Something terrible had happened.
Father Gelroy begged her attention. The look on his face didn’t leave any doubt. The news was bad.
Her mind raced with dark possibilities. Was it her father? Had something happened to him? Dear God, please, no.
She forced a serene expression and waited for one of the priests to explain.
Gelroy nudged Franklin. “You tell her.”
“It’s Laird Monroe, milady. He cannot marry you.”
“Of course he can’t marry her,” Franklin muttered.
“He cannot?” she asked, trying to understand.
“No, milady, he cannot,” Gelroy blurted. “He’s dead.”
I T WAS A PITY HE DIDN’T HAVE TIME TO MAKE THE MURDER look like an accident. It would have made his life so much easier. He had considered the possibility of suffocating Monroe, but a dying man could very well summon the strength of ten when he was fighting for his life. No, suffocation was too risky.
And so was drowning. What if he were a stronger swimmer? Or a screamer? One loud shout could bring him help. Drowning, he had decided, was also out of the question.
He had considered several other methods that would pass for accidents, but he eventually ruled all of them out. Some were too complicated, others relied too heavily on strength and timing.
In the end he had settled on using a knife. A sharp blade was a quick and easy kill. Unfortunately, no one would ever believe it was an accident. How could anyone accidentally fall on a knife five or six times? It took several good thrusts to kill Laird Monroe.
He had killed before, but never like this. Because of his position of power he would usually give such an unpleasant duty to someone else. But this was different. He didn’t dare trust anyone else with this onerous task. He had to do it alone. It was the only way to make certain the trail wouldn’t lead back to him.
Fortunately Monroe had become complacent in recent years. He didn’t take care like he should, and his followers had become just as lax in their guard. They didn’t expect trouble because their laird didn’t have enemies. How could he? He never took sides with one clan against another, and he never wanted more than what he already had. The laird had absolutely no ambition and was as lukewarm as old bathwater.
The laird never varied his routine. Every night just before sundown he took a long stroll, no matter what the weather, no matter where he was staying. He always walked alone.
Crouching in the darkness and waiting for Monroe had been uncomfortable and tedious, but once the rustle of leaves told him Monroe was coming, he gripped his knife tightly and patiently waited for the perfect time to spring.
It was unfortunate, but it was unavoidable. Laird Monroe had experienced a very unpleasant death.
T HE FUNERAL MASS WAS SAID IN THE ABBEY’S NORTH chapel. Many of the Monroe clan had been on their way to the wedding when they received news of the laird’s sudden demise, and their happy journey of celebration had turned into a mournful and somber procession instead. Several Highland lairds attended the funeral, but many more would have ridden the distance to pay their last respects had they known about Monroe’s death. The ritual—one day after his death—had to be hurried due to the unusually warm weather and the rapidly deteriorating condition of the body.
The English weren’t welcome, though it was doubtful that any of the barons would have wanted to sit and listen to the priest extol the virtues of the dead man. He was, after all, a Highlander, which in their view made him inferior and not worthy of their prayers.
Baron Geoffrey of Wellingshire and his daughter, Lady Gabrielle, were the only exceptions. The Monroe family allowed their presence because the lady had been pledged to marry their laird. She was allowed to hear mass with them, but she and her father were seated in the last row. Although there was plenty of room, no one would sit next to them.
Gabrielle didn’t expect special consideration. She was thankful that she was given the chance to pray for Laird Monroe’s soul. Her father and others held the laird in such high regard and praised him because he was such a good and kind man. Why would anyone want to harm him? His murder didn’t make any sense. Robbery wasn’t the motive, for nothing had been taken from his body. His gold ring and jeweled dirk were still on him when he was found. Was he killed just for the sport of it?
Her mind wandered, and she thought about Liam MacHugh and the terrible men who had made him suffer so. How could one man treat another with such depravity?
Mass ended and Monroe’s body, wrapped in white linen, was carried out. Gabrielle kept her head bowed as the procession of mourners filed from the chapel. She happened to glance up once and noticed that most of them were glaring at her as they walked by.
When the last couple, a young man with an older woman, reached her, they stopped. Gabrielle could feel the woman’s piercing eyes, and she raised her head.
“Go home. You have no place here,” the woman hissed. Her words spewed out like poisonous venom.
The young man quickly took the woman’s shoulder and gently turned her toward the procession. “Come, Mother, my uncle wouldn’t want anger.”
Gabrielle’s face burned. She had never heard such contempt before.
As they slowly made their way down the aisle, the man turned to give Gabrielle a sympathetic smile.
Her father laid his hand on her arm to keep her from standing to leave. “We’ll wait until the Monroes are gone,” he cautioned. “That woman was Laird Monroe’s sister. I think it would be best that we not follow them. There could be other insults.”
“Why would they want to insult me?” she asked incredulously.
“The Monroe clan has decided that you are the reason their laird is dead.”
She stared at him as though he was speaking nonsense.
“They hold you responsible for their laird’s death,” her father restated.
She was appalled. “They think I killed him? How could they think such a thing?”
“You misunderstand, Gabrielle. They don’t think you stabbed him, but they do believe that if their laird had stayed home and hadn’t agreed to marry you, he would still be alive. Monroe and his followers were camped in a nearby glen the night he was murdered, and since he was on his way here to the abbey to marry you, they believe you caused his death.”
“But that’s ridiculous.”
He patted her hand. “Yes, it is. Don’t let their foolishness bother you.”
She straightened. “I can withstand their insults. I’m not so weak that I would fall apart over a cruel word or two.”
“You have tender feelings, daughter, whether you will admit it or not.”
The door opened behind them, and Stephen stepped inside. “It’s safe now. The Monroe mourners have left, and the baron who was waiting at the door has returned to his camp.”
Her father nodded. “Then we can go. Come, Gabrielle. Your guards will escort you back to your rooms.”
“Stephen, what baron was at the door?”
Her father answered her. “Percy.” He stepped into the aisle and moved back so Gabrielle could walk in front of him.
“I don’t understand why he came for the wedding? He isn’t your friend or ally, and I doubt he knew Laird Monroe,” she said.
Her father sighed. “I should have explained this a long time ago. Percy says he was sent by the king’s command to witness the ceremony, but I’m sure he had other motives. I had thought to shield you. Baron Percy and Baron Coswold are two very manipulative men who will stop at nothing to get what they want. I had hoped that once you were married they would give up their obsession.”
He motioned for Stephen to open the doors.
“Was I right, Stephen?” he asked as they walked down the steps. “Was Percy waiting for a chance to speak with Gabrielle?”
“Aye, Baron. He was lurking by the side of the chapel, and he had his friends with him. I haven’t seen Baron Coswold yet.”
“Coswold traveled to Scotland. I’m sure of that. But God only knows what he’s up to.”
“Why would either one of them want to speak to me?” Gabrielle asked.
“I will explain what needs be told later,” her father said. “Go now and have your servants pack your things. You’ll be going back to England tomorrow morning. If it were not so late in the day, I would have you leave now.”
“But aren’t you going with me, Father?” Gabrielle asked.
“No, I must go to the king first. He has been told of Monroe’s death by now, and I will need to get his approval for our return to England. I will catch up with you in a few days.”
“Are Coswold and Percy the reason you’re so anxious to go home?” she asked.
“Yes, they are the reason,” he answered grimly.
They entered the commons, walking side by side, with Stephen and Faust trailing behind.
“I haven’t told you what I have learned about these two and their obscene competition, but it appears that whatever one baron wants, the other must also have. Everything becomes a game to them to see who will win and who will lose.”
He shook his head in disgust. “I thought you would be rid of them once you married Laird Monroe, and I cannot tell you how stunned I was to find that Percy had arrived here for the wedding and had set up camp outside the abbey. I expect Coswold will appear at any time.”
“Dead men can’t marry,” Faust remarked. “How fortuitous for them that Laird Monroe was murdered.”
Stephen nodded. “’Tis most convenient, isn’t it?”
Baron Geoffrey turned to him. “I was thinking the same thing.”
“Are you suggesting…” she began.
“You have been sheltered from the evil in this world, and so you cannot imagine what men are capable of. Let me tell you what I encountered when I arrived at the Buchanans. Laird Buchanan and many of his soldiers were with their allies, the MacHughs, searching for Laird MacHugh’s brother.”
Her father didn’t spare the details when he explained what the monsters who had captured Liam had wanted to do.
“I was told there was blood on the rope they bound him with and a hole was dug to bury him.”
“Do they know who these men were, my lord?” Stephen asked.
“Nay, they do not. Brodick and Laird MacHugh found one of them on the ground near the hole, but no one recognized him. He didn’t wear the colors of any clan to identify him. Brodick returned home for a short while. I was waiting for him.”
“Did you search with him, Father?”
“Heavens no. He would never allow it, but as it turned out, MacHugh’s brother was found. As I was leaving Brodick’s land, out of the forest came a priest with joyful news. He asked me to tell Laird Buchanan that Liam MacHugh was here at the abbey.”
Her father smiled. “The poor priest couldn’t get away fast enough, and he wouldn’t answer my questions. I imagine the MacHugh clan will be overjoyed to hear that Liam is alive and safe. Has the abbot mentioned anything about this poor injured soul being here?”
Gabrielle cast a furtive glance over her father’s shoulder at Stephen before answering. “No, the abbot has told us nothing of him.”
“It’s just as well,” her father said. “The less of this brutality you see, the better.”
“I choose to believe that there is more good than evil in this world,” she said.
“You have your mother’s kind heart, Gabrielle.” Baron Geoffrey kissed her lightly on the cheek before he left her. “I must make haste and speak to my soldiers. There’s much to be done before I leave, but I will make certain to say farewell to the abbot.”
As soon as her father had turned the corner, she looked at Stephen. “I feel as though I have deceived my father by not telling him how we found Liam.”
“You protect the baron by not telling him. None of us could know the ramifications of killing one man and saving another. They are both strangers to us. Your father should not be put in the middle, and that could very well happen. It is best that we are going home.”
She agreed. “This has been a sad journey.”
G ABRIELLE WAS ABOUT TO GO INTO HER ROOM WHEN Father Gelroy called to her.
“Milady, a word, please?”
He ran toward her, robes flapping against his ankles. His face was bright red, and he was frowning intently.
She didn’t think she could handle more bad news. Bracing herself, she walked toward him. “Yes, Father?”
“They’re here.” He was panting so rapidly, he could barely get the words out.
“Who’s here?” she asked.
“The MacHugh laird and the Buchanan laird. Both have their warriors with them. They’re at the top of the hill overlooking the abbey.”
“This is good news, isn’t it?”
“Oh, no, no. I mean yes,” he stuttered. “They’ve come for Liam, and that’s very good.”
“Then you should go and greet them, shouldn’t you? And take Laird MacHugh to his brother?”
“That won’t be necessary,” Gelroy answered.
“I don’t understand. Of course it’s necessary. Laird MacHugh has come all this way, and he should be taken to see his brother,” she insisted.
“Oh, he’ll see him. I’m sure of that,” Gelroy asserted. “But the laird won’t be taken to him.”
Gabrielle was more confused than ever. “Then how will he see him?”
“Liam’s waiting outside the gates,” the priest blurted.
Shocked, Gabrielle said, “That poor man hasn’t been able to rise from his bed since he got here. How could he possibly get outside the gates of the abbey?”
Gelroy couldn’t look her in the eye when he answered. “Father Franklin and I carried him.”
“And you just left him there?” She couldn’t believe what the priest was telling her.
“You don’t understand. Laird MacHugh is a mighty warrior. Everyone has heard of his amazing strength…and his amazing temper.”
Suddenly the situation became clear to her. “You’re afraid of him.”
“Only a fool is unafraid of Laird MacHugh.”
“But just abandoning the poor man—” she began.
“Come with me,” Gelroy said. “I think you’ll understand when you see for yourself. Don’t worry. They won’t be able to see you. We’ll climb the wall and peek out. I’ll show you the way.”