"You wish to satisfy the Church?" she asked, jarred by his sudden abrupt manner and his strange announcement. Surely she hadn't heard correctly.
"I do," he answered emphatically. After pausing to give Brodick what could only be interpreted as an extremely hostile glare, the priest added, "We will not move forward until I know for a certainty that you have not been coerced."
"Father, it's extremely important that I go to-"
Before she could finish her explanation, Ramsey forcefully interrupted. "Didn't Gillian have to climb into a gorge to get Alec Maitland? Iain told me his son was trapped on a ledge."
"She's right in front of you, Ramsey. Ask her," Brodick suggested.
She wasn't paying any attention to the two lairds now. "Father, why would you need to ask-"
"Did you, Gillian?"
Once again Ramsey had interrupted her, and had she not known better, she would have thought that he'd done it on purpose, but that was ridiculous, of course. Unlike Brodick, Ramsey wouldn't deliberately be impertinent. If anything, he was diplomatic to a fault.
"Did I what?" she asked somewhat absentmindedly as she continued to study the priest. Why in heaven's name did she have to satisfy the Church before she could continue on to Ramsey's holding?
Repeating his question, Ramsey demanded that she look at him when she answered. Because he was so insistent, she begged the priest's indulgence before turning her back on him.
"Yes, Ramsey, I did climb into the gorge to get Alec."
Before he could ask her another question, she gave the priest her undivided attention once again. "Father, are you telling me that I cannot go any further until I satisfy the Church? Did I hear you correctly?"
"Yes, milady, that's exactly what I said. No one's going to budge from this very spot until I'm completely satisfied. I mean what I say, Laird," he added with another piercing glare at Brodick.
"You will be satisfied," Brodick assured him.
"I don't understand…" she began.
"I will make certain you do understand," the priest said. "The Buchanans are experts in trickery and deception. They will do whatever it takes to get what they want, and since your parents and your confessor are not here to protect you, I feel it's my duty to speak as your guardian and your priest. Now do you understand?"
She didn't understand at all. She started to shake her head and thought to ask Father why he felt she needed someone to look out for her. Didn't he realize that Brodick was there to help?
"Father, I asked Brodick-"
The priest was so startled, he didn't let her finish. "You asked him? Then you weren't coerced?"
Gillian was beginning to think that Father Laggan might be a bit addled in the head. Once again she patiently tried to explain. "If anyone has done any coercing, it is I. Brodick would have gone back home if I hadn't asked him to-"
Brodick cut her off. "She has her own mind, Father. I have neither forced nor manipulated her. Isn't that so, Gillian?"
"Yes, it is so," she agreed. "But Father, I'm still not understanding why you feel it necessary to play my champion. Can you not see that I am in good hands?"
Father Laggan looked as though he wanted to weep for her. "Dear Lady, you cannot possibly know what you're getting into," he cried out, stunned by her calm acquiescence. "Answer me this, he demanded. "Have you ever been to the Buchanan holding?"
"No, I haven't…"
The priest threw up his hands in despair. "There you have it," he said triumphantly and in a near shout.
"What I have seen of the Highlands is very beautiful," she said. "And I imagine that Brodick's land is just as lovely."
"But you've never met any of the savages who call themselves Buchanans, now have you, lass?" the priest asked in a shrill voice.
It was more than apparent that Father Laggan was highly upset, and hoping to soothe him, she responded, "No, I haven't met many of his followers, but I'm sure they're very pleasant people and not savages."
"Dear God above, she thinks they're pleasant. Did you hear her, Ramsey? Did you?"
Ramsey struggled not to laugh when he answered. "I heard, Father, but I would remind you of what Brodick has said. Gillian has her own mind. 'Tis my belief she will find his followers very pleasant."
"How could she-" the priest began.
"She finds the Buchanan laird pleasant enough. He wouldn't be by her side if she did not. Brodick can be quite… charming… when he puts his mind to the task." Ramsey choked on the last of his words and then burst into laughter.
The priest returned to Brodick. "She can't possibly know what's in store for her."
"Are you suggesting that I will not look out for her or that any of my clan will mistreat her?"
Father Laggan realized he'd overstepped his bounds and hastily tried to repair the damage he had done. Raising his hands he said, "No, no, I was merely suggesting… the lass appears to be such a gentle lady… and I cannot imagine how she will survive such a harsh environment."
Gillian couldn't understand what had precipitated this peculiar conversation and why Father Laggan was so obviously distressed. She looked at Brodick, hoping he would explain what in heaven's name was going on, but he ignored her as he spoke to the priest in rapid Gaelic. His brogue was thick, his hostility apparent, and she was horrified that he would speak to a man of the cloth in anger.
He was telling the priest how much Gillian meant to him and that he would die before letting any harm come to her. He knew she didn't understand a word he was saying, but Father Laggan did, and at the moment that was all that mattered.
Brodick was vastly amused when Gillian blurted out, "You mustn't speak to a priest so harshly. God won't like it." Turning to Father, she said, "He doesn't mean to be insolent."
"You need not apologize for me," Brodick said.
"I'm guarding your soul," she snapped.
"You are mindful of his soul?" the priest asked.
"Someone has to be," she answered. "He isn't going to get to heaven without assistance. Surely you realize that, Father, for you have known him longer than I."
"Gillian, enough of this foolish talk," Brodick ordered.
She ignored him. "But he also has a good heart, Father. He just doesn't want anyone to know it."
The priest smiled. "You have seen this goodness within him?"
"Aye," she answered softly. "I have seen it."
The priest squinted as he studied her. "You were raised in a peaceful household?"
"Yes, I was. My uncle's home was very peaceful."
"Yet you're willing…" Father Laggan shook his head. "As I said before, I do not know how you will ever survive in such a harsh environment."
"Father, Brodick and I are going to Ramsey's holding," she said, hoping to correct any misunderstanding.
"But you will not stay there forever," he shouted in frustration. "You will have to go home sometime."
"Yes, of course I will. I must go back to-"
"Gillian, how did you manage it?" Ramsey shouted.
Startled, she turned to him. "Manage what, Ramsey?"
"If you're afraid, how did you manage to climb into the gorge to get Alec?"
"You want to discuss this now?"
"But I was just explaining to Father Laggan that I must-"
"Answer Ramsey's question, Gillian," Brodick ordered.
She gave up trying to control the conversation then and there. "How did I climb down to get Alec? It was simple. I closed my eyes."
"It must have been difficult for you. I saw how your face turned gray a few minutes ago when you were close to the ledge."
"I didn't have a choice, and I didn't have much time. Alec's rope was tearing."
"Now, lass, if I could gain your cooperation for a moment, I would like to ask a few pertinent questions," Father Laggan insisted.
At the very same time Ramsey said, "Of course you had a choice. To do something you're so obviously afraid of required bravery."
"Gillian did what needed to be done. Of course she's brave," Brodick said.
She disagreed. "No, I wasn't brave at all. I was so scared I was shaking. And I cried," she thought to add.
"Gillian, you will not argue with me about this. I have said that you are brave, and you will accept that I know what I'm talking about."
She didn't like being contradicted. "Brodick, the pope is infallible. You are not. Therefore, you cannot possibly know-"
"I really would like to continue," the priest urged. "Now, lass, I need to know this. Are you in good standing with the Church?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"He wants to know if you're in good standing with the Church," Brodick repeated.
She looked from one to the other. "I believe I am."
"And when was your last confession?" Laggan asked.
"Answer him," Brodick ordered.
Her temper flared. "I have asked you not to take that tone with me," she whispered. "I don't like it."
Father Laggan heard her. His mouth dropped open, his eyes bulged, and he stammered, "You dare to criticize Laird Buchanan?"
Embarrassed because he had heard her rebuke, she tried to justify her actions. "He dared to snap at me, Father. You heard him, didn't you? Shouldn't I stand up for myself?"
"Yes, of course you should, but, lass, most women wouldn't. They would fear his retaliation."
She scoffed at the notion. "Brodick would never harm a woman."
Father Laggan surprised her then by laughing. "I have heard it said that there is a special woman for every man, no matter how contrary and barbaric that man might be, and now I must admit that it is certainly so."
"Can we get on with this?" Brodick demanded.
"Yes, of course," Father agreed. "Lady Gillian, I ask you again. When was your last confession?"
She blushed. "It's been a long while."
Laggan didn't like hearing that. "And why haven't you partaken of this most holy sacrament?"
"I must answer these questions before I can continue to Ramsey's?" she asked.
"You must," Ramsey said.
"Father's waiting for your answer," Brodick reminded her.
Her head was beginning to ache. She seemed to be the only one who thought the priest's inquisition was strange, but when she got Brodick alone, she was going to demand that he explain. For the moment, she decided to placate all of them. "I haven't gone to confession because England has been placed under an interdict and priests are not allowed to administer the sacraments except in dire emergencies. Surely you've heard of our pope's… unhappiness… with King John. The two are waging war over who will be the Archbishop of Canterbury."
Father Laggan nodded. "The interdict. Yes, of course. What was I thinking? I forgot you came to us from England. Now then, would you like me to hear your confession now?"
She hadn't meant to shout the question, but she was so appalled by the suggestion that she recount her sins in front of Brodick and Ramsey, and without a veil separating her from Father Laggan, she simply couldn't control her reaction.
"She hasn't done anything to warrant forgiveness," Brodick assured Laggan.
"How would you know?" she asked, clearly rattled.
Brodick laughed. "I know."
She glared at him. "I have sinned," she said, inwardly groaning because she sounded as though she were boasting.
"No, you haven't."
His contradiction was the last she was going to put up with. "I have too," she insisted. "Thanks to you, I've been plagued with impure thoughts, and they've all been about you, so you see? I have too sinned."
Only after the words were spoken did she realize what she had said. "My sins are all your fault, Brodick, and if I have to go to purgatory, then by God, you're going with me. Ramsey, if you do not stop laughing, I swear I shall toss you over this cliff."
"Do you love him, lass?" Father asked.
"I do not," she answered emphatically.
"It isn't a requirement," Laggan pointed out.
"I should hope not," she cried.
"But it would make your life easier," he countered.
"Gillian, you will tell the truth," Brodick demanded.
He grabbed hold of her hand. She tried to pull back, but he wouldn't let go.
"I have told the truth. I don't love Ramsey, and if he doesn't stop laughing at me, the Sinclairs will soon be looking for a new laird."
"Not Ramsey," Laggan shouted so he could be heard over Ramsey's laughter. "I'm asking you if you love Brodick."
"Did you tell Father I love you? Who else did you tell?"
In Brodick's opinion, the question didn't merit an answer. He quietly asked her to tell him again that she loved him.
"Brodick, now is not the time…"
"It's the perfect time."
She didn't agree. "What I said to you was private."
"Do you love me?"
Reluctant to admit the truth in front of an audience hanging on her every word, she bowed her head. "I do not wish to discuss matters of the heart now."
Brodick wouldn't be denied, and after nudging her chin up, he asked her again, "Do you love me?"
He squeezed her hand to get her to respond. "You know that I do," she whispered.
His expression solemn, he pulled the strip of plaid from behind his shoulder and draped the end over their joined hands.
Gillian understood what was happening then. In a panic, she tried to pull her hand free, but Brodick wouldn't let go of her, and after a few seconds of struggling, she stopped fighting.
Her heart belonged to him.
Staring into her eyes, he commanded, "You will give the words."
She stubbornly remained silent. He stubbornly persisted. "I want the words, Gillian. Don't deny me."
She could feel everyone watching her, and she knew how relentless Brodick could be. He would continue to prod her until he had what he wanted. Besides, it wasn't possible for her to deny him her love, and if he needed to hear the words again, then she would say them.
With a sigh she realized she had lost the battle, yet victory was hers. "I love you," she said in the barest of whispers.
"Now and forever?"
She paused for a moment and then put all her worries and fears aside, and made up her mind.
"And I will honor and protect you, Gillian," Brodick said. His hand moved to the back of her neck, and he roughly pulled her close. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Father Laggan raise his hand and make the sign of the cross.
She was powerless to resist when Brodick lowered his head to kiss her. There was such blatant possessiveness in his touch. Her hand stroked the side of his face, and for the moment she ignored her audience and the cheers echoing in her ears. When he finally let go of her, she had to grab hold of the pommel to keep from falling off her horse. She tried to repair her appearance while Brodick tossed the strip of plaid back over his shoulder and secured it in his belt.
She kept waiting for Brodick to say something to her, but he seemed content to remain silent, and so she turned to Father Laggan.
"God be with you," he said.
Ramsey, grinning like a culprit, slapped Brodick's shoulder. "We must celebrate tonight."
"Celebrate what, Ramsey?" she asked innocently.
"You have satisfied the Church."
"Then we may continue on?"
Before she could ask him any further questions, he hastily turned to the priest. "Father, will you be dining with us tonight?"
"I promised Laird MacHugh that I would stop by, but if darkness doesn't catch up with me on my way back, I'll gladly accept your hospitality. 'Tis the truth these old bones of mine have grown accustomed to a warm bed at night. An empty warm bed," he added with a glare in Brodick's direction.
"An empty bed will be waiting for you," Ramsey promised with a grin.
After giving Gillian a pitying look, Father Laggan blurted out, "There's still time… it isn't unheard of for a lass to change her mind before it's too late. Lady Gillian, if you should have second thoughts before tonight, or if you should come to your senses and realize the folly-"
"What's done is done, Father. Let it be," Ramsey said.
Laggan's shoulders sagged. "I warn you, Laird Buchanan. I'm going to continue to watch out for her."
Ramsey laughed. "Does that mean you'll break your own vow and return to the Buchanan holding? I seem to remember you telling Iain Maitland that the Buchanans were all heathens and that you would never step foot on their soil again."
"I remember what I said," the priest snapped. "And I certainly haven't forgotten the unfortunate incident. However, my duty's clear to me. I'm going to keep an eye on Lady Gillian, and if I see that she is unhappy or wasting away, then you'll be answering to me, Laird. You'd best take good care of her. You've got a treasure here, you realize."
After giving his passionate speech, Laggan took up his reins and guided his horse through the throng of soldiers. "God be with you," he called out.
Gillian watched the priest ride away, but Brodick tugged on her hair to get her attention. He brushed her curls over her shoulder. "I'll treat you well," he fervently promised.
"I shall make certain that you do," she responded. "Shall we go now?"
Brodick motioned to Dylan to take the lead, then turned to speak to Ramsey. Gillian saw the commander ride ahead to the cliffs. Instantly horrified, she goaded her mount in the opposite direction. One second she was beside Brodick and the next she was halfway down the southern slope.
"Where the hell is she going?" he asked Ramsey as he goaded his stallion into a gallop. He caught up with her, grabbed her reins, and tried to turn her around. She resisted by pushing his hand away and urging her horse forward again.
"You're going the wrong way."
"Is the right way over that cliff?" she asked, frantic.
"Now, Gillian, it isn't…"
"I won't do it."
"If you'll only let me explain…" he patiently began again.
He swore he had never seen anyone, man or woman, move as quickly as Gillian did then. Since she couldn't get him to let go of the reins, she slipped off her horse and was walking at a fast pace away from him before he could summon a good argument to persuade her to take the shortcut.
He caught up with her again. "What do you think you're doing?"
"What does it look like I'm doing? I'm walking. I feel the need to stretch my legs."
"Give me your hand."
"It isn't a cliff," he began.
"I'm taking the long way around."
"All right," he agreed.
She came to a quick stop. "Do you mean it? You won't force me?"
"Of course I won't force you. We'll take the long way around."
He let out a shrill whistle and raised his hand. Dylan immediately turned back.
She knew she must be embarrassing Brodick because she couldn't go down a stupid hill. All of the soldiers were watching her, but fortunately they stayed where they were and therefore couldn't hear what she was saying.
"I don't wish to disgrace you in front of your good friend and your soldiers, but I swear that if you make me go down that cliff, I'll do just that."
"As terrified as you are, your concern is in the possibility of disgracing me? Ah, Gillian, you could never disgrace me. We'll take the long way around."
Anxiety blended with relief. "How much longer will it take us?"
"It depends on how fast we ride."
"How long?" she persisted.
"A full day," he admitted as he once again put his hand down to her.
"That long? Even if we hurry?"
"That long," he replied. "Give me your hand."
"I can ride my horse."
"I would rather you ride with me."
She backed away. "Brodick?"
"I have to go down that cliff, don't I?"
"You don't have to do anything you don't want to do."
She took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and then clasped hold of his hand. Instead of swinging her up behind him, he changed his mind and lifted her onto his lap.
He could feel her shaking and sought only to comfort her. Wrapping his arms around her, he hugged her tight. "This worry of yours…"
"It's most unreasonable, isn't it?"
"Do you know what has caused this fear? Did something happen that has made you so cautious?"
"Don't you mean cowardly?"
Clasping her chin in his hand, he forced her to look up at him. "Don't ever let me hear you say that about yourself again. You are not a coward. Do you understand?"
"Yes," she agreed.
"Say it," he commanded.
"I'm not a coward. You can stop squeezing me now," she suggested.
She waited until he had relaxed his hold, then said, "I've made up my mind. We'll go down the cliff. We should go last, though," she hastened to add, hoping she'd find a little courage while they waited their turn.
"Yes," she insisted, though her voice was so weak she wasn't sure he heard her. "And I'll ride my own horse," she added in a much stronger voice. "I'll not have your men think I'm a weakling."
"They could never think such a thing," he said as he prodded his horse back up the hill.
He didn't stop at the crest, nor did he slow his stallion's pace as he started down the narrow, winding path that led to Ramsey's holding. She buried her face in his plaid, wrapped her arms around his waist and demanded that he wait until everyone else had gone first.
He told her no.
There was still time to stop before they reached the steepest drop in the path, and she was going to make certain he did just that. She needed time to gather her courage. Why couldn't the mule-headed man understand that?
"I want to be last."
"I like to be first."
"We're going to wait," she demanded shrilly. Panic was making her throat close, and all she could think about was falling down into an endless dark hole and never, ever stopping. The need to scream was overtaking her control, and, God help her, she was either going to throw up or faint at any second.
"Brodick… I can't…"
"Tell me about all those impure thoughts you've been having about me."
He patiently repeated the question. His stallion stumbled, rocks trickled down the sheer rock into the mouth of the ravine below, making quite a clatter, but Brodick merely shifted his position in the saddle to help the horse regain his footing, and continued on.
Gillian, hearing the noise, was turning to look down when Brodick asked, "In these impure thoughts, did we have our clothes on?"
Her blush warmed her face. "Our clothes?" she whispered.
"In your fantasies about me…"
"They weren't fantasies."
"Sure they were," he countered cheerfully. "You told Laggan you were having impure daydreams."
"Impure thoughts," she cried out.
"And you also said these… thoughts… were about me. Is that not so?"
"Oh, do be quiet."
He laughed. "So did we?" he asked again.
Her shoulders sagged. "Did we what?"
"Have our clothes on?"
Thoroughly rattled, she shouted, "Of course we had our clothes on."
"Then they couldn't have been very interesting impure thoughts."
"Will you stop talking about this?"
"It isn't proper, that's why."
"I think I have a right to know. You did say your impure thoughts were about me, didn't you?"
"Well then? I want to know what I was doing."
She closed her eyes. "You were kissing me."
"That's it? Nothing else?"
"What did you expect?"
"A whole lot more," he said. "Where was I kissing you?"
"On my lips," she answered. "Now will you stop this-"
"Nowhere else?" he asked, sounding disappointed again. "Shall I tell you about some of my fantasies about you?"
Her eyes widened. "You've had… thoughts… about me?"
"Of course I have, but my daydreams are far more interesting."
"Is that so?"
"Would you like me to tell you about them?"
He laughed and ignored her protest. "You weren't wearing anything in my fantasies. No, that's not exactly true. You were wearing something."
She knew she shouldn't ask, but she couldn't stop herself. "What was I wearing?"
He bent down and whispered into her ear, "Me."
She jerked back and pushed against his chest with both hands. "Oh, Good Lord," she cried out. "We're both going to land in purgatory if we continue this sinful conversation. How could you know what I look like without my clothes on?"
"A calculated guess," he answered. "You're perfect, by the way."
"No, I'm not."
"Your skin's silky and smooth, and in my fantasies, when I lie between your soft-"
She clasped her hand over his mouth to get him to stop. His eyes sparkled with pure devilment. He was outrageous, and perhaps it was that very trait that drew her to him. Brodick had somehow managed to free himself of all restrictions. He didn't seem to care what anyone else thought about him, and he didn't particularly want to impress anyone.
She wished she could be that free. "Being with you is a… liberating… experience," she whispered.
"That wasn't so bad, was it, milady?"
Gillian jumped at the sound of Dylan's voice. "I beg your pardon?" she asked as she slowly removed her hand from Brodick's mouth. He grabbed it and kissed the palm. Shy all of a sudden, she pulled her hand back before Dylan caught up with them.
"The ride down wasn't so bad, was it?" Dylan repeated.
She glanced up at the rocks, shook her head, and burst into laughter. "No, it wasn't bad at all."
A few minutes later, she was once again riding her own horse. Deciding to take the lead, she nudged the mare into a trot, and as she passed Brodick and Ramsey, she called out, "You used trickery."
"Yes, I did," he admitted. "Are you angry with me?"
She laughed again. "I don't get angry. I get even."
Unbeknownst to her, she had just recited the Buchanan creed.
Ramsey Sinclair's home was majestic. It sat atop a plateau rising up in the middle of a magnificent valley that was bordered by steep cliffs on one side and lofty, rolling hills on the other. A glistening carpet of grass, sprinkled with the new sprigs of heather the wind had planted, covered the land for as far as the eye could see, and the scent of heather and pine drifted on the afternoon breeze and blended with the pungent aroma of smoke pouring from the thatched cottages. The laird's massive stone castle towered protectively over the houses that dotted the landscape beneath it, and a wall of timber and stone circled the perimeter of the entire community, offering safety to the clan within.
The heavy, iron-hinged gates opened, and Ramsey and his guests entered his estate. A resounding cheer echoed around them as soldiers came running to greet their laird. A fair number of young ladies also came running.
Immediately Gillian was surrounded by Brodick's overly protective guard. Aaron moved in front or her, Dylan and Robert positioned themselves beside her, and Liam rode behind.
As impossible as it was for her to see much of anything with the guards' wide shoulders blocking her view, she still tried to look at every face in the crowd. Though it would be wonderful, as well as miraculous, if she could find Christen immediately, Gillian knew it wasn't going to be that easy. Yet each time she spotted a yellow-haired woman, her heart leapt with that impossible hope.
Brodick and Ramsey had dismounted and were now surrounded by soldiers. Gillian patiently waited for Brodick to remember her.
"Do you see him, milady?" Dylan asked in a low voice.
"The traitor," he whispered.
"No, I'm sorry. I wasn't looking for…" she said as she once again tried to search through the crowd. "Not yet," she whispered back. "There are so many here…"
"Most of Ramsey's men aren't here," Dylan explained. "They are most likely still training in the field behind the castle. Aye, I'm certain they are, or Gideon would be here to greet his laird."
While Gillian continued to look over the crowd, a few curious and bold MacPherson soldiers, wearing their clan's plaid, moved closer to get a better look at her. One young, foolish man dared to step a little too close.
Black Robert nudged his mount forward, forcing the man to step to the side or be run over. In a voice dripping with venom, he ordered, "You will stop staring at the lady."
The burly soldier glanced at his friends, then turned back to Robert with an insolent sneer on his face. "Or what?" he challenged.
Robert wasn't impressed with the man's bluster. Before the soldier realized his intent, Robert leaned down, grabbed him by the throat and lifted him up to eye level.
"Or I'll break every bone in your body."
The MacPherson soldier was a big man, but Robert had lifted him as though he weighed no more than a twig. The remarkable feat of strength astounded her. And so did his poor manners. "Robert, please put that boy down."
"As you wish, milady," Robert grumbled.
Brodick happened to turn just as Robert sent the soldier flying. The man landed in the center of his friends. Shaking his head, Brodick threaded his way through the crowd, but stopped in front of the prone and dazed MacPherson. "Robert?"
"I didn't like the way he was staring at milady, Laird."
The soldier tried to get up, but Brodick put his booted foot on his chest to hold him down. "How was he staring at her?"
"With insolence," Robert answered.
"She's very beautiful," the soldier said somewhat defiantly. "If I want to look upon her, I will."
Brodick glanced down at the man and began to apply pressure on his chest with his foot. "Yes, she is very beautiful," he agreed pleasantly. "But I don't like it when any other man stares at her." Increasing the pressure until the soldier's face was bright red and he was gasping for breath, Brodick added, in a decidedly menacing voice, "I don't like it at all."
Ramsey appeared at his side. "Let him up," he ordered. Brodick stepped back and watched as the soldier regained his feet. Then Ramsey stepped forward and shoved the man so forcefully he landed on his backside again.
"You will apologize to Laird Buchanan now," he roared.
"Buchanan?" he gasped. "He's Laird Buchanan? I didn't know…"
Ramsey took another threatening step toward him. The soldier scrambled to his feet and blurted, "I apologize, Laird Buchanan. I will not ever look upon your woman again. I swear it on my father's head."
Ramsey wasn't satisfied. He'd noticed that the soldier and his friends were still wearing the MacPherson plaid. "You will wear my colors or you will get the hell off my land."
Gillian watched Ramsey in amazement. Until that moment she had thought he was a mild-mannered gentleman. Judith Maitland had told her that whenever Iain wanted an alliance, he always sent Ramsey as his spokesman to work out the details because he was so diplomatic. He certainly wasn't being diplomatic now. In fact his temper rivaled Brodick's. Knowing that she was the cause of his anger embarrassed her, and she glared at Robert to let him know what she thought about his behavior in inciting the incident, but the soldier defended his actions by whispering, "He was being insolent, milady."
"I did not think he was," she whispered.
"But I did, milady."
The set of his jaw indicated he thought he was right, and Gillian decided not to argue further with him.
"There's Gideon," Aaron said. "You should speak to him, Dylan. Word has it he believes he's your equal."
A large group of soldiers came swarming over the hills on both sides of the castle, and Gillian, squinting against the sunlight, couldn't see their faces.
Robert drew her attention when he remarked, "Gideon is Ramsey's commander. Is he not then Dylan's equal?"
"No one is my equal," Dylan answered as he swung down from his mount. "But I will placate Gideon by lowering myself to speak to him. If you'll excuse me, milady?" Dylan asked as he took the reins in preparation to lead the horse away.
"Of course," she answered. "I, too, would like to dismount, Robert. Would you please move your horse so that I may have room?"
"You must wait for your laird," he answered.
"Aye, you must," Liam agreed as he reined his horse forward to take Dylan's place. "Milady, you could make it easier for us if you would wear our plaid."
"Make what easier?" she asked.
"Letting them know that you are…"
He suddenly stopped. She prodded, "That I am what?" she asked.
"With us," Robert said.
He was saved from having to give further explanation when Ramsey motioned for him to move his horse so that he could get to Gillian's side.
He lifted her to the ground. "Do not judge my clan by a handful of boys," he cautioned.
"Her feet are on the ground now," Brodick said from behind his friend. "You can let go."
Ramsey ignored him and continued to hold Gillian. "Come inside. It's nearly noon, and you must surely be hungry."
Brodick shoved Ramsey's hand away from Gillian and gestured for her to come to him. Annoyed with his behavior, she stood her ground and made him come to her.
"I'm not hungry," she told Ramsey.
"Then tonight we will have a fine feast," he promised. "But before then, you'll have met every one of my soldiers in the holding. If the man you saw isn't among them, then tomorrow we'll head out to look over the others. It will take time, Gillian," he warned. "Now that the Sinclairs and the MacPhersons have joined, there's a vast amount of land to cover."
"What about her sister?" Brodick asked.
"I would like to meet all the women as well," she said, slipping her hand into Brodick's. "I know the importance of pointing out the man who betrayed you, and I will do all that I can to help you find him, but I implore you to do the same for me. I must find Christen."
Ramsey nodded. "You have told us that she was taken in by the MacPhersons, and as Iain suggested, the elders will have surely heard about her."
"Then why were the requests for information ignored? King John sent emissaries to all the clans, and no one responded."