She did wish her father was by her side, though. He knew what these men were capable of, and he would know what to expect. She tried to think of the worst that could happen so that she would be prepared, but never in her wildest thoughts could she have imagined what was coming.
G ELROY DRAGGED HIS FEET AND PRAYED HIS WAY UP THE stairs. When he reached the last step and took a good look around, his knees buckled. He had to lean against the wall to keep from tumbling backward.
Good Lord, there were so many of them! And all were watching him.
His voice sounded like the squeak of a rusty door hinge when he called out, “Did someone wish to speak to me?”
Two Highlanders were coming his way. Their long strides quickly consumed the distance between them. Gelroy clung to the wall and waited. Someone gave him a push from the rear. Startled, the priest turned. Another Highlander was standing on the stairs behind him. How had the man gotten there so quickly?
“You are the priest Gelroy?” a booming voice at the top of the stairs asked.
He looked up again. The two giants stood side by side. They were of equal height, and both wore the scars of their past. Gelroy took a tentative step toward them. “I am Father Gelroy.”
Brodick noticed the priest was twitching and rapidly losing the color in his face. “We mean you no harm, priest,” he said in an attempt to help Gelroy get over his scare.
“I am Laird MacHugh,” Colm said.
Gelroy nodded. “Yes, you resemble your brother.”
“And I am Laird Buchanan.”
The priest managed a bit of a smile as he looked up at Brodick. “Yes, I know. You are the wild Buchanan.”
“What did you call me?” He was too surprised to be angry.
“She calls you the wild Buchanan.”
Brodick raised an eyebrow. “Who calls me this?”
“Lady Gabrielle,” he answered. “Don’t you know who she is?” He rushed on, “She’s the daughter of Baron Geoffrey of Wellingshire, and they are your family through your wife.”
Brodick’s pleasant mood was ruined. He felt as though he was constantly being reminded that he had English relatives. It was damned humiliating.
“I have questions to put to you,” Colm said impatiently.
“It’s my understanding that you tended to my brother when he was brought here.”
“No, I didn’t tend to him, for I have never learned the ways of healing. It was Father Franklin who tended to Liam, but I helped as much as I could. His injuries were severe, and for a time, I’m ashamed to admit, I didn’t think he would survive.”
Colm nodded. “Who brought him here?”
“I cannot say.”
Colm tilted his head and stared at Gelroy for several seconds. “You cannot or you will not?” he demanded.
“Cannot.” Gelroy was able to look directly into the laird’s eyes because he was telling the truth. He couldn’t say. He had promised Lady Gabrielle that he would hold her secret, and he could not break his word to her. He didn’t understand why she didn’t want anyone to know that she and her guards had helped Liam, but he would respect her wishes.
The questions continued, but Gelroy knew that Laird MacHugh didn’t believe he was telling him everything because he kept circling back to the same question: How had Liam gotten to the abbey?
“Did anyone else see Liam being carried inside?” Brodick asked.
“No. I don’t believe so, and I did my best to keep his presence secret.”
“Did you lift him and carry him in, priest?” Colm folded his arms across his chest and waited for his answer.
Gelroy was feeling sick to his stomach. What was he going to do? In order to protect the promise he’d made, he would have to lie to the laird. What a mess. He wished he had time to talk to his confessor, for he didn’t have any idea what kind of sin he was about to commit. Was it a mild infraction that would be considered a venial sin, or was it far more damning because a priest was telling the lie? Could it be a mortal sin then? No, surely not. Gelroy thought he would have to do something much more serious, like kill a man, to make a mortal spot on his soul. Still, a sin was a sin.
Gelroy was sinking in a quagmire, and he saw no way out.
“What would you say if I told you I might have lifted him and carried him inside?”
Colm looked at Brodick. “Is he jesting?”
Brodick shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
Gelroy asked, “What if I were to tell you I cannot remember?”
Colm let the priest see his annoyance. “You cannot remember lifting a man who weighs at least twice as much as you do? You cannot remember that amazing feat?”
Gelroy bowed his head. He gave up trying to be clever. “I’m sorry, Laird, but I cannot tell you anything more. I have given my word to keep silent, and I must keep it.”
Colm was furious. “Did you give your word to the men who tried to kill my brother?”
“I did not, and I have no idea who those terrible men are. I would not hold their secrets unless they came to me in confession.” He hastily put his hands up. “And none of them did confess to me. I swear to you I know nothing about them. I don’t even know what happened to your brother. I only saw the result of the punishment they inflicted.”
Brodick was distracted by the noise from the courtyard. A Buchanan warrior called to him. “There’s trouble below.”
One of MacHugh’s men looked down at the people assembled below. “You should see this,” he told Colm.
“Why do I care about the English and their troubles?” Brodick asked as he strode to the parapet.
“Baron Geoffrey’s daughter is at the heart of the trouble.”
G ABRIELLE LED THE WAY TO THE COMMONS. SHE WAS DETERMINED to end this meeting and be on her way home as quickly as possible. The abbot followed as she hurried up the small knoll past the monks’ sleeping quarters and around the smaller chapel adjacent to the baking house. She was about to enter the commons through an archway when she noticed a woman standing in the shadows watching her. Gabrielle instinctively smiled and nodded a greeting, but the woman did not respond in kind. There was loathing in her expression, and her ferretlike eyes glowed with hatred.
Gabrielle was so taken aback, she abruptly stopped. Although she had never met the woman before, she had a fair idea who she was. Such a vile reaction could only come from a Monroe. Her father had told her that most of the Monroe clan blamed her for their laird’s death. The ridiculous idea made no sense to her, and she considered saying something to the woman and pointing out that her attitude was most unreasonable, but before she could speak, the strange woman picked up her skirts and ran away.
The abbot caught up with Gabrielle in time to see what had happened. “Do you know that woman?”
“No, I don’t,” she replied. “She seemed most upset, didn’t she?”
“Aye, she did. Upset with you from the look she was wearing on her face.”
Gabrielle nodded. “She must be a Monroe because the Monroes dislike me intensely.”
“Oh, no, Lady Gabrielle, that isn’t so.”
“It’s not?” she asked, a bit relieved. The idea of an entire clan hating her was upsetting. “The Monroes don’t hate me?” she asked eagerly.
“Oh, yes, they do. They most certainly do,” he answered matter-of-factly, sounding almost cheerful. “But you see, that woman isn’t a Monroe. I can’t recall her name, but I remember being introduced to her, and I believe she’s related to one of the barons. With all the strangers I’ve met in the past few days, I can’t keep all of them straight in my head. These English all tend to look alike.”
Lovely, she thought. The Monroes’ hatred had spilled all the way down to England.
“I won’t allow myself to be concerned about their foolish opinions.”
The abbot gestured toward the passage into the courtyard. “Shouldn’t we continue on?”
“Yes,” Gabrielle agreed. “But you needn’t come with me. I’m certain you have more important matters to attend to, and I don’t want you to waste another minute worrying about me. I prefer to face the barons alone.”
She stepped through a short hallway and found herself in the middle of a dogfight. It was difficult for her to locate the two barons because the area was filled with people, everyone in the assembled crowd trying to shout louder than everyone else. It was pandemonium. Something urgent must be happening, she thought, to provoke such vehement arguing. She drew back into the shadows, waiting for the noise to die down.
She searched the crowd for the two barons, and when she happened to look up, her breath caught in her throat and she nearly lost her balance. Liam’s brother stood looking down from the top of the wall. He now appeared even larger and more menacing than the first time she had seen him on the hill. It wasn’t just his size that made Colm MacHugh so intimidating but his rigid stance and his stony expression. He was the most fearsome man she had ever seen.
The laird next to him was also a daunting figure. She recognized him as well. This was the wild Buchanan.
Concerned that she would lose what courage she had if she continued to stare at the two Highlanders, she turned her attention back to the fighting throng in front of her.
Suddenly one man noticed her, then another and another, and within seconds a hush had fallen over the crowd.
Baron Coswold spotted her before Percy did. He bowed low and held out his hand to bid her to come forward.
“Lady Gabrielle, it is so good of you to join us. We’ve met before in King John’s court. I’m sure you remember me, don’t you?”
Gabrielle didn’t acknowledge Coswold’s question. She simply looked at him and waited for him to explain the purpose of the meeting.
“I speak on the king’s behalf,” he stammered, unnerved by her silence.
She walked toward him, and the baron silently cursed himself for the devil pact he had made with MacKenna. What had he been thinking? How could he give her to another man? Since he’d last seen her, she’d grown even more beautiful.
Everyone remained quiet as the lady made her way to the center of the courtyard.
Colm MacHugh had been watching the melee unfolding below him with both amusement and disgust. What asses the English were, arguing over who had the right to speak. When the screaming suddenly subsided, he wondered what could have quieted their absurd tirade. And then he saw her. She moved through the crowd with her head held high and her hands at her sides.
Baron Percy broke the silence. “My lady, I can see you don’t remember Coswold,” he said, a snicker in his voice. “We have also met before, when you were presented to King John.”
Percy knew better than to ask her if she remembered meeting him, for he had the feeling that he would get the same cold, silent response she’d given Coswold.
“And Coswold is mistaken,” Percy continued. “He doesn’t speak on the king’s behalf. I do.”
The statement was the spark that once again ignited the fiery argument.
Coswold waved a document in the air. “I have a writ signed by King John giving me his power to decide your future. Percy’s writ is no longer valid. The date marked by the king, later than Percy’s worthless paper, proves that I am in charge.”
Percy wasn’t about to let the woman slip through his fingers. “As is his habit, Baron Coswold speaks nonsense. I have already decided that since Laird Monroe is dead, you will return to England with me. We shall let King John decide your future.”
Coswold turned to Percy. “Everyone here knows what you’re planning. You plan to wed the lady before you leave the abbey, but she isn’t going anywhere with you.”
“I will have her!” Percy screamed.
Gabrielle could hardly believe her ears. Were they both mad? They sickened her. How dare they fight over her as though she were a piece of meat thrown to ravenous dogs? She knew she couldn’t be that important to either of them. Nay, it was Finney’s Flat they were after. Both barons wanted the valuable land.
Several MacHugh and Buchanan men joined their lairds at the wall to observe the commotion in the courtyard, but Colm’s gaze was fixed on the woman at the center of the storm. He wondered what was going on inside her mind. Gabrielle hid her feelings well. Her regal bearing and her composure impressed him.
Coswold clapped his hands to regain everyone’s attention. He then turned to the group of men behind him, gave a quick nod, and said, “I’ll settle this here and now.”
The crowd parted, and Laird Owen MacKenna stepped forward. He nodded to several men as he passed them. Looking up at the top of the wall, he saw MacHugh and Buchanan watching him, and stiffened in reaction.
“Look who just crawled out from under his rock,” Brodick said. “It’s our old friend.”
“The arrogant swine,” Colm scoffed.
Baron Percy did not know Laird MacKenna. “Who is this man who dares to interrupt this proceeding?”
“I am Laird MacKenna, and I have agreed to marry Lady Gabrielle and accept her dowry. From this day forward, Finney’s Flat will be called Glen MacKenna.”
Coswold wore a smug look. “Aye, Finney’s Flat will be yours.”
Up above, Colm reacted with a start. “The hell it will.”
Brodick straightened. “No, we can’t let that happen.” He looked at Gabrielle and wondered why she hadn’t protested the barons’ high-handed methods. Was she flattered or insulted? If she were anything like her father, she was railing inside, Brodick thought.
MacKenna approached Gabrielle with a warm smile. She didn’t return the smile. She seemed to be looking through him, and MacKenna thought she must be overwhelmed by all the attention she was receiving. After all, she was about to be married to a powerful laird. Aye, far more powerful than poor dead Monroe could have hoped to be. And MacKenna was much more handsome. Women liked attractive men. Perhaps her good fortune just hadn’t sunk in yet.
“Laird MacKenna and Lady Gabrielle will be married before this day ends,” Coswold called out.
Another shout from behind the throng of people interrupted his proclamation. “MacKenna, you have no right to her. I am Harold Monroe, and I will soon become laird of the Monroe clan. It is my duty and my right to marry this woman. My right by primogeniture.”
The throng stepped aside to let him through. Gabrielle recognized the man. He had been with the spiteful woman at the funeral.