“What do they want?”
“I’ll find out when they get here,” he answered.
“And when will that be?”
“Late this afternoon.”
“Will they stay for dinner?”
“It would be rude not to invite them to eat with you.”
He shrugged. She wasn’t deterred by his lack of interest. As his wife, she felt it was her duty to instill some manners in her husband.
“I shall instruct the servants to prepare places at your tables for your guests,” she announced.
She waited for him to argue with her and was pleasantly surprised when he remained silent.
Johanna turned her attention to planning the menu. A sudden thought occurred to her. She let out a gasp. “Good Lord, Gabriel, you didn’t steal from the MacInnes clan, did you?”
“No,” he answered, smiling over the outrage in her voice.
She relaxed against him again. “Then we don’t have to worry they’re coming here to fight.”
“Fight with only ten soldiers? No, that isn’t a concern.” he drawled out.
The amusement in his voice made her smile. Her husband was feeling more cheerful now. Perhaps his good mood was due to the fact that he was going to have company.
She would make certain the evening went well. There wouldn’t be enough rabbit stew to go around unless she went hunting for more. She discarded that idea. The rabbits would have to simmer for several hours or be too tough to eat, and there wasn’t time for that, anyway. Johanna decided she would change her clothes, then go to Cook and discuss the problem. Hilda would know how to stretch the meal, and Johanna would, of course, offer to help with the preparations.
She wished she could get rid of the Maclaurin soldiers for the night. They were so terribly loud, disruptive, and horribly rude. Why, the way they tried to outbelch each other was downright disgusting.
Still, she didn’t want to hurt their feelings. They were part of Gabriel’s clan now and would, therefore, have to be included.
They reached the courtyard. Gabriel dismounted first, then turned to assist her. He held her longer than necessary. She smiled up at her husband while she waited for him to let go of her.
“Johanna, you will not get into further mischief. I want you to go inside and . . .”
“Let me guess, m’lord,” she interrupted. “You want me to rest, don’t you?”
He smiled. Lord, she was fetching when she was disgruntled. “Aye, I do want you to rest.”
He leaned down, kissed her, and then turned to lead his mount back to the stables.
Johanna shook her head over her husband’s ridiculous orders. How could she take the time to rest when they had company coming for dinner?
She hurried inside, propped her bow and carrier against the wall at the bottom of the steps, and then went up to her chamber. It didn’t take her long to change into dry clothes. Her hair was still too wet to properly braid. She tied it with a ribbon behind her neck, then hurried downstairs again.
Megan was standing by the doors, peeking outside.
“What are you doing, Megan?”
“The MacInnes soldiers are here.”
“So soon?” Johanna asked. She went over to stand beside Megan. “Shouldn’t we open the doors and welcome them inside?”
Megan shook her head. She moved out of the way so her mistress could look outside, then whispered, “Something’s wrong, m’lady. Look at the way they’re all frowning. They’ve carried along an offering for our laird though. Do you see the burlap draped over the laird’s lap?”
“Let me have a look.” Father MacKechnie whispered his request from behind the two women.
Johanna bumped into the priest when she turned around. She begged his forgiveness over her clumsiness, then explained why she’d been caught peeking at their company.
“Their behavior is most contradictory,” she said. “They’re all scowling, but it’s apparent they’ve carried along a gift for your laird. Perhaps their frowns are all for show.”
“Nay, that can’t be,” Father MacKechnie replied. “The Highlanders aren’t at all like the English, lass.”
“What do you mean, Father? Men are men, regardless of how they dress.”
The priest let the door close before answering her. “In my experiences with the English, I’ve noticed a peculiar trait. They always seem to have a hidden motive behind their actions.”
“And the Highlanders?” she asked.
Father MacKechnie smiled. “We’re a simple group, we are. What you see is what you have. Do you understand? We don’t have time for secret motives.”
“The MacInnes soldiers are frowning because they’re angry about something,” Megan interjected. “They aren’t clever enough to use trickery.”
The priest nodded agreement. “We have no use for subterfuge. Laird MacInnes looks as mad as a hornet someone just tried to swat. He’s in a snit all right.”
“Then we will have to do our best to soothe him. He is company, after all,” she reasoned. “Megan, please go and tell Cook we’ll be having eleven more for supper. Be sure to offer our assistance with the preparations. I’ll be along in just a minute.”
Megan hurried to do her mistress’s bidding. “Cook won’t mind the inconvenience,” she called over her shoulder as she started down the hallway to the back door. “She’s a MacBain, after all. She knows better than to complain.”
Johanna frowned over that puzzling remark. Why did it matter if Cook was a MacBain or a Maclaurin? Megan had already disappeared, and so Johanna decided she’d have to wait until later to ask her for a proper explanation.
The priest turned her attention then when he pulled the door open. She stood behind him. “Which one is the laird?” she asked in a whisper.
“The old man with the bulging eyes seated atop the speckled mount,” Father MacKechnie answered. “You’d best stay here, lass, until your husband has decided if he’s going to let them come inside or not. I’ll go out and speak to them.”
Johanna nodded agreement. She stayed behind the door but peeked out to watch the priest. Father MacKechnie went down the steps and shouted his greeting.
The Maclnnes soldiers ignored the priest. Their expressions seemed to be set in stone. Johanna found their behavior sinful. None of the men bothered to dismount either. Didn’t they realize how offending their conduct was?
Johanna turned her attention to their laird. Father MacKechnie had been right, she decided. The man did have bulging eyes. He was old, too, with wrinkled skin and thick eyebrows. His gaze was directed on Gabriel. Johanna spotted her husband walking across the clearing. He stopped when he was several feet away from the MacInnes soldiers.
The laird said something that clearly infuriated Gabriel. Her husband’s expression turned dark, chilling. Johanna had never seen that look before. She shivered in reaction. Gabriel looked ready to do battle.
The MacBain warriors walked over to stand behind their laird. The Maclaurins joined them.
The MacInnes laird motioned to one of his men. The soldier quickly dismounted and strutted over to his leader’s side. He looked like his laird, and Johanna thought he might be his son. She watched as he lifted the long burlap bag from his laird’s lap. He adjusted the weight in his arms, turned, and walked around the front of the speckled mount. He stopped just a few feet away from Gabriel, lifted the sack, and threw it to the ground.
The bag tore open. Dust flew up in the air; and when it cleared, Johanna saw what the laird’s gift was. A woman, so bloody and bruised her face was barely recognizable, spilled out and rolled onto her side. She was naked, and there wasn’t a spot on her body left unmarked.
Johanna staggered back away from the door. She whimpered low in her throat. She thought she was going to throw up. She was so sickened by the sight of the broken woman, she wanted to weep with shame . . . and scream with fury.
She didn’t do either. She reached for her bow and arrows instead.
Johanna’s hands shook, and all she could think about was being accurate with her aim when she killed the bastards who had committed this foul act.
Gabriel was shaking with his own fury. His hand moved to the tilt of his sword. He couldn’t believe a Highlander would disgrace himself so thoroughly with such cowardly behavior. Yet the proof was on the ground in front of him.
Laird MacInnes looked smug now. Gabriel decided he would kill him first.
“Are you responsible for beating this woman to death?”
He hadn’t asked the question; he’d roared it.
The MacInnes leader frowned in reaction. “She ain’t dead. She’s breathing still.”
“Are you responsible?” Gabriel demanded again.
“I am,” the laird shouted back. “I surely am.”
It sounded like a boast to Gabriel, who started to pull his sword free. Laird MacInnes noticed the action and suddenly realized his tenuous position. He hurried to explain his reasons for beating the woman.
“Clare MacKay was placed in my household by her father,” he shouted. “She was pledged to marry my eldest son, Robert.” He paused to nod at the soldier standing next to his mount before continuing on. “I was going to unite our two clans and become a power to be reckoned with, but the bitch was soiled three months past, MacBain, and by one of your own. It be no use denying the truth, for your plaid was spotted by three of my men. Clare MacKay spent a full night with the man. At first she lied and claimed she stayed the night with her cousins. I was fool enough to believe her. Once she discovered she was carrying, she had the gall to boast about her sin. Isn’t that the way of it, Robert?”
“Aye, it is,” his son answered. “I won’t marry a whore,” he bellowed. “A MacBain ruined her, a MacBain can have her.”
After rendering his judgment, he turned his gaze to the woman. He spit at the ground near her, then moved forward to stand over the unconscious woman with his hands on his h*ps and a leer on his face.
He drew his booted foot back, then started to bring it forward, intent on giving the woman a hard kick.
An arrow stopped him cold. Robert let out a screech of pain and staggered back. The arrow was imbedded in his thigh. His hands moved to his leg as he turned, shouting still, to see who had injured him.
Johanna stood on the top step in front of the keep. Her gaze was fully directed on the soldier. She notched another arrow to the string of her bow and kept the man in her sights.
She waited for an excuse to kill him.
Everyone was watching her now. Gabriel had moved to intervene when Robert swung his leg back to kick the woman. The arrow struck the soldier before he could. He turned, saw the look on his wife’s face, and immediately started toward her.
None of the others moved for a long minute. The Maclaurins were clearly stunned by what they’d just witnessed. The MacBains were just as surprised and certainly just as impressed.
The soldier she’d injured moved close to the woman. Johanna thought he was going to try to hurt her again.
She couldn’t let that happen. “Try to kick her again, and by God, I’ll put an arrow through your black heart.”
The fury in her voice washed over the group of soldiers. Robert immediately backed away. The priest hurried forward and knelt down beside the woman. He made the sign of the cross and whispered a blessing.
“She’s daft,” Robert whispered.
Gabriel’s followers heard his remark. Three of the MacBain soldiers started forward. Calum waved them back with a motion of his hand.
“Our laird will decide what’s to be done,” he ordered.
Keith stood beside Calum. He couldn’t restrain himself. “She isn’t daft,” he bellowed. “But I’ll be certain to let our laird know your opinion of his wife.”
“My son wasn’t being insulting,” Laird MacInnes defended. “Just speaking the truth. Look at her eyes. She’s gone crazed all right. And over what, I ask you? ’Tis just a whore on the ground.”
Gabriel wasn’t paying any attention to anyone but his wife now. He reached the steps but didn’t touch her. He moved to stand next to her side.
Johanna ignored her husband. She slowly turned until she had Laird MacInnes in her sights.
She was pleased to notice his ugly face turn stark white. His thick lips pinched into a pucker of worry.
“Which one of you beat this woman?”
The laird didn’t answer her. He turned his gaze to his left and then to his right. It was as though he was looking for a means of escape.
“You may not kill him.”
Gabriel gave his command in a low whisper only she could hear. Johanna didn’t show any outward reaction to his order.
He repeated his command. She shook her head. She kept the laird in her sights when she spoke to her husband.
“Do you believe the woman deserved this treatment? Do you think she’s less important than dull-witted oxen?”
“You know better than to ask me such questions,” he countered. “Give me your bow and arrow.”
“Johanna . . .”
“Look what they did!” she cried out.
The agony in her voice made his heart ache. His wife was close to completely losing her composure. He couldn’t allow that to happen.
“Do not let them see your distress,” he ordered. “That would be a victory for them.”
“Yes,” she whispered. Her hands started shaking, and she let out a low whimper.
“The longer we stand here, the longer the lass goes without proper care. Give me your weapon.”
She couldn’t let go. “I can’t let them hurt her anymore. I can’t. Don’t you see? I have to help her. I prayed for someone to help me. No one would. But I can help her. I have to ...”
“I won’t let them hurt her,” he promised.
She shook her head again. Gabriel decided to take a different approach. It seemed as though an hour had passed since he’d joined her on the steps, yet he knew less than a few minutes had actually gone by. The length of time didn’t matter to him. He didn’t care how long it took for her to regain her control. The bastard MacInnes soldiers would have to wait. Gabriel could have taken the weapon away from her, of course. He didn’t want to. He wanted her to give it to him.
“Very well then,” he said. “I’ll order my men to kill every one of them. Will that suit you?”
He couldn’t mask his surprise. He let out a sigh, then turned to give the order. He wasn’t one to bluff. If she wanted him to kill the infidels, then he would accommodate her. Hell, he’d been looking for an excuse anyway. Pleasing his wife would do well enough.