“If you think so,” Nicholas decided to agree.
“ ’Tis another mark against him. I don’t want to be married to a handsome man.”
“You aren’t making sense.”
“I don’t have to make sense. I’ve decided. I won’t have him. Take me home, Nicholas. Now.”
Nicholas jerked on the reins to stop her mount, then forced her to look at him. The fear he saw in her eyes made his heart ache. Only he knew the purgatory she’d endured while married to Raulf, and although she wouldn’t speak of it, he knew what her real terror was now. His voice was low and fervent when he said, “Listen to me, Johanna. MacBain will never hurt you.”
She wasn’t certain if she believed him or not. “I would never allow him to hurt me.”
The vehemence in her reply made him smile with approval. Raulf hadn’t been able to beat the spirit out of her. Nicholas counted that as a blessing.
“Think of all the reasons why you should marry him,” he said. “You’ll be away from King John and his cohorts, and they won’t come here after you. You’ll be safe here.”
“There is that consideration.”
“MacBain hates England and our king.”
She nibbled on her lower lip. “That is another sound point in his favor,” she admitted.
“This place, as bleak as it now looks, will one day be a paradise, and you’ll have helped to rebuild it. You’re needed here.”
“Yes, I would help to rebuild,” she said. “And I do long for warm weather. ’Tis the truth I only agreed to come here because you convinced me the land is much closer to the sun. I don’t know why I hadn’t realized that before. I must admit not having to wear a heavy cloak more than one month out of the year does have a wonderful appeal. You did say it was odd the weather was so chilly for this time of year.”
Good God, he’d forgotten that little lie. Johanna hated the cold and knew absolutely nothing about the Highlands. He’d deliberately deceived her in his attempt to get her safely out of England and now felt guilty as hell. He’d corrupted a man of the cloth, too, for he’d begged Father MacKechnie to go along with the fabrication.
The priest had his own motives for wanting Johanna to marry the MacBain laird and had held his silence each time Johanna mentioned the appeal of such a warm, sunny climate. He had, however, glared at Nicholas whenever the topic came up.
Nicholas let out a sigh. He guessed that when Johanna was knee deep in snow, she’d realize he’d lied to her. Hopefully by then her opinion of MacBain would have softened.
“Will he leave me alone, Nicholas?”
“You didn’t tell him anything about my years with Raulf?”
“No, of course not. I wouldn’t break my word to you.”
She nodded. “And he knows, for certain, I cannot give him children?”
They’d been over that issue at least a dozen times on the journey up the hills. Nicholas didn’t know what more he could say to reassure her. “He knows, Johanna.”
“Why didn’t it matter to him?”
“He wanted the land. He’s laird now and has to put his clan above his own concerns. Marrying you was simply a way he could achieve his goal.”
It was a cold, honest answer. Johanna nodded. “I’ll meet him,” she finally agreed. “But I won’t promise you I’ll marry him, so you can quit your smile right now, Nicholas.”
MacBain had grown weary of waiting for his bride to come to him. He started down the steps just as she nudged her mount forward. He still hadn’t gotten a proper look at her, as she was completely covered by a black cape and hood. Her smallness, however, surprised him. He’d expected a much larger woman given Nicholas’s size.
Her appearance wasn’t important to him. The marriage was a practical arrangement, nothing more. He assumed, however, that because she was Nicholas’s sister, she would have the same dark coloring and auburn-colored hair.
He was mistaken. Nicholas dismounted first. He tossed the reins to one of the soldiers and went over to Johanna’s side to assist her to the ground.
She was a little bit of a thing. The top of her head only reached her brother’s shoulders. Nicholas had his hands on her arms and was smiling down at her. It was obvious he cared a great deal about his sister. MacBain thought his brotherly devotion a little overdone.
While Johanna untied the cord holding her cloak together, the soldiers began to line up behind their leader. The Maclaurin men clumped themselves together behind their laird and to the left of the wide steps while the MacBain warriors lined up behind their leader and on the right side. The six steps were filled with curious men in a matter of seconds. They all wanted to see the laird’s bride.
MacBain heard the low grunts of obvious approval a scant second after Johanna removed her cloak and handed it to her brother. MacBain didn’t think he made a sound, but he wasn’t certain. The sight of her took his breath away.
Nicholas hadn’t said a word about her appearance, and MacBain hadn’t been interested enough to ask. He now looked at the baron and saw the laughter in his eyes. He knows I’m rattled, he thought to himself. MacBain masked his astonishment and turned his full attention back to the beautiful woman walking toward him.
Lord, she was a bonny lass. Her waist-length blond curls swayed with each step she took. The woman didn’t seem to have any flaws. There was a light sprinkle of freckles across the bridge of her nose. He liked that. Her eyes were a vivid shade of blue, her complexion was pure, and her mouth, dear God, her mouth could drive a saint to lustful thoughts. He liked that, too.
Some of the Maclaurin soldiers weren’t as disciplined in their reactions as the MacBain was. The two men standing directly behind their laird let out long, low whistles of appreciation. MacBain took exception to their rude behavior, however. He half-turned, lifted each man by his neck, and sent them both flying like cabers over the side of the steps. The other soldiers had to duck to get out of the way.
Johanna came to a quick stop, looked at the soldiers sprawled out on the ground, then looked back at their leader. The laird didn’t even seem winded.
“A gentle man?” she whispered to Nicholas. “That was a lie, wasn’t it?”
“Give him a chance, Johanna. You owe him and me that much. ”
She gave her brother a disgruntled look before turning back to the laird.
MacBain took a step forward. His wolfhound came with him and once again leaned against his master’s side.
Johanna started praying for enough courage to keep walking. When she was just a foot or two away from the warrior, she stopped and then executed a perfect curtsy.
Her knees were shaking so hard that she was pleased she didn’t fall over on her face.
She heard a loud snort and several grunts while her head was bowed. She didn’t know if the noises were sounds of approval or censure.
The laird was wearing his plaid. He had extremely muscular legs. She tried not to stare at them.
“Good day, Laird MacBain.”
Her voice trembled. She was afraid of him. MacBain wasn’t surprised. The sight of him had sent more than one young woman running back to the safety of her father. He’d never considered trying to change their reactions because he hadn’t particularly cared.
He was caring now, however. He would never get the woman to marry him if he didn’t do something to ease her fear. She kept giving worried glances down at his dog. MacBain assumed the hound also frightened her.
Nicholas wasn’t being much help. He just stood there grinning like a simpleton.
MacBain demanded his assistance by glaring at him. He decided he shouldn’t have done that when Johanna took a quick step back.
“Does she speak Gaelic?”
MacBain addressed his question to Nicholas. Johanna answered. “I have been studying your language.”
She didn’t speak in Gaelic when she answered. Her hands were folded together in front of her. The knuckles were white from her hard grip.
Mundane conversation might put her at ease, MacBain decided. “And how long have you been studying our language?”
Her mind went blank. It was his fault, of course. His stare was so intense, unsettling, too, and she couldn’t seem to form a thought. Dear God, she couldn’t even remember what they were talking about.
He patiently asked her again. “Almost four weeks,” she blurted out.
He didn’t laugh. One of the soldiers snorted with amusement, but MacBain’s glare stopped him.
Nicholas was frowning down at his sister, wondering why she hadn’t told the laird the truth. It had been closer to four months since Father MacKechnie began instructing her. He caught the look of panic in his sister’s eyes when she glanced up at him and he understood then. Johanna was simply too nervous to think straight.
MacBain decided he didn’t want an audience during this important meeting.
“Nicholas, wait here. Your sister and I are going inside to talk.”
After giving his command, MacBain moved forward to take hold of Johanna’s arm. The hound came with him. She instinctively backed up, realized what she was doing and how that cowardly retreat must have looked to the laird, and quickly moved forward again.
The huge beast growled at her. MacBain snapped an order in Gaelic. The hound immediately quit the low, menacing sound.
Johanna was looking ready to faint again. Nicholas knew she needed a bit of time to get her courage back. He took a step forward. “Why didn’t you allow my men and Father MacKechnie past Rush Creek?” he asked.
“Your sister and I must come to terms before the priest is allowed here. Your men won’t ever be allowed on our land, Nicholas. Have you forgotten my terms? We went over the details when you were last here.”
Nicholas agreed with a nod. He couldn’t think of anything further to ask.
“Father MacKechnie was very upset over your command to wait below,” Johanna said.
MacBain didn’t appear to be overly concerned about alienating a man of God. He shrugged. Her eyes widened in reaction. During the three years of her marriage to Raulf, she’d learned to fear priests; the ones she had known were powerful and unforgiving men. Yet MacKechnie wasn’t like the others. He was a kind-hearted man who had risked his life to come to England so that he could plead for the Maclaurins.
She wouldn’t have him insulted now. “Father MacKechnie is weary from the long journey, m’lord, and would surely appreciate food and drink. Please show him your hospitality.”
MacBain nodded. He turned to Calum. “See to it,” he commanded.
He thought his agreement over her request would ease her fears about him. He had just proven he could be an accommodating man, after all. Yet she still appeared ready to bolt. Damn but she was a timid thing. His pet wasn’t helping matters much. She kept worriedly glancing down at the dog, and every time she stared at him, the hound growled at her.
MacBain considered grabbing hold of her, tossing her over his shoulder, and carrying her inside, then changed his mind. The thought amused him, but he didn’t smile. He held his patience, put his hand out to her, and simply waited to see what she would do.
From the look in his eyes, she knew he had guessed she was afraid of him and that he was finding her timidity amusing, too. She forced herself to take a deep breath, then put her hand in his.
He was huge everywhere. His hand was at least twice the size of her own, and he certainly must have felt her trembling. He was a laird, however, and she assumed he would never have attained that position of power without gaining a few gentlemanly manners along the way, and she therefore assumed he wouldn’t mention her shameful condition.
“Why are you shaking?”
She tried to pull her hand away. He wouldn’t let go. He had her now, and he wasn’t about to let her get away.
Before Johanna could come up with a suitable explanation to his question, he turned and pulled her along up the steps and through the doorway.
“Because of your unusual weather,” she blurted out.
“Our what?” He looked confused.
“Never mind, Laird.”
“Explain what you meant,” he commanded.
She sighed. “Nicholas explained that the weather here is warm all year around . . . I thought he’d told you about his . . .” She started to say lie, then changed her mind. The laird might not understand how amused she’d been over her brother’s outrageous fabrication about the Highlands.
“His what?” MacBain asked, curious over her sudden blush.
“He said it was unusual to have such cold winds here,” she said.
MacBain almost burst into laughter. He caught himself in time. The weather was actually unusually warm for this time of year.
He didn’t even smile. The lass had already shown she had tender feelings, and he didn’t suppose laughing at her naïveté would soften her attitude toward him.
“And you believe everything your brother tells you?” he asked.
“Yes, of course,” she answered so that he would know she was thoroughly loyal to her brother.
“The cold is the reason I am trembling,” she said for lack of a better lie to tell.
“No, it isn’t.”
“You’re afraid of me.”
He waited for her to lie to him again. She surprised him with the truth. “Yes,” she announced. “I’m afraid of you. I’m afraid of your hound, too.”
“Your answers please me.”
He finally let go of her. She was so surprised by his remark she forgot to let go of his hand.
“It pleases you to know I fear you?”
He smiled. “I already knew you feared me, Johanna. I’m pleased because you admitted it. You could have lied.”
“You would have known I was lying.”
He sounded terribly arrogant, but she wasn’t offended—she expected arrogance in a man as big and ferocious looking as this warrior. She realized she was holding onto him then and immediately let go. Then she turned to look around the entrance. To the right was a wide staircase with an ornately carved wooden railing. A hallway led behind the staircase, and on the left of the entryway was the great hall. It was in ruins. Johanna stood on the top step and stared at the devastation. The walls were charred from fire, and the roof above the hall, what little there was left of it, hung down in a long strip to rest against the blackened sides. The smell of old smoke still lingered in the air.
Johanna went down the steps and crossed the room. She was so disheartened by the sight of the destruction, she felt like weeping.