Father MacKechnie cleared his throat to gain his audience. “Perhaps I should explain exactly how Clare came to us.”

He waited for the laird’s nod and then proceeded to describe the circumstances of Clare’s arrival. He told how she’d been stripped na*ed and then wrapped in a burlap bag. The priest didn’t leave any details out of the telling and even included the fact that Robert Maclnnes had spit on the lass.

“He was set to give her a good kick,” Father MacKechnie added. “Lady Johanna’s arrow stopped him.”

Clare’s father stood with his hands clasped behind his back while he listened to the priest recount the chilling tale. His face didn’t show any outward reaction to what he was hearing. His eyes, however, told another story. They were watery with unshed tears.

“The MacInnes clan will pay for their sins against my daughter,” MacKay announced, his voice shaking with rage. “I speak of war, MacBain, not alliances. I was told by your first-in-command you are also after vengeance. What is your reason?”

“Robert MacInnes dared to take his knife in his hand and would have hurled it at my wife if I hadn’t stopped him.”

Johanna hadn’t realized her husband planned to war against the MacInnes clan. The fury she heard in his voice as he explained his reason for wanting vengeance made her stomach queasy.

“But he didn’t touch your wife,” Laird MacKay snapped.

“What are you getting at, MacKay?”

“Robert belongs to me,” the laird replied. “It’s my right to avenge my daughter.”

Gabriel was hard-pressed to agree. “I must consider this,” he muttered.

Laird MacKay nodded. He turned his attention back to his daughter. Johanna blocked his view. The laird stepped to the side so he could see Clare.

“I believed you exaggerated your circumstances. I knew you didn’t want to marry Robert, and I foolishly thought in time you would learn to get along with him. It never entered my mind that the MacInnes men would treat you with such brutality. Their insult is unforgivable . . . and so is mine, lass. I should have listened to you. MacBain’s woman is right. I, too, am responsible.”

“Oh, Papa,” Clare whispered. “I’m sorry. I shamed you with my ...” Her sobs prevented her from going on. Johanna hurried to hand Clare a linen cloth.

“Stop that now,” her father ordered. “I do not wish to see you weep.”

“I’m sorry,” Clare said again. “I cannot seem to stop.” The laird shook his head. “You should have made me listen to you when you came running home, daughter, instead of disgracing yourself with a MacBain. Getting yourself with child wasn’t the answer. Now you’ll give me the bastard’s name and I’ll settle my grievances with him.”

“Begging your pardon for interrupting,” Johanna said, “but I thought Clare came home to you after the first beating. Isn’t that fact?”

“There were no bruises,” the laird replied. “I thought she made the tale up to gain my sympathy. I’m a man who admits he’s wrong when he is,” he added with a nod,

Father MacKechnie was pleased to hear the laird’s confession. “It’s a fair start,” he remarked.

“Give me the name of the man, Clare.”

“Father, I’m sorry you’re disappointed in me. You mustn’t blame the MacBains, for this was fully my sin.”

“I’m wanting the name, daughter.”

Johanna didn’t care for the laird’s harsh tone of voice. She moved to put herself between father and daughter.

Gabriel saw the expression on her face and immediately reached out to take hold of her arm. Laird MacKay also realized what Johanna was doing.

“Do you think to protect my daughter from me?” he asked. He sounded astonished.

Johanna didn’t answer his question. She tried to turn his attention.

“I have misjudged you, sir, for I now realize you do love your daughter. Clare needs rest now. She took several blows to the head, and she’s very weak. Why, even now she’s struggling to keep her eyes open.”

She prayed Clare would take the hint. She nodded to the laird to emphasize her lie, then moved aside so he could see his daughter.

Clare had caught onto the plan. Her eyes were closed, and she looked as though she’d already fallen asleep. Johanna lowered her voice when she said, “Do you see, Laird? She needs rest if she is ever going to recover. ’Tis the truth she could still die.”

“I was wanting to take her back home with me,” the lard whispered back.

“She’s getting excellent care here, Laird,” Father MacKechnie announced. “Your daughter doesn’t appear to be strong enough to go anywhere. Best leave her be. She’s under Laird MacBain’s protection. She can’t have better than that.”

“She does have better,” Gabriel interjected. “She has my wife’s protection as well.”

Laird MacKay found his first smile. “I can see that she does.”

“Perhaps we should go downstairs to discuss this worrisome topic,” Father MacKechnie suggested. “The matter of who fathered her child can wait, can’t it?”

“The man will wed my daughter. I’m wanting your assurance, MacBain.”

Gabriel frowned. “I put the question to each . . .”

Johanna interrupted. “He asked some of his soldiers,” she blurted out. “But not all of them, of course. There are

. . . so many, and some haven’t returned from . . . duties. Isn’t that right, husband?”

Gabriel didn’t blink an eye over his wife’s lie. “That is correct,” he announced.

“But I’m wanting to know, Laird, if you stand with me on the marriage issue,” MacKay muttered. “Will you demand the soldier responsible for disgracing Clare marry her?”

“I will.”

MacKay looked satisfied. The priest hurried over to the entrance and pulled the door open. Laird MacKay gave his daughter an awkward pat on her shoulder and then turned to leave. Gabriel gave Johanna a hard wait-until-I-get-you-alone look before following Clare’s father out the doorway.

“You took my daughter in, MacBain, protected her, too, and your wife has shown her compassion. I won’t be warring against you if a marriage comes about. We could have us a fair alliance . . .”

Father MacKechnie pulled the door closed, cutting off Laird MacKay’s remarks.

Johanna collapsed into the chair and let out a loud sigh.

“You may open your eyes now, Clare.”

“What are we going to do, Johanna? I have to tell my father the truth.”

Johanna nibbled on her lower lip while she thought about the problem.

“At least now we know you won’t be sent back to the MacInnes clan. Your father might have been blinded before by the fever of an alliance, but he certainly had his eyes opened just now. When he saw the bruises on your face, he was convinced. He loves you, Clare.”

“I love him, too,” Clare whispered. “I didn’t mean it when I said I hated him. I was . . . angry. Oh, what a mess I’ve made. I don’t know what Father will do when he finds out I’m not carrying.”

Long minutes passed in silence. Then Johanna straightened in her chair. “There’s only one solution to this problem.”

“I know,” Clare said, guessing Johanna was going to instruct her to tell the truth. “I have to ...”

Johanna smiled. “Get married.”

“I what?”

“Don’t look so stunned, Clare. It’s a sound solution.”

“Who would have me? I’m supposed to be carrying, remember?”

“We’re clever enough to think of a solution,” Johanna insisted. “We’ll find someone suitable.”

“I don’t want to get married.”

“Are you being stubborn or sincere?”

“Both, I think,” she admitted. “The thought of marrying anyone remotely like Robert MacInnes makes my stomach turn.”

“Of course it does, but if we can find someone who realizes your value and treats you with respect, then wouldn’t you be happy to marry him?”

“Such a man does not exist.”

“My husband is such a man.”

Clare smiled. “He’s already married.”

“Aye, he is,” Johanna agreed. “But there are other men almost as perfect,” she added in a whisper.

“You are so fortunate, Johanna.”

“Why is that, Clare?”

“You love your husband.”

Johanna didn’t react to the truth for a long minute. Then she leaned back in her chair and let all her indecision and her insecurities go.

“I do love him.”

The wonder in her voice made Clare smile. “Have you only just realized it?”

Johanna shook her head. “I do love him,” she repeated. “But I realize now I have loved him for a long time. Isn’t it odd I couldn’t acknowledge my feelings, even to myself? I have been foolishly trying to protect myself,” she added with a nod. “No one likes to feel vulnerable. Good God, I love him with all my heart.”

The sound of her laughter filled the chamber. It was filled with such joy, Clare found herself laughing, too.

“I assume you’ve never told him how you feel,” Clare remarked.

“No,” Johanna answered.

“Then what do you say when he tells you he loves you?”

“Oh, Gabriel has never told me he loves me,” she explained. “He doesn’t realize it, you see, at least not yet. Eventually he’ll acknowledge he loves me, but I doubt he’ll ever tell me.”

She paused to laugh again. “My husband is so unlike the barons in England, and I thank God for that blessing. The men I knew there would sing sweet ballads to the ladies they held in esteem. They hired others to write down poetic words of love for them to recite. The men were quite flowery in their pretty speeches. Most of it was nonsense, of course, and certainly insincere, but the barons believed they were chivalrous. They all held courtly love in high regard.”

Clare’s curiosity had been caught, and she asked Johanna several more questions about the men in England. A good hour passed in conversation before Johanna finally insisted Clare get some rest.

“Now that your father has seen you, do let Glynis trim your hair.”

Clare agreed. Johanna stood up to take her leave.

“Will you tell your husband the truth about me?” Clare asked.

“Yes,” Johanna answered. “Eventually,” she hastily added. “I must choose the right moment.”

“What will he do?”

Johanna opened the door before replying. “He’ll growl something fierce I imagine, and then he’ll help me figure out what to do.”

Hilda was coming down the hallway with a tray of food for her patient. Johanna backed up so the cook could get past her.

“Laird MacKay left,” Hilda announced. “He’s going to let you stay here until you’re strong enough to go home with him, lass. Lady Johanna, they’re waiting on you to start supper. The men are surly with hunger. You’d best get yourself down there.”

Hilda placed the tray on Clare’s lap. “You, lass, are going to eat every morsel, and I’m going to stand here to see that you do. You need to regain your strength,” she added with a nod.

Johanna turned to leave, then suddenly stopped. “If either of you ladies should hear a commotion coming from the hall, please don’t be concerned. I’ve planned a little surprise, you see, and some of the soldiers might become a bit upset.”

Hilda and Clare both demanded to know what the surprise was. Johanna shook her head. “You’ll find out soon enough,” she promised.

Johanna wouldn’t let them prod her into explaining. She went down to her chamber and changed into the plaid she’d hidden under the bed. Alex came into the room while she was adjusting her pleats under her belt.

“Hurry and shut the door,” she ordered.

“What for?” Alex asked.

He didn’t seem to want an explanation. He didn’t notice anything different about her plaid either. The little boy ran over to his bed, lifted the mat, and pulled out a long wooden sword.

“Auggie’s going to show me how to fence,” he announced.

“Have you had your supper?” Johanna asked.

“I ate with Auggie,” Alex answered as he ran for the door.

“One minute, please.”

He slid to a halt. “Come and kiss me good-bye,” she ordered.

“I don’t want you to go away.”

He fairly shouted his worry. Johanna hurried to assure him. “I’m not going anywhere,” she told him.

Alex wasn’t convinced. He dropped his wooden sword and ran to her. He threw himself into her arms and held tight.

“I don’t want you to go away,” he repeated.

Lord, what had she started? “Alex, now that I’m your mother, I wish for you to kiss me every now and again when you leave. Do you understand? You told me you were going with Auggie, and that is why I asked for a kiss before you left.”

It took her another ten minutes to convince the child. She stroked his back until he was ready to let go of her.

“I’m not going away,” he said then. “I’m just going outside.”

“You’re still leaving,” she replied. “And so I ask you again for a kiss.”

She leaned down close to Alex. He stretched up and gave her a wet kiss on her cheek.

Alex picked up his sword and ran for the door. “You’re supposed to sit by the fire and sew, Mama. Papa said so.”

“Is that right?”

Alex opened the door. “It is so,” he answered. “Papa said.”

“What else did your father say?”

Alex turned and pointed at her. “You’re supposed to stay where he puts you. Don’t you remember?”

She was going to have to have a talk with Gabriel about the outrageous things he was telling their child.

“I do remember,” she answered. “Go along now. You don’t want to keep Auggie waiting.”

Alex forgot to shut the door. Johanna finished adjusting her plaid, took a deep breath, and then went downstairs.

Megan was just starting up the steps to fetch her mistress. She almost toppled over the banister when she noticed what Johanna was wearing.

“You can’t be so cold that you need two plaids, m’lady. Why, it’s sweltering in here.”