“I can see she is, Keith,” Gabriel replied.
“The difficult part’s over,” Johanna said. “Dumfries shouldn’t feel the rest of my prodding. Besides . . .”
She whispered her explanation, but Gabriel couldn’t make out the words. He knelt down beside his wife. He placed his hand on the dog’s neck. Dumfries immediately tried to lick his fingers.
“What did you just say?” he asked his wife while he stroked his hound.
“I said, you’re here now,” she whispered. She glanced over, saw his arrogant expression, and immediately added, “Dumfries will be comforted. He has great affection for you, m’lord. I imagine he knows you’ll keep him safe.”
“You know it too, Johanna.”
She knew he expected her agreement. She decided his arrogance would get completely out of hand if she admitted she did feel safe when he was near, and so she remained silent.
It didn’t take her any time at all to sew the injury closed. Gabriel helped her wrap wide cotton strips around and around the dog. He tied the ends together.
“He won’t leave this alone for long,” her husband predicted.
She nodded. She was suddenly overwhelmed with fatigue. Fear had drained her of her strength, she supposed.
She collected her supplies and stood up. A crowd of curious men and women stood behind her. Johanna spotted Glynis in the group and immediately turned her gaze away.
“She carried your dog inside, MacBain. Aye, she did.”
As Keith told a somewhat exaggerated version, Johanna continued through the crowd. She hurried up the steps and down the hall to her chamber. She put her supplies away, washed her hands again, and then took off her shoes so she could stretch out on the bed. She planned to rest for just a few minutes and then return to the hall for dinner.
She fell asleep a few minutes later. Gabriel came up to the room twice during the evening to look in on her. He finally came to bed around midnight after making certain Dumfries was resting comfortably.
Johanna barely moved while her husband took off her clothes. She opened her eyes once, frowned up at him, and then promptly fell asleep again. Gabriel took a fresh blanket from the chest and covered his wife before he stripped out of his own clothes and got into bed beside her.
He didn’t have to reach for her. The minute he was settled, she rolled over into his embrace. He pulled her closer. She tucked her head under his chin.
Gabriel recounted in his mind the story Keith had related to him. He tried to picture his wife wrapping her arms around Dumfries and dragging the hound up the steps.
The courage his wife had shown pleased him. Still, he didn’t want her to take such chances in future. Dumfries had been in pain, and a wounded animal, no matter how loyal, wasn’t to be trusted.
Tomorrow he would order her never to take such risks again. Gabriel fell asleep worrying about his delicate little bride.
Gabriel knew, before he’d even opened his eyes the following morning, that his wife wasn’t in bed with him.
Hell, it was just a little past dawn, and he as laird and husband should have been the first to leave the bed. His irritation softened, however, with the thought that she was probably downstairs waiting for him in the great hall. She had looked worried about Dumfries the night before, he remembered, and she was no doubt still fretting over the animal.
The Maclaurin plaid was draped over a chair. Johanna had gotten her days mixed up, for she had obviously dressed in the MacBain colors two days in a row. The Maclaurins were sure to kick up a fuss, and damn it all, he didn’t have time for such puny, inconsequential matters.
Both Keith and Calum were already waiting for him in the hall. They bowed to their laird when he appeared at the entrance.
“Where’s my wife?”
Calum and Keith exchanged a worried look, then Calum stepped forward to answer. “We thought she was above the stairs with you, MacBain.”
“Then where is she?” Calum asked.
Gabriel glared at the soldier. “ ’Twas the question I just put to you,” he snapped.
Dumfries lifted his head at the sound of his master’s voice. His tail thumped against the rushes. Gabriel went over to the hound, bent down on one knee, and pounded the side of the dog’s neck.
“Do I have to carry you outside, Dumfries?”
“Lady Johanna has already taken your pet outside, Laird.”
Leila called out the news from the entrance. She hurried down the steps, smiled at Calum and Keith, and then turned to her laird. “She gave him food and water, too. She declared your pet’s feeling much better today.”
“How would she know so soon he’s better?” Keith asked.
Leila smiled. “I asked her the very same question, and she told me his growl is a little stronger today. That was how she knew he had improved.”
“Where is she?” Gabriel demanded.
“She went riding,” Leila answered. “She declared it was too fine a day to stay inside.”
“My wife went riding alone?”
Gabriel didn’t wait for an answer. He muttered a dark blasphemy as he left the hall. Keith and Calum started after him.
“I take full responsibility should anything happen to our mistress,” Keith announced. “I should have gotten here sooner. Today’s my day to protect her,” he added as explanation. “Damn but I wish she’d stay where she’s put.”
“But she was wearing the MacBain plaid,” Leila called out.
“She shouldn’t be,” Keith said.
“But she is, sir.”
Calum scratched his jaw. “She’s gotten her days mixed up,” he decided aloud. He winked at Leila when he passed her, then increased his stride to catch up with Keith.
Gabriel controlled his worry by getting angry. He’d been most specific with his wife during the past several weeks. She was to rest, damn it. Riding out alone in the hills infested with wolves wasn’t his idea of a rest. Did he have to keep her under lock and key? By God, he’d ask her that question just as soon as he found her.
Sean, the stable master, spotted his laird coming his way and immediately prepared his stallion for the day’s hunt. He was just leading the black beauty out when Gabriel reached him. He snapped the reins out of Sean’s hands, grunted a response to the stable master’s greeting, and gained his stallion’s back in one fluid motion. The horse was in a full gallop by the time he’d crossed the meadow.
Auggie heard the pounding of hooves and lifted his head. He was down on his knees measuring the distance from one hole he’d just dug to the next. He hurried to stand up and bowed when his laird stopped his mount a scant foot away.
“Good day to you, Laird MacBain.”
“Good day to you, Auggie,” Gabriel responded. He scanned the meadow, then turned his gaze back to the old warrior. “Have you seen my wife?”
“I’m seeing her now, MacBain.”
Auggie motioned with his hand. Gabriel turned in his saddle and looked up. He spotted Johanna immediately. She was on the north ridge, seated atop her mount.
“What the hell is she doing?” he muttered to himself.
“Contemplating her circumstances,” Auggie answered.
“What in God’s name does that mean?”
“I wouldn’t be knowing, MacBain. I’m just repeating her words to me. She’s been up there over an hour. I’d wager she’s worked it all out in her mind by now.”
Gabriel nodded. He goaded his mount into a full run. “It’s a fine day to ride,” Auggie shouted.
“It’s a finer day to stay inside,” Gabriel muttered in reply.
Johanna was just about to ride back down to the meadow when she noticed her husband coming up the ridge. She waved in greeting, then folded her hands together on top of the reins and waited for him to come to her.
She was more than ready to take him on, she decided. She took a deep breath in anticipation. It was time for her to put her new plan into action. She was a little nervous, but that was to be expected. She wasn’t used to taking charge. That wasn’t going to stop her though. By God, she was responsible for her destiny, she thought to herself. She needed to explain that fact to her husband.
Johanna had awakened a full hour before dawn and had spent the time thinking about all the changes she wanted to make. Most involved her own behavior, but there were also a few changes she planned to help her husband make.
Gabriel’s pet had actually started her thinking. Johanna had learned something very revealing when she’d taken care of the dog’s injury. First came the observation that his growl was all bluster, a sign of affection really. Second came the realization she didn’t need to fear the beast. A firm pat and a kind word had won her Dumfries’s loyalty. This morning, when she’d fed the wolfhound, he’d growled with affection while he licked her hand.
Not unlike his master.
Her husband’s scowls no longer worried her. Johanna had to remind herself of that fact when he reached her side.
“You were ordered to rest,” he snapped, his voice hard with anger.
She ignored his hostile greeting. “Good morning, husband. Did you sleep well?”
Gabriel was so close to her, his right leg pressed against her left thigh. Johanna couldn’t suffer his frown long and turned her gaze to her lap. She didn’t want his glare to bother her concentration. She had quite a bit to say to her husband, and it was important she remembered every one of her thoughts.
He noticed his wife had her bow and arrows in a leather carrier strapped to her back. Bringing the weapon along showed good sense, he decided, providing she was accurate in the event of an attack. Practicing with a target pinned to a tree was one thing, but the real proof in her ability would be shown on a moving target . . . such as a hungry wolf or an angered, charging boar. Those thoughts led to the reminder of the dangers lurking in the hills beyond. His scowl immediately intensified.
“You blatantly disregarded my instructions, Johanna. You are not allowed . . .”
She leaned to the side of her saddle, reached up, and gently stroked the side of his neck with her fingertips. The caress had been butterfly light, and over before he even had time to react, but it still managed to break his concentration.
Her touch stunned him. Johanna sat back, folded her hands together, and smiled up at him.
He had to shake his head to clear his thoughts. Then he started over again.
“You have no idea of the dangers . . .”
She did it again. Damned if she didn’t deliberately break his concentration by stroking the side of his neck. He grabbed hold of her hand before she could pull away.
“What the hell are you doing?”
He started to say something, then changed his mind. He stared at her a long minute, trying to understand what had come over her.
“Why?” he finally demanded, his expression wary.
“I wanted to show you affection, m’lord. Does my touch displease you?”
“No,” he growled.
He grabbed hold of her chin with his hand and leaned down. His mouth covered hers in a long, hard kiss.
She melted against his side, put her arms around his neck, and clung to him as the kiss deepened.
Johanna didn’t know how it happened; but when her husband finally pulled back, she was seated on his lap.
He held her close. She collapsed against his chest, let out a little sigh, and smiled with satisfaction.
She wanted to laugh. Dear God, it really worked. She had just proven a most important theory. Gabriel and his hound were actually very much alike. Her husband liked to bluster as much as his pet did.
“It is permitted for a wife to show her husband affection.”
He was giving her his approval, she supposed. And Lord, did he sound arrogant. She leaned away from him so she could look up at him.
“Is it permitted for a husband to take his wife riding?”
“Of course. A husband can do anything he wishes to do.”
So can a wife, she thought to herself. “Why are you always so serious, m’lord? ’Tis the truth you don’t smile enough to suit me.”
“I’m a warrior, Johanna.”
From the look on his face she assumed he believed he’d given her a full and logical explanation.
He lifted her back on her mount. “You rarely smile,” he remarked. “Why is that?”
“I’m a warrior’s wife, m’lord.”
She smiled after giving him her tart answer. He couldn’t help but grin.
“You’re very handsome when you smile, m’lord.”
“But you dislike handsome men, remember?”
“I remember. I was trying to compliment you, sir.”
She didn’t answer him. “What were you doing up here all by yourself?”
She answered his question with one of her own. “Could you spare an hour and ride with me? I’m on a hunt to find a cave Auggie told me about. There’s a treasure inside.”
“And what is this treasure?”
She shook her head. “You’ll have to help me find the cave first. Then I’ll tell you what’s inside. I know how busy you are, but surely one hour won’t matter, will it?”
He frowned while he considered her request. He did have important duties set aside for today and they should come first, of course. Riding for sheer pleasure didn’t make any sense at all to him. It wasn’t . . . productive.
Yet the idea of spending a few minutes, and that was surely all he could spare, with his beautiful wife did appeal to him.
“You may lead the way, Johanna. I’ll follow.”
“Thank you, m’lord.”
She looked overwhelmed with gratitude. His gentle little wife derived such joy from little pleasures. Gabriel suddenly felt like an ogre because he had taken time to consider her request.
Johanna wasn’t about to give him time to change his mind. She wanted to get him away from his holding . . . and his responsibilities so that she could have a long talk in private with him. She grabbed the reins and goaded her mount into a full run down the hill.
She was a skilled rider. The realization surprised him. She seemed too delicate for any outdoor skills.
Gabriel was content to stay behind her until they reached the forest. Then he took over the lead.
They criss-crossed back and forth while they looked for the entrance to the cave. After an hour’s search, Johanna was ready to give up. “Next time we must ask Auggie to ride with us. He’ll point the way.”