The creek was much deeper than she’d judged it to be. She would have gone in headfirst if her husband hadn’t grabbed hold of her and hauled her back.
“It’s usual to take your clothes off before you bathe,” he said dryly.
She laughed. “I lost my balance. I was trying to get a stone that caught my eye. Will you fetch it for me?”
He leaned forward to look. “There are at least a hundred stones, wife. Which do you fancy?”
She pointed. “The perfectly round one,” she replied.
Gabriel reached down, lifted the stone, and handed it to her. She smiled in appreciation. “Auggie will like this one,” she announced.
Johanna moved further back on the grassy slope, tucked her feet under her plaid and dropped the stone into her lap. A light breeze brushed through the trees. The scent of pine and early heather filled the air. The area was secluded and peaceful.
“Scotland is very beautiful,” she said.
He shook his head. “Not Scotland,” he corrected. “The Highlands are beautiful.”
Gabriel didn’t seem inclined to hurry back to his duties. He leaned his back against the trunk of a pine tree, crossed one ankle over the other, and adjusted the sword at his side so it wouldn’t be scratched. His dog moved to his other side and stretched out next to him.
Johanna stared at her husband for several minutes before speaking again. The man had the ability to mesmerize her. She thought the reaction was due to the fact that there was so much of him. He was certainly as tall as Nicholas but far more muscular. At least she thought he was.
“Tell me what you’re thinking.”
Her husband’s command jarred her. “I’ve never seen Nicholas without a tunic on. That’s what I was thinking. I believe you’re more muscular than my brother, but since I haven’t seen him . . . They were foolish thoughts, husband.”
“Aye, they are foolish thoughts.”
She didn’t take exception to his agreement. His slow grin told her he was teasing. Gabriel looked very content with his eyes closed and the soft smile on his face. He really was a dashing man.
Johanna noticed his pet nudge Gabriel’s hand and was immediately rewarded with a quick pat.
Her husband wasn’t such a worry to her any longer. Not only could he control his temper, but he also had a gentle streak in his nature. The way his hound responded to him told her that much about his character.
Gabriel caught her staring at him. She blushed with embarrassment and turned her gaze to her lap. She didn’t want to leave just yet. She was enjoying this peaceful interlude with her husband. She decided to draw him into further conversation before he could suggest they go back.
“Aren’t Scotland and the Highlands the same, m’lord?”
“They are and they aren’t,” he answered. “We don’t consider ourselves Scots as you English are so inclined to call us. We’re either Highlanders or Lowlanders.”
“From the tone of your voice when you said Lowlanders, I assume you don’t particularly like those people.”
“Nay, I don’t like them.”
“They’ve forgotten who they are,” he explained. “They’ve become English.”
“I’m English.” She blurted out the reminder before she could stop herself.
She sounded worried. He smiled. “I’m aware of that fact.”
“Yes, of course you are,” she agreed. “Perhaps, in time, you’ll forget.”
“ ’Tis highly doubtful.”
She didn’t know if he was jesting with her or not. She decided to turn the topic to a less sensitive one.
“Auggie isn’t daft.”
“No, he isn’t. The Maclaurins believe that nonsense, not the MacBains.”
“He’s actually very clever, husband. The game he made up is most amusing. You must try it sometime. It requires skill.”
He nodded agreement just to placate her. He found her defense of the old man admirable. “Auggie didn’t invent the game. It’s been around for long years. In the old days, stones were used, but the men also carved balls out of wooden blocks. Some even fashioned leather balls and filled them with wet feathers.”
Johanna stored the information away for future use. Perhaps she could make a few of the leather balls for Auggie.
“He says I’ve caught the fever.”
“God help us,” Gabriel drawled out. “Auggie plays the game all day, every day, rain or shine.”
“Why were you irritated over a little speck of dirt on my face and hands?”
“I’ve already explained my position. You’re my wife now. You must behave accordingly. There’s rivalry between the MacBains and the Maclaurins; and until the clans become accustomed to living together in peace, I must show only strength, not vulnerability.”
“Do I make you vulnerable?”
“Aye, you do.”
“Why? I want to understand,” she told him. “Was it the dirt or was it the fact that I was spending the afternoon with Auggie?”
“I don’t want you down on your knees, Johanna. You must act with proper decorum at all times. My wife will not do common work.”
“You’ve already mentioned that opinion.”
“It isn’t an opinion,” he countered. “It’s a command.” She tried not to let him see how disgruntled she was becoming. “ ’Tis the truth I’m surprised you concern yourself with appearances. You don’t seem the sort to care what other people think.”
“I don’t give a damn about other people’s opinions,” he countered, irritated by her conclusion. “I do care about keeping you safe.”
“What does my safety have to do with my behavior?”
Gabriel didn’t answer her.
“You should have married a Maclaurin. That would have solved your problem uniting the clans, wouldn’t it?”
“I should have,” he agreed. “But I didn’t. I married you. We’ll both have to make the best of it, Johanna.”
He sounded resigned. He was still in an agreeable mood and she decided to change the topic again with a question that surely wouldn’t prick his temper.
“Why doesn’t your wolfhound like me?”
“He knows you’re afraid of him.”
She didn’t argue over that truth. “What is he called?”
The dog’s ears picked up when his master spoke his name. Johanna smiled in reaction. “It’s a peculiar name,” she remarked. “How did you come by it?”
“I found the dog near the Dumfries’ holding. He was caught in mire. I pulled him out,” he added. “He’s been with me ever since.”
Johanna moved closer to Gabriel’s side. She slowly reached over to pat the animal. The dog watched her out of the corner of his eye; when she was about to touch him, he let out a menacing unearthly sound. She quickly pulled her hand back. Gabriel took hold of her arm and forced her to touch the hound. The dog kept up the horrid noise but didn’t try to bite her hand off.
“Did I hurt you last night?”
The switch in topics made her blink. She bowed her head so he wouldn’t see her quick blush, then whispered, “You didn’t hurt me. You asked me after we ...”
Gabriel nudged her chin up with his hand. The look in her eyes made him smile. He found her embarrassment amusing.
The look in his eyes made her heartbeat race. She thought he might want to kiss her. She found herself hoping he would.
“Will you want to make love to me again, m’lord?”
“Will you want me to?” he asked.
She stared into his eyes a long minute before giving him her answer. She wasn’t going to try to be coy or clever. She’d only make a muck of it, she decided, because she’d never learned the fine art of flirting like the other young ladies had while they lived the high, courtly life in London.
“Yes,” she whispered, grimacing inside over the shiver in her voice. “I would like you to make love to me again. It wasn’t half bad, m’lord.”
Gabriel laughed over her jest. Her blush, he noticed, was now as red as fire. Her embarrassment hadn’t stopped her from telling him the truth, however. He pulled away from the tree trunk and bent down to kiss her. His mouth brushed over hers in a tender caress. She sighed into his mouth and put her hands on his shoulders.
It was all the encouragement he needed. Before he realized his intent, he lifted her onto his lap, wrapped his arms around her waist, and kissed her again. His mouth covered hers and his tongue swept inside to taste, stroke, and drive her wild. She went weak in his arms. She clung to him and kissed him just as thoroughly. Johanna was a little stunned by how quickly her entire body responded to her husband. Her heartbeat became frantic; her arms and legs began to tingle, and she kept forgetting to breathe.
Gabriel was shaken by his own reaction to his wife. She wasn’t able to hold a part of herself back. She trusted him to keep her safe, he believed, or she wouldn’t have allowed herself to be so uninhibited. Her passionate response ignited his own, and God help him, he couldn’t seem to gather enough control to hold back either.
Hell, he’d take her here and now if he didn’t put a stop to the sweet torment. He abruptly pulled back. He shouldn’t have looked into her eyes. They were cloudy with passion. Damn, he had to kiss her again.
They were both shaken when he finally called a halt to the lovemaking. His breathing was labored. So was hers.
“You make me forget myself, m’lord.”
He took that as a compliment. He lifted her off his lap, then stood up. Johanna was still rattled. Her face was flushed, and her hands trembled when she smoothed the hair back into her braid. He watched her try to right her appearance with vast amusement.
Women flustered easily, he decided. This one quicker than most.
“My hair’s a sight,” she stammered out when she caught his smile. “I’ve a mind to cut it . . . with your permission, of course.”
“What you do with your hair is no concern to me. You don’t need my permission. I have more important matters to think about.”
He softened his rebuke with a quick kiss. Then he bent down, picked up the stone she wanted to give to Auggie, and handed it to her. He had to put the pebble in her hand. Aye, she was flustered all right, and damn, that fact pleased him.
He winked at his wife and turned to walk back up the hill.
Johanna straightened the pleats of her plaid and then hurried to catch up with him.
She couldn’t quit smiling. He knew his kisses had made mush out of her mind, she decided, because the look on his face was one of pure male satisfaction. She didn’t mind his arrogance though.
Everything was going to be all right. Johanna did a lot of sighing on the way back up the hill. Yes, she thought to herself, she had made the right decision when she’d agreed to marry Gabriel.
Johanna was in such high spirits she barely minded Dumfries’s bluster of growls each time she moved closer to Gabriel’s side. Even the mighty beast wasn’t going to ruin her good mood.
She brushed her hand against her husband’s. He didn’t take the hint. She nudged him again, and still he didn’t catch on. She gave up trying to be subtle and took hold of his hand.
He acted as though she wasn’t even there. His gaze was directed on the top of the hill, and she assumed his mind was already turned to thoughts of duties ahead. She didn’t mind his inattention; and when they reached the cluster of workmen’s huts, she pulled her hand away. She didn’t think he would want to show affection in front of the clan. Gabriel surprised her by grabbing hold of her hand again. He gave her fingers a gentle squeeze, then increased his stride until she was once again running to keep up.
Lord, she was happy. Aye, she’d done the right thing. She’d married a good-hearted man.
’Twas the truth she was married to a gargoyle.
Johanna came to this depressing conclusion after living with her husband for three long months. Gabriel was downright mean-hearted. He was outrageously stubborn, horribly set in his ways. and completely unreasonable with his orders. Those were his better qualities. He treated her like an invalid. She wasn’t allowed to lift a finger, was waited on hand and foot, and was always followed around by one of his men. She put up with the nonsense for a good two months before her irritation got the better of her. She did protest then, but to no avail. Gabriel wouldn’t listen. His ideas about marriage were most bizarre. He wanted her protected under lock and key, and God’s truth, whenever she went outside for a breath of fresh air, he tried to chase her back inside.
Dinners were insufferable. She was expected to maintain her dignity throughout the meal, while chaos ruled around her. None of the men she dined with had any manners. They were loud, rude, and made horrid, disgusting noises.
And those were their better qualities. Johanna didn’t criticize the soldiers. She felt it would be better if she continued to maintain her separation from the clan whenever possible. In her mind, uninvolvement meant peace, and that was the one goal she longed to gain.
Since Gabriel still wouldn’t let her go hunting, she spent most of the daylight hours alone. Her husband believed she was too fragile for the strenuous exercise of lifting a bow and arrow, she supposed, and how in God’s name did one debate that ludicrous opinion? To keep her skill from becoming rusty, she fashioned a target on a tree trunk at the base of the hill and practiced there with her bow and arrows. She really was quite good with the weapon and was proud to boast she’d actually bested Nicholas a time or two in target games.
No one bothered her while she was at her task. The women ignored her most of the time. The Maclaurins were openly hostile. Several young women followed the example set by their unspoken leader, a tall, robust woman with ruddy cheeks and white-blond hair named Glynis. She did a lot of unladylike snorting whenever Johanna walked past. Johanna didn’t believe Glynis was an evil woman, though. She just didn’t have any use for her mistress. If her guess was true, Johanna decided she couldn’t fault the woman. While Glynis was working from early morning until nightfall in the fields beyond the line of trees with the other women, tending the fertile fields and nurturing their crops, Johanna was leisurely strolling around the holding, giving the appearance, she was sure, of a lazy queen of the manor.
No, Johanna didn’t blame the women for resenting her. Gabriel was in part responsible for their opinion of her because he wouldn’t allow her to interact with any of them, but Johanna was honest enough with herself to acknowledge she’d allowed the separation and hadn’t done anything to change the women’s opinions of her. She hadn’t tried to be friendly with any of them, following old habits without taking the time to question her own motives.