They broke through the trees and stopped in a narrow clearing next to the stream overlooking the valley.
“Are you ready to go back?” Gabriel asked.
“I wanted to talk to you first, m’lord, and if I weren’t so hungry, I would beg you to stay here the rest of the day. It’s so lovely. Do you notice how green and lush your valley is?” Her eyes sparkled with mischief when she added, “And to think you have such a mild climate all year long. I count myself fortunate each and every day. Aye, I do.”
Gabriel found her enthusiasm refreshing. He’d never seen her in such a lighthearted mood before. It warmed his heart. God’s truth, he was reluctant to leave, too.
“I can take care of satisfying your hunger, wife.”
She turned to look at him. “Will you hunt for food?”
“Nay. I carry everything we’ll need.”
Gabriel dismounted, then assisted her to the ground. “You’re too thin, Johanna. You barely weigh two stones.”
She ignored his criticism. “Where is this food you boast of, husband? Will it appear like manna from the sky, do you suppose?”
He shook his head. She watched as he lifted the flap of his saddle and removed a flat metal plate. Behind the saddle was a bag tied with a string.
He motioned her to walk over to the clearing. He tied the reins of both their mounts to one of the branches before he joined her.
“Take off your plaid, Johanna. We’ll use it for a blanket. Spread it on the ground near the pines.”
“It probably isn’t decent.”
The sassy tone of her voice told him she didn’t mind if she was decent or not. Her lighthearted mood puzzled him and made him determined to find out what had caused this change. Johanna was usually very reserved.
A few minutes later, she was seated on her plaid watching Gabriel prepare their food. He’d started a fire with peat and twigs, then placed the metal plate in the center of the flames. He then sprinkled oatmeal from the pouch into one cupped hand, added water he’d gathered from the stream, and quickly formed a thick oat cake. He dropped the mixture on the plate, and while it cooked, he made another.
The oatmeal cake tasted like baked sticks mixed with dust to Johanna, but because her husband had taken the time and trouble to prepare the food, she didn’t let him know how horrid it tasted.
Gabriel thought the expression on her face while she nibbled on the oatmeal was comical. She made several trips to the stream for drinks of water to wash the food down, and she could only eat half the cake before she declared she was quite full.
“It was thoughtful of you to bring the food along,” she remarked.
“Every warrior always carries his food on his back, Johanna.” He sat down beside her, leaned back against the tree trunk, and added, “We take everything we need for a hunt or a war. Highlanders are self-sufficient. We don’t have need for bread or wine or carts loaded down with pots and caldrons like the pampered English soldiers. Our plaids are our tents or our blankets, and what other food we want, we take from the land.”
“Or steal from the other clans?”
“It’s wrong to take without permission.”
“It’s our way,” he explained once again.
“Do the other clans steal from you?”
“We don’t have anything they would want.”
“Do they all steal from each other?”
“It’s most barbaric,” she decided aloud. “Don’t any of the lairds ever barter for what they need?”
“Some do,” Gabriel answered. “Twice a year council meetings are held near the Moray Firth. Clans not feuding attend. I’ve heard there’s a fair amount of bartering done then.”
“You’ve heard? Then you’ve never attended any of these meetings?”
She waited for further explanation. He remained silent. “Haven’t you been invited?”
She sounded incensed over the possible insult. “Every laird is invited, wife.”
“Then why in heaven’s name haven’t you attended?”
“I haven’t had the time or the inclination. Besides, as I’ve already explained to you several times now, we don’t have anything to barter.”
“But if you did?” she asked. “Would you attend the council meeting?”
He shrugged his answer.
She let out a sigh. “What does Father MacKechnie have to say about stealing?”
His wife seemed obsessed with her worry about the priest’s opinion. “He doesn’t criticize us if that’s what you’re thinking. He knows it would be pointless to argue. Survival comes before paltry concerns such as venial sins.”
She was quite astonished by her husband’s attitude. Damned envious, too. It would be nice not to worry about sinning all the time.
“Father MacKechnie is an unusual priest.”
“Why do you say that?”
“He’s very kind. That makes him unusual.”
Gabriel frowned over her comment. “What are the priests in England like?”
“Cruel.” She blurted out her belief and immediately felt guilty because she’d lumped all the men of God in with the few mean-hearted ones-she’d known. “Some are probably kind-hearted,” she added with a nod. “I’m certain some are very good men who don’t believe women come last in God’s love.”
“Women are what?”
“Last in God’s love,” she explained. She straightened up but kept her head bowed. “You might as well know I’m not in good standing with the church, Gabriel.”
She acted as though she was giving him a dark confession. “And why is that, Johanna?”
“I’m a rebel,” she whispered.
He smiled. She thought he might think she was jesting. “I am a rebel,” she said again. “I don’t believe everything the church teaches.”
“Such as?” he asked.
“I don’t believe God loves women less than he loves oxen.”
Gabriel had never heard of anything so preposterous. “Who told you . . .”
She interrupted him. “Bishop Hallwick liked to list God’s hierarchy as a reminder to me of my insignificance. He said that unless I learned true humility and submissiveness, I would never sleep with the angels.”
“This bishop was your confessor?”
“For a time,” she answered. “Because of Raulf’s important position, the bishop was his advisor and his confessor. He dictated many penances.”
Gabriel could all but taste her fear. He leaned forward and put his hand on her shoulder. She flinched in reaction.
“Explain these penances,” he commanded.
She shook her head. She was sorry she’d brought up the topic. “When will Alex come home?”
He knew she was deliberately changing the subject. He decided to let her have her way. His wife was full of strange worries; and from the way she was gripping her hands together now, he assumed Bishop Hallwiek was at the top of her list of concerns.
“Alex will come home when the wall is finished,” he answered. “You asked me the very same question yesterday. Did you forget my answer?”
“I’ll probably ask you again tomorrow.”
“A son should live with his father. Is he content to wait? Is he happy with his mother’s family? Do you trust the people looking out for his welfare? A child as young as Alex needs his father’s attention,” she ended.
She was actually insulting him by asking such questions. Did she believe he would leave his son in the hands of infidels?
Gabriel didn’t believe she was trying to be insolent. The worried look on her face showed how concerned she was about the boy.
“Alex would tell me if he was unhappy or unfairly treated. ”
She shook her head vehemently. “Nay, he might not tell you. He might be suffering in silence.”
“And why would he suffer in silence?”
“Because he would be ashamed, of course. He’d believe he’d done something wrong to merit such cruel treatment. Bring him home, Gabriel. He belongs with us.”
Gabriel hauled her onto his lap and nudged her chin up. He stared down at her a long minute, trying to understand what was going on inside her mind.
“I’ll bring him home for a visitation.”
“Next week,” he promised. “I’ll ask him then if he’s unhappy or mistreated.”
His hand moved to cover her mouth so she wouldn’t interrupt him. “And,” he added in a firmer voice when she dared to shake her head, “he’ll tell me the truth. Now I would like for you to answer a question for me, Johanna.”
He pulled his hand away, waited for her nod, and then asked, “How long did you suffer in silence?”
“You misunderstand,” she said. “I had a wonderful childhood. My parents were gentle, loving people. Father died three years ago. I still miss him something fierce.”
“And your mother?”
“She’s all alone now. Do you know, I never would have agreed to come here if it weren’t for Nicholas’s promise to look out for her. He’s a devoted son.”
“You probably saw your parents often while you were married to the baron, but the distance from this holding to your mother’s home is simply too great to allow more than one visitation a year, wife.”
“You would let me go to my mother?”
She looked astonished. “I would take you,” he answered. “But only once a year. You can’t expect to see your family as often as you did when you were married to the Englishman.”
“But I never saw my mother or father then.”
It was his turn to look astonished. “Didn’t your husband allow visitations?”
She shook her head. “I didn’t want to see them . . . not then. Shouldn’t we go back now? It’s getting late, and I’ve kept you from your important duties long enough.”
He frowned with irritation. Johanna wasn’t making any sense at all to him. She’d looked elated when he told her she could return to her mother’s home once a year, yet contradicted herself with the mention that she’d chosen not to see her relatives during the years she’d been married to the baron.
Gabriel didn’t like half answers. He was going to demand she give him a full explanation now.
“Johanna,” he began, his voice a low growl. “You contradict yourself. I don’t like puzzles . . .”
She unfolded her hands from her lap and reached up to stroke the side of his neck. Her action caught him by surprise, but he refused to be distracted. He took hold of her hand so she wouldn’t interrupt him again and continued, “As I said, I don’t like . . .”
She patted the opposite side of his neck with her other hand.
Gabriel was distracted. He let out a sigh over his own lack of discipline, grabbed her other hand, pulled her close, and kissed her.
He thought only to taste her, but her enthusiastic response made him hungry for more. He became more demanding. His mouth slanted over hers, and his tongue warred with hers in mock loveplay.
She wanted more. She pulled her hands away from his grasp and wrapped them around his neck. Her fingers threaded through his hair, and she moved restlessly against him, trying to get closer.
Her sweet response to his touch made him want to forget himself. It took extreme strength of will to pull back. He closed his eyes so he wouldn’t be tempted by her sexy mouth and let out a loud growl of frustration.
“Now is not the time, wife.” His voice was hard.
“No, of course not.” Her voice was whisper soft.
“The dangers here . . .”
“Yes, the dangers . . .”
“I have duties.”
“You must think me shameless to try to pull you away from your important responsibilities.”
“Aye, you are,” he agreed with a grin.
The man was driving her to distraction. His hand was caressing the side of her thigh as he listed all the reasons why they should immediately return to the holding.
She was having difficulty paying attention to what he was saying to her. Little things kept getting in the way. His clean male scent for one. Gabriel smelled like the outdoors. It was most appealing.
So was his voice. It was deep and vibrant. She wasn’t intimidated by the gruffness in his tone. ’Twas the truth she found it arousing.
His hand moved up higher on her thigh. “What is it?”
“I wanted to talk to you about important decisions I’d made.”
“You may tell me later, Johanna.”
She nodded. “Are there wolves here?” she asked.
“Sometimes,” he replied.
“You don’t seem concerned.”
“The horses will give us sufficient warning. Your skin feels like silk.”
She leaned back just a little so she could kiss his chin. His hand moved to the junction of her thighs. She instinctively parted them. He cupped her softness and began to stroke her while his kiss turned wet and hot.
Disrobing was awkward and frustrating as well because it took so long, and the ties holding her skirts together knotted when she tugged on them. Gabriel took over the task. He was just as inept, but stronger. He tore the satin slip apart.
Gabriel suddenly became impatient. He couldn’t wait any longer. He forced her to straddle his hips, lifted her up, and then made himself stop.
“Take me inside,” he commanded, his voice a hoarse whisper. He wanted to shout now but said instead, “When you’re ready, wife.”
She gripped her husband’s shoulders with her hands and slowly lowered herself on top of him. They stared into each other’s eyes until Gabriel was fully imbedded inside her.
The pleasure was almost unbearable. She squeezed her eyes shut and let out a little whimper. When she moved forward to kiss him, she felt a hot rush of ecstasy. She deliberately moved again.
God, her slow, teasing motions drove him wild. He grabbed hold of her h*ps and showed her what he wanted her to do. Their lovemaking became frantic. Both lost control. Gabriel found fulfillment before she did but helped her gain her own when he slipped his hand down between their joined bodies and stroked her. She tightened all around him and buried her face in the crook of his neck. She whispered his name with a sob as her orgasm consumed her.
Gabriel held her close for several minutes, then nudged her chin up and kissed her hard. His tongue mated with hers in a lazy fashion. And then he pulled away.