Knowing her guards wouldn’t back down, no matter how many men they were up against, Gabrielle worried for their lives. She heard one of the Highlanders give the command to fall back. She hoped it was the wild Buchanan she’d heard, but when the soldiers parted, she saw that it wasn’t her cousin who had spoken. It was the other laird, the ruthless man who had greeted his long-lost brother with his fist.
He was as big and ferocious-looking as she remembered, but there was something else surprising about him. One might even say he was actually handsome, if one liked the rugged, flawed, somewhat scarred type. She didn’t. But if there was anything she did like about his appearance, it was the color of his hair. It was blond, with a hint of red. It framed a face stern and rigid, reminding her of a Viking from the stories of times past. Most likely he was just as mean and barbaric.
Colm MacHugh stopped when he was barely a foot away from Stephen. The two men sized each other up, then Colm ordered, “Get out of my way.”
Stephen moved not an inch. Colm was at least a head taller and much more muscular, but the guard didn’t give. He took orders from no one but Princess Gabrielle. The same went for his fellow guards. Faust and Christien moved to stand with Stephen, while Lucien stood with his back to hers.
Brodick joined Colm as Gabrielle said, “They mean us no harm.”
A part of her actually believed that to be true, that the Highlanders had followed them to help, not hurt. Still, after today’s horror, anything was possible.
“Step aside and let me speak to them,” she ordered.
Her guards moved away, cautiously keeping an eye on the Highlanders.
“What language are you speaking?” Brodick asked the question in Gaelic.
She responded in kind. “It is the language of my mother’s homeland, St. Biel.”
Her command of their language was excellent. Brodick assumed her father had taught her. His wife, Gillian, would do well to take a lesson from Gabrielle. His men still occasionally winced when she spoke to them.
Turning to Colm, he remarked, “She isn’t all English, just half.”
Why Brodick thought that fact would matter was beyond Colm. Half English was the same as all English to him. Colm’s response was a noncommittal shrug.
Brodick stepped toward Gabrielle. When her guards reacted, he glared at them. His followers also took offense and moved forward.
“Enough!” Gabrielle called out. She raised her hand and repeated the command: “Enough.”
Since she’d spoken Gaelic, it was obvious to Brodick and Colm that she hadn’t given the order to her guards but to their soldiers. Her assertiveness amused Brodick, but it irritated Colm.
Only after a signal from their lairds did the men move back, but all intently watched her protectors. Gabrielle thought perhaps they were waiting for an opportunity to pounce.
“Do you know who we are?” Brodick asked.
She nodded. “You’re the wild—that is to say, you’re my cousin, Laird Buchanan. I’ve heard stories about you.” The comment didn’t remove his scowl. “They were most impressive stories about your cunning and your strength.”
He clasped his hands behind his back. “Who told you these stories?”
“My father, Baron Geoffrey.”
“Then the stories are true. He would not lie.”
She knew she was going to have to acknowledge the other laird, and a shiver of dread rushed through her when she finally turned and met MacHugh’s piercing eyes.
“I also know who you are.”
His response was a slightly raised eyebrow. She wasn’t deterred. “You’re Laird MacHugh, and you have a most peculiar way of greeting your brother.”
Colm didn’t understand her meaning. “How do I greet him?”
“With your fist.”
Ah. So she’d been watching Liam leave the abbey.
For the briefest of seconds Gabrielle saw a hint of warmth in his eyes. It was long enough for her to realize he wasn’t a complete ogre.
Father Gelroy pushed his way through the clansmen. He bowed to Gabrielle and then turned to address Colm. “Laird MacHugh, these are the good men who protected your brother while he was recovering from his injuries at the abbey. I mentioned them to you before, but I wanted to make certain you hadn’t forgotten.”
The priest had a little courage deep inside him after all, Colm thought. Gelroy dared to remind him that he owed these men his gratitude. Colm hated owing anyone anything. The debt always weighed heavily until it was repaid.
He didn’t thank the guards, but nodded in acknowledgment of what they had done. The other Buchanans and MacHughs, hearing what the priest had said, also relaxed their positions.
“Did anyone try to get to my brother while you were guarding him?” he asked the four.
Gabrielle started to answer no, but decided she should let them speak for themselves.
“Stephen, did anyone try to hurt Liam while you or the others were protecting him?”
He hesitated before answering, then gave a quick nod. “Two men came that first night.”
“What did he say?” Brodick asked Gabrielle.
Gabrielle was so surprised by the guard’s answer she ignored Brodick. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“We didn’t feel it necessary to tell you,” Lucien said.
“You asked us to guard him, and that’s what we did,” Stephen said.
“We took care of the matter,” Faust added.
Brodick and Colm had waited long enough to get an answer.
“You will tell us what they said,” Colm ordered.
She quickly apologized and asked Stephen and the others to speak directly to the lairds.
Stephen turned to Colm and in Gaelic said, “Laird MacHugh, two men came for your brother the first night we guarded him.”
If the lairds were surprised that Gabrielle’s guards were also proficient in their language, they didn’t show it. Colm folded his arms and waited for further explanation.
“They were dressed as monks, but carried knives in their sleeves,” Lucien said.
“Lucien and I were on watch,” Christien explained.
“We waited until we were certain they meant to murder your brother before we acted,” Lucien said.
“And what did you do when you realized what they were about?” Brodick asked.
“We killed them,” Christien answered frankly.
Colm nodded approval. “Did they speak? Did you hear their names?” he asked.
“Did they mention where they were from or who sent them?” Brodick asked.
“No,” Lucien answered. “They spoke your language, but differently from the way you speak it.”
“Describe these men,” Brodick ordered.
Lucien told of two men with long hair and beards who were burly but not exceptionally tall.
After he had finished, Christien added, “They were ordinary.”
“No marks on their skin or their weapons,” Lucien explained.
“My brother slept through this fight?” Colm asked.
Christien was offended by the question. “There was no fight. We didn’t give them time to fight us.”
“A surprise attack then,” Brodick said, nodding approval.
“No,” Lucien said, “they saw us coming.”
Colm admired their conceit. “What did you do with the bodies?”
“We couldn’t leave Liam unprotected, so we kept the bodies in the corner of his room until Stephen and Faust arrived to relieve us,” Christien said. “Then, Lucien and I carried the bodies outside the abbey and threw them in the ravine. It was still dark; I’m certain no one saw us.”
“We tossed dirt over them, but by now the animals have probably gotten to them.”
The questions continued, but Gabrielle wasn’t paying attention. She was still reeling from the casual admission that her guards had killed two intruders. Honest to heaven, she didn’t think she could take any more shocks. She was worn out; all she wanted to do was find a quiet spot and sit for a few minutes. Her world was crashing down around her, and she needed time to sort out the horrific events of the day before she tried to make plans.
Understanding these horrific events would take much, much longer.
When it appeared that the lairds’ questions were at last finished, she called to Stephen. “May I have a word?” she asked.
Gabrielle led Stephen away from the others so she wouldn’t be overheard, but just to be absolutely certain, she spoke the language of St. Biel.
“Why didn’t you tell me about these attackers?”
“I’m sorry, Princess, but I felt that if their bodies were found, you would be safer having no knowledge of them.”
“Did you recognize them? Could they have been at Finney’s Flat?”
“We all got a good look at them, but none of us thought so. Remember, Princess, you are the only one who saw all of their faces.”
“The description I just heard Lucien give the lairds didn’t sound like any of the men I saw. Still, I thought perhaps they had followed us to the abbey.”
Stephen shook his head. “That isn’t possible. Christien kept backtracking to make certain we weren’t being followed. He would have seen them.”
“Then how did those men know Liam was there?”
“Someone must have seen him, or seen us carrying him inside. It’s difficult to keep secrets in such a large place with so many strangers coming and going.”
“Yes, that is so, but he’s safe now, isn’t he? And that is all that matters.”
“And you, Princess? From the cuts and bruises I see, I must assume you are not safe. Will you tell me what happened?”
Dreading the task, she confessed to Stephen what had transpired in the commons. She couldn’t look at him as she repeated the foul names she’d been called, and her voice broke when she spoke of the monk who had confirmed Isla’s story.
Stephen came to the same conclusion that she had, saying, “He must have seen you when you were on your way to look in on Liam.”
Of the four guards, Stephen was the most pragmatic, and in a crisis, the most unruffled, but he could not contain his ire. “It is our duty to keep you safe, Princess, and you deliberately kept us in the dark. Had we known what was happening inside the abbey—”
She interrupted. “You would have been killed because you and the others would have tried to defend me. I couldn’t let that happen.”
Frustrated, he answered sharply. “It is our responsibility to defend you.”
Christien, Lucien, and Faust came running. Faust looked horrified when he said, “Stephen, you raised your voice to Princess Gabrielle.”
“When you hear what she has just told me, you’ll share my anger. Men dared to throw stones at her!” he railed.
Gabrielle was saved from having to relive the nightmare once again when an unhappy Laird MacHugh approached.
“I have yet to find out how my brother came to be at the abbey. In the time you were there, did you hear anything?”
Gabrielle answered, “Please keep in mind, Laird, very few people knew he was in the monks’ quarters. Perhaps Liam will remember something. I suggest you ask him.”
Colm turned his attention to her four guards. “My brother said he tried to talk to you. Why didn’t any of you answer? Liam thought you didn’t understand him, but since you clearly understand Gaelic, I want to know why you wouldn’t speak to him.”
Faust looked to Stephen. Receiving his permission with a quick nod, he said, “We didn’t want to.”
G ABRIELLE’S GUARDS WERE ARROGANT, RUDE, INSULTING, blunt, and brutally honest. Colm couldn’t help but like them. Had he not known better, he would have thought they were born and bred Highlanders. And since he didn’t consider any of these traits flaws, there was no need to shove his fist down Faust’s throat because of his insolent attitude.
There was much he wanted to know about their involvement with Liam, but he decided to put that matter aside for a moment and concentrate on Gabrielle. The sooner he explained what was going to happen to her, the better. He had a debt to repay, and by all that was holy, he would see it done.
While the others prepared to resume their journey, he waited for the guards to return to their horses before he addressed her. “Gabrielle.”
“Yes, Laird MacHugh?”
“You will walk with me.”
It wasn’t a request. It was an order, given in a harsh voice.
He nodded. “Aye, you will.”
The laird was used to getting his way. And why not? Gabrielle thought. He looked strong enough to lift a horse and not break a sweat. She could see the power in the way he moved, in his arrogant swagger, but she didn’t feel threatened or frightened by it. His strength somehow made her feel secure. And what sense did that make?
But then, today had been one of the worst days of her life. Nothing made any sense to her.
“You will speak only Gaelic when you are with me,” Colm ordered.
She tried not to take exception to his biting command. The laird was accustomed to his clan following his orders without question, but had he forgotten she wasn’t a MacHugh? If he continued to be so abrasive, she would remind him of that fact.
Without a word, she walked across the small clearing to the shade of a bank of trees. She felt the soldiers’ eyes on her.
She stopped and turned to face the laird.
Standing just a few feet from her, Colm gave her his full attention. He tried not to react physically, but that proved to be impossible. She was beautiful: long, softly curling hair the color of midnight, skin as pure as cream, eyes so violet and expressive they seemed to sparkle, and that mouth, dear God, that mouth could give any man fantasies. Even with the bruised jaw and the bloody cut on her cheek, she was irresistible.
Colm could not let his mind digress like this. The last thing he needed was a woman confusing his thoughts. In time, he was certain he would get used to her appearance, but he wasn’t as certain about his followers. Even now his men were gawking. He turned to signal his disapproval, but none would spare him a glance; they were fully occupied watching her. If they were closer, he would slam some heads together—that would get their attention.
Gabrielle waited patiently for Laird MacHugh to speak. The way he was staring so intently at her made her feel uneasy.
She attempted a smile and said, “What is it you wish to say?”
He saw no reason to ease into the topic. “You are going home with me.”
She was certain she hadn’t heard correctly. “I’m sorry. Would you mind repeating what you just said?”