There was no talking her out of it. “I don’t want to be a bother,” Gabrielle protested. “I can take care of myself.”
“And how are you going to do that?” Maurna asked as she tugged the bliaut over Gabrielle’s head. “How are you going to reach behind you and clean your cut?”
She stopped arguing. “Thank you, Maurna.”
When the housekeeper saw Gabrielle’s back, she clucked like a mother hen. “You poor dear. Your back is one big bruise.” She rushed to the basin and dabbed a clean cloth into the water. She hurried back to Gabrielle. “How did this happen? Did you take a spill?” Deciding that was exactly what must have happened, she went on, “Of course you did. You sit down and wait while I go get some healing salve to put on those cuts. Wrap yourself in a blanket so you won’t catch cold. I’ll be right back.”
Letting someone else take care of her was nice, Gabrielle admitted. It reminded her of home.
Homesickness and worry for her father suddenly overwhelmed her. She said a quick prayer to God to watch over him, and then, exhausted, she sat on the bed, closed her eyes, and waited for the housekeeper to return. It was quiet at last, and since there weren’t any distractions, Gabrielle could replay in her mind the events of the day. Maybe she could sort them out and make sense of them.
Impossible. It was simply impossible to understand—as though she was missing an important piece of a very bizarre puzzle. The barons had been so quick to condemn her. It couldn’t all be about Finney’s Flat, could it? Yet what more was there that the greedy pigs would want?
Maurna returned with the salve, and after she’d tended to Gabrielle’s back, she insisted on washing her face as though she were a child. Dabbing a bit of the salve on the cut under her eye, Maurna said, “You hit your face when you fell, didn’t you?”
“Does it pain you?” Her voice was filled with sympathy.
“Not at all,” Gabrielle insisted. It did hurt, but she didn’t want the housekeeper to worry over her. Or hover.
“Is there anything more I can do for you?”
“No, thank you, Maurna. You’ve been most kind.”
The woman’s blush was as bright red as her hair. “I’m only doing what I was told to do, milady. Our laird wants you to be comfortable here. Might I ask a question that’s been nagging me?”
“What am I to call you? I heard the soldiers who came with you and the priest address you as ‘princess.’ Are you a princess?”
“I used to be, but no longer.”
The answer didn’t make a lick of sense to the housekeeper, and she fretted that perhaps milady had struck her head in the fall.
“Are you seeing two of me, milady?”
Though Gabrielle thought the question was odd, she didn’t laugh, for the housekeeper’s expression showed her concern. “No,” she assured her. “Just one of you.”
Maurna looked relieved. “You’re plain worn out, aren’t you? You rest well, milady.”
The second the door closed, Gabrielle went to the window to pull the tapestry down. She usually loved cold weather, but tonight she wanted to bury herself under the covers and sleep. It was pitch black outside with nary a star in sight. She could see tiny golden lights glowing from the cottages dotting the hillside. Families preparing for bed, no doubt, tired from the day’s labors, but content. She tried to picture the ideal family. There would be children, a healthy mother and father, and laughter. Aye, they would be happy and safe.
Again, her thoughts raced back to her father. Was he safe? Had he heard what the barons had done?
Only when the chill became unbearable did she pull the drape and climb into bed. Too tired to light the fire, she snuggled under the MacHugh plaid and fell asleep saying her nightly prayers.
She awakened once during the night. The room was warm. A fire blazed in the hearth. How had that happened? She rolled over and drifted back into a deep slumber.
The following morning, Stephen was waiting for Gabrielle in the great hall. She greeted him and then asked him if he or one of the other guards had come into her room during the night.
“Laird MacHugh asked the housekeeper to look in on you before she went to bed.”
“Why would he do that?”
“Apparently Maurna went into great detail about the bruises and cuts on your back. Perhaps the laird was worried.”
“Then Maurna started the fire?”
Stephen shook his head. “She reported to the laird that your room was near to freezing, so he went in.”
“He came into my room?” She couldn’t hide her shock.
“Yes, he did,” he replied. “He started the fire in the hearth. Faust couldn’t stop him, and so he went with him and stood with his back to your bed, blocking the laird’s view, though he reported that you were so hidden under the covers, no one could see anything.”
Stephen sounded unconcerned about the matter. “How did Faust try to stop him?” she asked as she crossed the great hall to sit at the table.
“He told me he got in the laird’s way.”
Hesitantly she asked, “And what did the laird do?”
“According to Faust, the laird got him out of his way. He didn’t explain how.” Stephens lips curled slightly in an uncharacteristic grin.
“Warming the room was a thoughtful act,” she admitted.
“But improper,” he said disapprovingly. “If you will excuse me, I’ll see to the other guards. The laird wishes to speak to you after you’ve had your breakfast.”
“Where is he?”
“I don’t know, Princess. He asked that you wait here.”
And wait she did, for over an hour, before the laird joined her. Gabrielle was standing with Maurna and the cook, a sweet-tempered woman named Willa, as the two women discussed the advantages of boiling a pheasant over roasting it on a fire—a subject Gabrielle knew absolutely nothing about—when she heard a door slam. A few seconds later, she heard men talking and then footsteps on the stone.
“That should be our laird,” Maurna said. “Willa and I will be about our chores so that you two can have your privacy.”
Braeden and another soldier accompanied their laird. They bowed as they crossed the hall and continued on to the buttery.
MacHugh stood on the top step observing her. She was a fair sight. Her hair gently curled around her angelic face and fell in silky waves across her shoulders. His eyes moved down. It was impossible not to notice the soft curves of her body.
He wanted her, and the acknowledgment didn’t please him. Gabrielle was a complication and a nuisance he didn’t need in his life.
Gabrielle took a step toward him when he entered the great hall. Even though he was frowning—his usual expression, she decided—she smiled and bid him good morning.
He wasn’t much for pleasantries. “Sit down, Gabrielle, while I talk to you about your future.”
Why would he want to talk to her about her future? She had explained to him that she would be a guest for only two more nights. Had he forgotten?
She pulled a chair out from the table, sat down, and demurely folded her hands in her lap. He’d sounded so serious, she began to worry that he’d changed his mind and wasn’t going to let her and her guards stay another night.
Colm wasn’t fooled by the serene expression she’d plastered on her face. He could tell she was nervous. Her folded hands were turning white, she was gripping them so tightly. And she sat rigidly straight and wouldn’t look him in the eye.
He stood at the hearth with his arms folded in front of him while he considered her.
“Do you wish to say something to me, Laird?” she asked after a long silence.
“Yes, I do. Gabrielle, no matter how I try to stop it, the clan will hear about your situation.”
He didn’t think it was possible, but her back straightened even more. He expected her to snap at any second.
“Don’t you mean to say that they’ll hear I’m a harlot?”
His eyes narrowed. “You will not say that word again.” He waited for her agreement before continuing. “There is a way to stop the rumors.”
“Why do you care what people say about me? I’ll only be here for a short time. Unless you would prefer that I leave today. Is that it? Is that what you want?”
“And you will go to the Buchanans,” he said in exasperation.
“Yes, but only for one night or two. I’m rested now, and I have already decided upon a plan for my future.”
“Is that right? And what might that plan be?”
“I’m going to St. Biel.”
His sigh was long and drawn out. “The English control St. Biel, don’t they?”
“Yes, but in the mountains I could—”
He didn’t let her finish. “And how are you planning to get there? Will you swim across the ocean?”
“No, of course not. I thought—”
“Do you even know how to swim?”
“I won’t swim across.” In frustration, she raised her voice. “I’ll go by ship.”
“What ship’s commander would allow you passage?” he asked. “If caught, the penalty would be his death…and yours and your guards,” he thought to add. “And if you were able to convince someone to take you, how could you trust him? Have you considered the possibility that he might have your guards killed, and then he and his men would spend the voyage taking turns with you?”
Noticing how the blood had drained from her face, he said, “Have I shocked you? Men are capable of such behavior. Have you forgotten the look in those barons’ eyes when they watched you? What do you think they would have done if they’d gotten hold of you?”
He continued to fire questions at her, determined to make her realize it was a fool’s dream to think she could live in peace in St. Biel.
“There are good people who would help me,” she protested.
“You would put those good people in jeopardy? You would let them risk their lives for you?”
“No, I couldn’t do that.”
Colm destroyed every argument she gave, and within minutes any hope of leaving was gone.
“You’re going to marry me, Gabrielle.”
Her shoulders dropped and she sank back in her chair. “Is there something in the air up here that is making every man I meet talk of marriage? In the past two days, I’ve been told that I’m to marry two obscene barons, one Monroe upstart, and a despicable laird named MacHenley.”
He flashed a smile. “The despicable laird you speak of is named MacKenna.”
She shrugged indifference. “Since I’m not ever going to speak to the vile man again, I don’t care what his name is.”
“It is decided,” he announced. “You will marry me, and no one will dare call you anything but Lady Gabrielle.”
“You aren’t asking me.”
He looked affronted. “Of course not. I’m telling you.”
His audacity was outrageous. Gabrielle felt the blood rushing back to her face, and it was difficult not to shout at him, though the urge was nearly overwhelming.
Colm could tell she was furious with him. Her hands were in fists in her lap now, and he knew it was only a matter of time before she lost her temper. He wondered if she realized how easy she was to read. Probably not, he decided, or else she wouldn’t go to such lengths to try to hide her feelings.
Braeden interrupted. “Laird, they’re waiting for you.”
Colm nodded. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
Giving Gabrielle his undivided attention once again, he asked impatiently, “Are there any other questions?”
Was he serious? Of course she had questions. Hundreds of them.
“I don’t have a dowry,” she said.
“I don’t need or want a dowry.”
“That makes you different from the others. All they wanted was Finney’s Flat.”
“Don’t compare me to those bastards.” Anger flashed across his face.
She wasn’t intimidated. “To pay a debt to Laird Buchanan, you’re willing to give up your future. I don’t understand why you would do this.”
He didn’t know what misconception to address first. “Do you think Finney’s Flat is the only reason those men wanted you?”
“What more could there be?”
Her question, though naïve, was an innocent one. She really didn’t know her own appeal, and therefore had obviously never used her beauty to get her way.
“I won’t waste time discussing their twisted motives,” he said.
“And you? You would ruin your life—”
“Gabrielle, I would never allow any woman to have that kind of power over me,” he said unequivocally.
“No, I don’t suppose you would.”
“I don’t know how the barons in England treat their wives, but I have a suspicion that most misuse them.”
“Not most,” she countered.
“We do not mistreat our women here. I will never hurt you, and you will be well-protected.”
She believed him. And suddenly marriage didn’t sound so terrible after all. Perhaps because she had nowhere else to go.
“Did you have a date in mind for this marriage?”
“You have a choice,” he said as he once again glanced toward the entrance. He was becoming more impatient to get this discussion over and done.
“Explain this choice, please.”
“We’ll marry now or in six months. However, if we marry now, we won’t live as man and wife until six months have passed.”
Thoroughly confused, she asked, “Why six months?”
“So that the clan will know the only child you carry is mine.”
He’d rendered her speechless. When she found her voice again, she said, “You told me you didn’t believe the lies—”
He interrupted. “The suggestion came from Brodick. He doesn’t want anyone to question who the father is if you were to be with child right after we’re wed.”
Appalled and embarrassed by his bluntness, she could only shake her head when he asked if there were any other questions he needed to answer before he took his leave.
Halfway to the stairs he remembered the other matter he wanted to talk to her about.
“Gabrielle, I allowed your guards to accompany you here so that you would know that you are safe. But they cannot stay.”