“Maybe someday your father will send the larger statue of our saint, the one that stood in the courtyard outside your mother’s room. It was a gift from your grandfather before she left St. Biel.” A fleeting look of sadness passed over his eyes when he added, “There should be snow in the mountains of St. Biel by now.”
Gabrielle could see that the guard was becoming nostalgic and perhaps a little homesick, and she felt a pang of guilt for pulling him even farther from his homeland.
“You will return soon, I think,” she said.
He smiled. “That is what Stephen says, but you must be married before we leave…”
“And you must know that I will be safe.”
“We already have faith that your laird won’t let any harm come to you.”
“Soon then you will be complaining about the bitter cold and snow.”
He nodded. “Soon.”
They rode down the hills and continued on to the ridge overlooking Finney’s Flat. Gabrielle knew the sentries wouldn’t allow her to go farther. She slowed the pace to accommodate the curve in the trail. They rounded a hill to where the path straightened, and Gabrielle suddenly pulled hard on the reins. A procession was heading in their direction. Three narrow carts laden with trunks and bundles led by a half dozen men on horses were less than a stone’s throw away.
“Oh God,” she whispered.
Before Faust could ask what was wrong, she jerked on the reins to turn Rogue around and goaded him into a gallop.
Faust raced to keep up. When they were almost back to the holding, he called to her, “Princess, what is wrong?”
“Those men…they’re here. I cannot believe my eyes. Call the others. Hurry, Faust.”
When they reached the stables, Gabrielle jumped down and handed Rogue’s reins over to a stable boy. Had she had her wits about her, she would have ridden to the courtyard, but she ran instead. Questions raced through her head. She had to be sure. Were these the same men? And if they were, what were they doing at the MacHugh holding? This didn’t make sense.
Gabrielle had to be certain before she condemned them. Faust hadn’t recognized them because he had stayed with the horses in the forest, but the others had gone with her to the clearing at Finney’s Flat. They had seen some of the men, but not as clearly as she had. If only she could hear them speak, then she could know for certain. She would recognize their voices.
Faust called the other guards with two long piercing whistles. Stephen was instructing the young MacHugh warriors and had just notched an arrow to his bow when he heard the whistles. Without a word of explanation, he dropped the bow and arrow and ran.
Christien was just about to show a soldier how to use leverage against an opponent in hand-to-hand combat. When he heard the whistle, he tossed the young man to the ground and leaped over him on his way toward the sound.
Lucien and Faust were with Gabrielle by the time Stephen and Christien arrived. With her guards surrounding her, she told what she had seen.
Stephen agreed that she must be certain before she told the laird.
“They would be fools to come here,” Lucien said.
“That is exactly what I was thinking,” she said.
“But Princess, why would they be afraid to come here? They don’t know we saw them,” Christien pointed out.
“Did any of you see their faces clearly?” she asked.
“I didn’t see them. I stayed with the horses,” Faust said.
“I didn’t see all of them,” Stephen replied. “I remember moving behind you so you could have a clear shot with your arrow. The hoods of their capes still covered them.”
“I don’t know if I would remember what they looked like,” Lucien admitted.
“The princess saw all of them, and she will remember,” Christien said. “Trust yourself,” he told Gabrielle.
“When I hear their voices, I will be certain.”
The sound of the horses’ hooves on the drawbridge drew their attention. The caravan had arrived. Sentries stopped them at the gate. Only the horses pulling the carts were allowed to cross, and the men riding their own mounts were ordered to leave them outside the walls and walk the rest of the way. The men on foot walked ahead of the carts and made their way up the incline toward Gabrielle and her guards. The closer they came, the faster Gabrielle’s heart raced. When they were close enough for her to see their faces clearly, fear gripped her.
Unaware that they were walking to their doom, the men laughed and talked to one another. Gabrielle heard their voices, but she already knew: they were indeed the same men.
Stephen didn’t take his eyes off them as he asked, “Princess?”
“Yes, now I’m certain,” she whispered.
The guards moved protectively closer to her.
“Faust, go and find the laird.”
“That be her?” one of the men asked.
“They told us she’s got black hair and is fair to look at,” another said. “If those men would move away from her, I could get a good look.”
“We can’t give over the trunks until we know for sure it’s her.”
One man dropped his voice to a whisper. “Let’s get this over with quick. I ain’t stayin’ around to meet the laird.”
Colm had been working with the stonemasons on the winch at the side of the keep. He rounded the corner with a frayed rope in his hands just as Faust called to him.
The visitors formed a line in front of the first cart. The tallest stepped forward and with an air of importance announced, “We brung the Lady Gabrielle’s trunks. We’ll leave them if you will tell us if that woman be her.” He pointed to Gabrielle.
No one answered him.
Colm walked over to Gabrielle. “What’s this?” he asked.
His nearness gave her strength, but she couldn’t stop her hand from trembling when she touched his arm. “I would like you to meet the men who have brought my things to me.” She took a step forward, but Stephen stopped her from taking another. “I am Lady Gabrielle.”
The spokesman eyed MacHugh nervously as he said to Gabrielle, “Then these be your trunks.”
“Yes, they are.”
“We brung them from the abbey.”
Gabrielle turned to Colm. “These men will be of interest to you.”
Colm looked them over. “Why is that?” he asked.
With her back to the infidels, she whispered, “They like to dig holes.”
“Y OU’RE CERTAIN OF THIS, GABRIELLE?” COLM ASKED.
Gabrielle couldn’t tell what Colm was thinking. She whispered, “Do you want me to give you their names? I remember all of them.”
He didn’t look at her when he answered, “That won’t be necessary. Go inside, Gabrielle, and stay there.”
His control amazed her. She knew rage had to be surging through his veins, but he wasn’t letting anything show.
Without being asked, Christien ran in search of Braeden, feeling the laird’s commander should know what was going on.
As Lucien and Faust were escorting her inside, Gabrielle looked back over her shoulder. Colm walked toward the condemned men. With terror-stricken eyes, they retreated and scrambled around the carts, only to find dozens of armed MacHugh warriors coming up the hill behind them.
The door closed behind her, and she climbed the steps to the great hall. She didn’t hear any sounds coming from outside—it was deadly quiet—and neither guard would allow her to look out the window. One hour passed, then another and another. And still not a sound from outside. Despite Lucien’s and Faust’s attempts to divert her attention, Gabrielle’s apprehension grew.
As the sun was setting, Stephen came into the hall. He was alone.
“Princess, your trunks have been placed in the storage room.”
“Thank you. Tomorrow will be soon enough to go through them. Do you happen to know if Colm will be coming soon?”
“The laird has left the holding. I doubt he’ll be back tonight.”
“Milady, your supper’s on the table waiting for you,” Maurna announced.
“I thought I would wait for the laird and his brother…”
“They have both left the holding,” Stephen said.
“Just the two of them?”
He would say nothing more.
Gabrielle learned more from Maurna than from any of her guards.
“A fair number of our clansmen went with our laird. And the strangers who brought your things went with them, too. From the looks of things, I don’t think they wanted to go, but you can’t say no to the laird, can you?”
It was apparent that Maurna didn’t know who these strangers were or what they had done, and Gabrielle wasn’t about to tell her.
She went to bed early that night, but sleep didn’t come until the early-morning hours.
Colm didn’t return to the keep for five long days and nights. And when at last he came, he didn’t make a big announcement of his arrival. Gabrielle came down the stairs one morning and there he was, standing in front of the hearth. She was so surprised to see him, she nearly tripped on the last step. She nervously smoothed her gown and adjusted the braided belt resting on her hips. Had she known he was back, she would have taken more time and care with her appearance. She would have worn her emerald green gown, not this faded blue one, and she would have bound her hair up with a pretty ribbon. She wouldn’t have let it hang down around her shoulders.
She knew she looked drab, but it was actually his fault, she decided, because he hadn’t given her any warning.
“You’re home,” she said.
Colm turned and his fierce eyes hungrily took her in. Damn, but he had missed her. He missed her smiles, her frown, her laughter, and most of all he missed kissing her.
He wasn’t much for honeyed words. “You sleep your mornings away, Gabrielle.”
“You cannot even say hello to me before you begin to criticize?”
“Are you ill?”
“She’s not sleeping at night, Laird.” Maurna made the announcement as she carried a pitcher to the table. She placed it next to four goblets, bowed to her laird, and added, “Some nights she doesn’t go upstairs until the wee hours of the morning.”
“How do you know when I go upstairs?” Gabrielle asked.
“Garrett told David, and he told Aitken, who told my man, who told me.”
“But how would Garrett know?”
“He knew because Nevin told him. Do you want to know how Nevin knew?”
Dear God, no, she didn’t. She had a feeling this litany could go on all morning.
“Gabrielle, come here,” Colm ordered.
She crossed the hall to stand in front of him. She leaned up on tiptoes and kissed him full on the mouth. It was quick, but still a kiss. She stepped back, looked up at him, and said, “Welcome home, Laird.”
And that, she believed, was a proper greeting. She folded her hands and waited for him to do the same.
“Why aren’t you sleeping at night?” he asked.
Ignoring the question, she asked, “Are you happy to be home? And if you are, you should tell me so. It is the courteous thing to do.”
“Yes, I am happy to be home, you daft woman. Now answer my question.”
Since he’d been smiling at her when he called her daft, she didn’t take offense.
“I don’t know.”
“Could you be worried about something?”
“Could I be worrying? What could I have to worry about? Could it be that I fear for my father since I have no notion of where he might be? Or might it be that my future husband leaves and doesn’t return for days on end? Could I be worried that something might have happened to him?”
“You would worry about me?”
She jabbed him in the chest. “And you call me daft?” She took a deep breath before continuing. “Yes, I was worried about you, but you were last on my list of worries.”
“You lie, Gabrielle, and not at all well.”
“I know you don’t want to marry me,” she began, “but—”
“I will marry you,” a voice from the entrance called.
Liam strode into the hall.
“No, you will not marry me, Liam,” she said in exasperation. “And I am trying to have a private conversation with Colm. Please leave.”
Colm put his arm around Gabrielle and pulled her close. “Lady Gabrielle has agreed to marry me.”
“Yes, I know she has, but you don’t want her, and I do,” said Liam. “She didn’t save your life, she saved mine, and I am forever in her debt.”
Colm was getting angry. “Do you think I would give her up to you or to any other man?”
“Then you do want her?” Liam retorted.
“Damn right, I do!”
Liam nodded, and with the most satisfied grin he said, “You might want to tell her so.”
Gabrielle and Colm heard him laughing as he descended the stairs.
Colm turned her in his arms and looked into her eyes. “I will never let you go, Gabrielle.”
She didn’t know what to say, which was probably just as well, because he didn’t give her time to do more than open her mouth.
His mouth covered hers, and his tongue thrust inside, demanding a response. She wrapped her arms around his neck and moved restlessly against him as his mouth slanted over hers again and again. Their kiss became carnal. She aroused him as no other woman could, and Colm knew if he didn’t stop now, he would lose all control.
When he ended the kiss, Gabrielle’s heart was pounding. She could barely catch her breath. She was jerked from her daze by a man’s voice.
“Laird, begging your pardon, but there are more problems with the winch.”
The stonemason was standing directly behind her. Colm waved the man away.
“Gabrielle, I noticed you haven’t asked me what happened when I left here.”
“Would you tell me if I asked?”
“Then it is good that I don’t ask. I don’t think I want to hear what happened to those men. I might have nightmares.”
“Rest easy,” he said. “I did not have them buried alive.”
“That is exactly what I was worried about. You know my thoughts as well as I do. Liam was so distraught, and he threatened to do such terrible things.” She sighed. “But you did not bury them alive.” She tilted her head and studied his face for several seconds then dared to ask, “What did happen to them? Did you let them return home?”