Before anyone could respond to her outburst, Braeden appeared at the stairs and called out. “They’re ready, Laird.”
Colm reached down and picked up Gabrielle’s chair and moved it to the side.
“Come with me, Gabrielle,” he ordered as he took her hand and pulled her behind him.
He didn’t explain where he was leading her, but she was happy to oblige. A moment alone with him would give her the opportunity to explain what had happened at Finney’s Flat.
They were halfway to the entrance when Colm called over his shoulder, “Liam, I’m marrying Gabrielle.”
Liam was stunned. “You’re getting married?”
Gabrielle’s reaction was more intense. “You didn’t even tell your brother? I’ve been here two weeks, and you couldn’t make time—”
He was all but dragging her toward the steps now. “I have seen my brother as often as you have in the past two weeks.”
“That isn’t an acceptable excuse,” she muttered.
Exasperated, he pulled her along down the stairs. “I don’t make excuses.”
A soldier stood at the door. When he saw them coming, he bowed to Gabrielle and pulled the door open. She thought his action most peculiar. He should have shown deference to his laird, not her.
A blast of cold air brushed over her face. Colm let go of her and walked outside. He stopped on the top step and beckoned her to come to him.
The golden light of sunset spilled over a sea of faces watching her. The courtyard was filled with his clan, and more of them covered the hills beyond.
Gabrielle was so shocked, she could barely keep her wits about her. There seemed to be a thousand men and women staring at her. She tried to catch her breath. No one was smiling. She noticed that right away. Oh, no, had the Boswells gotten to all of these people? She pushed the horrid thought aside. But why did they all look so somber? Since they were crowded together, she couldn’t see if they were holding anything in their hands.
She moved closer to Colm. Her arm brushed his. She looked up and whispered, “Am I about to be stoned again?”
“For the love of…” He stopped. He couldn’t be angry with her. Of course she would expect the worst. He hadn’t told her what was going to happen, and God knows, after what she’d been through in the last few weeks, why wouldn’t she be frightened?
“Do you think I would let anyone harm you? You belong to me now, Gabrielle.”
Colm turned to his followers, raised one hand high into the air, and said, “After much deliberation, Lady Gabrielle has finally agreed to become my wife. I am fortunate to marry such a passionate and spirited, beautiful and innocent lady. You will welcome her and honor her as you honor me.”
The crowd erupted into cheers and shouts. All of them were smiling now. Colm pulled her into his arms, tilted her chin up, and kissed her.
She was overwhelmed. He only kissed her long enough for her to want more, and when he lifted his head, she trembled. The noise swirled around her, and there was but one thought in her mind: there weren’t any stones.
C OLM HADN’T GIVEN HER ANY WARNING. HAD GABRIELLE known he was going to call his clan together to make his announcement, she would have changed her gown and brushed her hair. She didn’t even have time to pinch her cheeks to give them color. The door opened, and there they all were, staring at her.
An astonished Liam had followed them outside and stood on Colm’s right as he spoke to the clan. Liam seemed pleased by what he called “remarkable news.” Once the cheering had died down and the crowd had dispersed, he slapped his brother on the shoulder and hugged Gabrielle.
“I thought Gabrielle was our guest because of the help her guards gave me at the abbey, but it appears there’s much more to this visit.” He laughed and gave Colm a shove as they headed back inside. “You’ve been holding out on me, brother. Just how long did I sleep? Evidently I’ve been missing a great deal. I must hear the details.”
“I’ll explain another time,” Colm said.
Liam took Gabrielle’s hand and with a wink said, “Are you sure you’ve chosen the right MacHugh, Gabrielle? Colm can be a bear to live with, you know. Perhaps you should reconsider.”
Colm answered. “There is nothing to reconsider, Liam. Gabrielle is quite happy.” He turned to her. “Aren’t you, Gabrielle?”
“Why…I…” How could she answer him? Happy? With all that had occurred in the past two weeks, thoughts of happiness had not entered her mind.
Liam saved her from coming up with an answer. “Need I pester Lady Gabrielle for details?”
“No, you need not,” Colm replied firmly.
Gabrielle was relieved when Liam bid them good night and went upstairs. She didn’t want to answer any questions. There was a more pressing matter on her mind. The time had come for her to face Colm with the truth. She needed to be alone with him. Her heart started pounding.
“You look exhausted, Gabrielle. Get some rest.” Dismissing her, he headed for the door.
She followed him. “May I have a word with you? There is something I must tell you.”
“Can it wait?” He pulled a torch from its wall bracket to take outside.
The door swung open and Braeden and Stephen entered. She hoped they would pass through, but neither did. They waited to speak to Colm. He was a busy man with many responsibilities and burdens, she reminded herself.
“I wanted to…that is to say…I suppose I could wait until tomorrow. Perhaps early in the morning?” she asked.
Colm nodded, and Gabrielle, feeling weak with relief because she wouldn’t have to tell him tonight, hurried up the steps.
Father Gelroy was waiting to offer his congratulations, but she didn’t give him the chance. She motioned for him to come closer and then whispered, “I’m so sorry I haven’t told Colm yet. I have twice tried to explain that I and my guards brought Liam to the abbey, but both times we have been interrupted. I think it best if I tell him in private. You had to suffer his anger, and Liam’s, too, because of the promise I forced on you.”
“The longer you wait, the harder the telling.”
“Yes, I know, but I do dread it.”
“Laird MacHugh will be pleased to know that you found his brother and sought help for him.”
“There is more to the telling than you know, but have no worries. By tomorrow night, Colm will know everything.”
“As will I?”
She had hoped to tell him in confession, but if she did, she would have to say she was sorry for taking a man’s life, and God would know she wasn’t sincere.
That man had really needed killing.
MAURNA WAS THRILLED that Gabrielle was going to marry their laird and told her so several times while serving breakfast.
“No one believed that foolishness the Boswell boys were spouting, and we were right not to pay them any mind since our laird is making you his wife. He declared you innocent, milady, but we already knew it. Didn’t we, Willa?” she called over her shoulder.
The cook peeked out from the buttery. “We did. We surely did.”
“I thank you both for your faith in me.” Gabrielle stared down at a bowl of what appeared to be a thick gray paste.
“No lady as holy as you are would commit such terrible sins, and besides, our laird wouldn’t be marrying you if those sins were true…which they aren’t,” she hastened to add.
Willa brought out bread and put it next to the paste. “You eat up now. You could stand to put some fat on those bones.”
Gabrielle didn’t want to hurt the cook’s feelings, but she had to ask what the paste was before she put any of it in her mouth. It would be more hurtful, she thought, if she started gagging.
“What do you call this, Willa?” she asked.
Maurna brushed some crumbs from the table onto her open hand. “You take your bread, and you dab it in the mush.”
“It’s good for you, milady,” Willa insisted. “It’s made with cooked oats and some of my special spices.”
“We’ll leave you alone so you can eat while it’s warm,” Maurna said.
Gabrielle reluctantly picked up her spoon and dipped it into the thick goo. “Maurna, could you explain what you meant when you said no one was as holy—”
“As you are.”
“Why would you think I was holy?”
“Not just me, milady. Everyone thinks it.”
“I think it,” Willa said.
“I’m supposing it’s because you spend so much of your time walking with Father Gelroy. You’re praying with him, aren’t you?”
She laughed. “Goodness, no. Father has been rather lonely, and that is why I’ve been walking with him, but we’re both getting accustomed to our new surroundings and feeling more comfortable now. Everyone is so friendly.”
The two women beamed at her praise for their clan.
“Your breakfast is getting cold on you,” Willa warned.
“I thought I might wait for our laird.”
“He’s been up and gone quite some time now.”
When the women left her alone to eat the mush, Gabrielle forced herself to try it and was surprised that it wasn’t vile. In fact, it didn’t have much taste at all.
She finished quickly and then went looking for Colm. The man must get up at the crack of dawn, she thought.
Faust caught up with her as she was heading to the stables. “Where are you going, Princess?”
“I’m looking for Colm.”
“He’s in the fields with his soldiers. Would you like to sit on the hill and watch the sparring?” he asked eagerly.
Faust obviously wanted to watch, and since she couldn’t talk to Colm until later, she decided to accommodate her guard.
“Lead the way, Faust.”
“I think you will enjoy watching, Princess. I know I will.”
“I don’t understand your enthusiasm. You’ve seen my father’s men training nearly every day at Wellingshire.”
“They did train almost every day, and for good reason, for they, like all good vassals, must keep their skills sharpened.”
“I know that, in England, a knight’s primary duty is to protect his liege lord. I think it must be the same here.”
“No, it’s different. I think as long as they win, most barons don’t care how many men die fighting for them, but MacHugh would take it as a personal affront if he lost one man or twenty.”
She lifted her skirts and quickened her step to keep up with him. “Do you think you will learn new techniques by watching today?”
“Perhaps, but that isn’t the reason for my eagerness. You will understand soon enough. We’ll sit high on the hill between the two fields where we’ll have a good view.”
Faust led her up a worn path winding through the trees; it was a steep incline. When she reached the ridge, a panoramic view of the fields opened up below her.
There were two fields almost of equal dimension and separated by mounded stacks of hay. On one side the archers practiced accuracy. Their targets were so far away it was difficult to see the center. Next to them men were throwing axes at targets. As far as she was from the field, Gabrielle could still hear the whistle of the heavy weapons slicing through the air. On the other field, men sparred with swords and shields. Circling them were rows of clansmen, young and old, waiting for their chance to demonstrate their skills.
There were at least a hundred men on the field, yet she easily spotted Colm. He was by far the most impressive warrior there. He stood at the far end of the circle, arms across his chest and feet braced apart. Even from her vantage point, Gabrielle saw his scowl, indicating he didn’t like what he was seeing.
She stared in fascination. His bronzed skin glistened with sweat, and the bulging muscles in his upper arms and legs exuded raw power. While she knew it was indecent for her to notice such things, she couldn’t make herself look away.
“Would you like me to fetch a blanket for you to sit on? Or do you think you will not want to stay that long?” Faust asked.
“I don’t need a blanket,” she replied, sitting down. She tucked her legs under her and adjusted her skirt; all the while her violet blue eyes were fixed on Colm.
“Do you see Stephen? He stands next to the laird.” Faust pointed him out.
“I see him. What’s he doing?”
“He’s watching Lucien spar.”
She searched the field and located her guard. “And why is Lucien sparring?”
“The laird invited him to,” Faust answered. “If he thinks we are capable, he will have us train the beginners. His seasoned warriors find it all beneath them, though of course they would do whatever their laird ordered them to. Stephen says the laird wants us to earn our keep, and we are happy to oblige.”
Gabrielle watched Lucien. Her guard’s movements were fluid and graceful. He held his own against the MacHugh soldier without seeming to exert much effort. Neither gained an advantage.
“Stephen bested all the others with bow and arrow. The laird wouldn’t give him time to fetch his own, so he had to use Braeden’s. I think you could best them all, too, Princess.”
She laughed. “Your faith in me is misplaced. Tell me this, Faust, what did the laird and his commander think of Stephen defeating their soldiers?”
“They were impressed with his skill. Braeden and Stephen aren’t adversaries. They respect each other’s ability and have, in fact, become friends of a sort. The laird has placed Stephen in charge of training the young ones with bow and arrow under Braeden’s watchful eye.”
“What about you?” Gabrielle asked.
“I will spar tomorrow.”
“You needn’t sit here with me. You will know I’m safe. You can see me from either field.”
“The distance is too great.”
“If I can see Colm’s frown, you’ll certainly be able to see me.”
“Tomorrow will be soon enough to take my turn. Besides, Christien will be fighting soon, and I don’t want to miss that. Lucien’s almost finished,” he added with a nod toward the guard. “I think he’s going to let the MacHugh soldier best him this day.”
“Why would you think that?”
“He should have finished him by now. He’s holding back because the man he fights is older by at least fifteen or more years. Lucien won’t humiliate him in front of his laird. It’s what I would do.”