She bounded to her feet. “They must stay.”
He was astounded by her outburst. She’d been so cooperative when he explained her future, but now she was belligerent and combative.
“No, they cannot stay,” he said quietly. “It’s my duty and the duty of my soldiers to protect you now that you are to live here, and it would be an insult for an outsider to interfere.”
“You don’t understand. You must—”
“This isn’t open for discussion,” he snapped. “Your guards will be handsomely rewarded because they protected my brother.”
“Reward them by letting them stay here with me.”
He shook his head. “Shouting at me won’t change my mind. I have another duty that is far more pressing, but when I return, I will talk to your guards. I’m not in the habit of justifying my decisions, but in this instance, I will. Once I’ve made my position clear, my men will escort them down the mountain. You’ll have until then to say your good-bye.”
He walked down two steps, turned around, and commanded, “I will have your acquiescence.”
She looked at him for several seconds, then affected a perfect curtsy.
“As you say.”
Relieved that there hadn’t been any tears, Colm was in good spirits when he left the holding. Three hours later, upon his return, he was informed that Lady Gabrielle was gone.
M ACHUGH CAUGHT UP WITH HER NEAR THE BASE OF HIS mountain. She was still on his land, though just barely. Had he returned to his holding an hour later to hear of her departure, Gabrielle would have already started across Finney’s Flat and been a fair target for the predators who waited for the cover of nightfall to crawl out from their holes.
What in God’s name was the daft woman thinking to go out into the wilderness with but four men for protection? Didn’t she realize what a temptation she was?
But she was safe, he told himself as he rode toward her. Safe from everyone but him, he qualified, for in his present mood, he was thinking hard about throwing her over his shoulder and carrying her back to his keep. Dragging her back didn’t sound all that unappealing, either.
Gabrielle heard his horse thundering toward her. She had stopped to water the horse and had walked far enough away from Rogue to know she couldn’t get back to her horse before Colm caught up with her.
There was no guessing what his mood might be. The man was angry all right. The fire in his eyes and the clenched jaw were obvious indicators. He leaped from his horse before the animal had fully stopped, and though she had a strong desire to back away, she stood her ground and held her chin up as he stomped toward her.
Her guards naturally took a defensive position to block the laird, but Gabrielle knew MacHugh wouldn’t retreat. She’d been in his company long enough to learn that much about him. But then her guards wouldn’t retreat, either. It was up to her to stop the confrontation before it started.
“Please move out of my way. I wish to speak to the laird.”
Faust was worried. “Princess,” he whispered, “it is our duty to make certain he won’t harm you.”
Stephen, like Gabrielle, was a good judge of character, and he’d already determined what the laird was all about. He had noticed the way MacHugh’s clan had greeted him when the laird returned home. They were genuinely happy to see him, not afraid. Their homes were sturdy, there was firewood outside each door, and children didn’t run away and hide when MacHugh and his soldiers came up the hill. MacHugh protected those he cared about, and the relief Stephen saw in the laird’s eyes as he now spotted Gabrielle told the guard that he cared, even if just a little, about her.
Stephen prodded his friends’ shoulders and ordered, “Get out of the laird’s way. Our princess is safe with him.”
Colm paid no attention to her guards. His gaze was locked on Gabrielle, and he stopped just an arm’s length from her. “I would have a word with you, Gabrielle.” His voice had a noticeable bite to it.
The laird towered over her, and she retreated several steps so she would not have to crane her neck to look at him. “What is it you wish to say?”
“What part of our discussion this morning didn’t you understand? I would like to know so that I may clarify it for you.”
“Discussion? I don’t believe it was much of a discussion. You gave orders.”
“Which I expected you to obey.”
Her question sounded impudent, but he didn’t believe that to be her intent. She really didn’t understand, and though it had been a long while since anyone had asked him to explain himself, he allowed it.
“Because I have said so.”
“That isn’t a sufficient answer. Why would you think I should obey your commands? I’m not a member of your clan.”
He was determined not to lose his patience with her. “You are to obey my commands because you will soon become my wife and, therefore, soon become a MacHugh.”
He couldn’t have been any more clear or concise, and she couldn’t possibly have any more questions or arguments, for there was nothing more to argue about.
“But Laird, I never agreed to become your wife.”
“You are a frustrating and aggravating woman,” he snapped, “and I suspect more stubborn than all the women here combined.”
His insults were meant to make her realize that he was in charge, not she, and he was totally nonplussed by her response.
“You’re no prize, either, Laird. But unlike you, I don’t feel it necessary to list your many faults.”
She had the gall to smile at him. He damned near laughed, he was so stunned by her insolent behavior. The woman gave as good as she got. He guessed he was going to have to drag her back to his keep after all. He took a threatening step toward her and she didn’t back away. She looked him right in the eye and waited to see what he would do.
She didn’t cower, and that pleased him considerably. He decided he would try to gain her cooperation one last time before he resorted to carrying her back to his home to do his bidding.
“While I understand that not wishing to marry me was your reason for leaving my home, I want you to understand—”
She interrupted. “That isn’t why I left.”
“Then what in God’s name was your reason?”
“You ordered my guards to leave, and I couldn’t allow that to happen. I tried to explain why they must stay with me, but you didn’t want to listen.”
“And so you left.”
“Yes, I left. What other choice did I have?” she replied, and before he could start in on her again, she added, “And yes, I was going to the Buchanans with the intent of pleading with my cousin to release you from your promise. My hope is that he will find something else for you to do to pay your debt to him, whatever that might be.”
Speaking to the Buchanan on his behalf? Unthinkable…and appalling.
“You will not speak to anyone on my behalf. Is that understood?”
She supposed she’d inadvertently insulted him. She quelled his anger with a quick nod. “I promise. In fact, I won’t even mention you. I’ll simply explain that my guards weren’t allowed to stay, and so I left your holding.” She turned and walked away from him.
He followed. “Not speaking to him at all will satisfy me.”
Then he wasn’t going to be satisfied, she decided as she quickened her pace.
“You said I refused to listen to your explanation as to why your guards must stay with you.”
“Yes, that is so.”
“I’ll hear your reasons now,” he announced. “But I will tell you this, Gabrielle. English soldiers living with my men will not work.”
“They aren’t English soldiers, and they would be highly insulted to hear you think they are. They’re from St. Biel, and the emblem they wear over their hearts signifies that they are part of the royal guard.”
Gabrielle was so intent on making the laird understand, she didn’t realize she was heading into a thick woods. Colm stayed right behind her, and twice he reached over her head to lift a branch out of her way.
“My mother was Lady Genevieve, princess of the royal house of St. Biel. When she married my father, guards accompanied her to her new home in England, and only when they became convinced that she was well-protected by her husband did they return to their country. My mother told me that at first Father wasn’t happy to have them in his home, but in time he not only accepted them, he came to depend on them.”
“How long did it take for her guards to become convinced that your mother was well-protected?”
She turned around to answer.
“Three years. They stayed three years.” Colm flinched. Irritated by his response, she was about to poke him in his chest, but thought better of it and stopped herself in time—though he had to wonder why she was pointing her finger at him.
She put her hand behind her back. “My father was sorry to see them go.”
“I think perhaps you exaggerate.”
“Father trusted them,” she insisted.
“You said that the guards returned to St. Biel after three years with your mother, yet now there are four guards with you.”
“A month after I was born, four guards arrived at Wellingshire. They had been sent by my uncle, who was still the king. Their duty was clear. They were to protect me. Over time the guards have changed. Stephen has been with me the longest. Then Lucien came. Christien and Faust arrived a few years later.”
“Who sent them? England has ruled their country for many years now.”
“The people of St. Biel. The English may occupy their land, but the people are still very loyal to my mother’s family.”
“Stephen has called your mother Lady Genevieve, but you are called Princess Gabrielle. Was she not also a princess?”
“In St. Biel a princess isn’t addressed as such. I should be called Lady Gabrielle. When I was a child, the guards called me Little Princess. The name has stayed with me. It doesn’t matter now, does it?”
“No, it doesn’t,” he agreed before moving on to another question.
“Why did it take four guards to look after one little girl?”
“One guard would have been enough,” she said. “Though my father would disagree. He insists that I liked to get into mischief, and it took all four of them to watch over me. I wasn’t willful,” she insisted. “I was just curious.”
She waited for him to comment, and when he remained silent, she continued. “Father never worried about me as long as my guards were with me. They saved my life too many times to count.”
Gabrielle only just then realized she had no idea where she was. The forest was closing in on her.
“What happens if I refuse to let them stay? What will they do?” Colm asked.
“Stay anyway. They’ve taken an oath, and they are honor-bound.”
“Even if staying means their death?”
“Even then,” she whispered. “But they would die with honor, and whoever kills them would have no honor at all.”
Hell, he was going to be stuck with them. “They can stay, but they damn well better not take three years to figure out I can protect you.”
Gabrielle was overjoyed. Colm MacHugh was a good and reasonable man. “Then I shall marry you, Laird, in six months’ time. You have my word.”
She leaned up on tiptoes to seal her promise with a kiss. Her lips barely brushed over his, but his surprise was evident in his expression. “It isn’t appropriate to kiss like this?” she asked. She could feel her face burning. She had acted impulsively and had obviously overstepped the bounds of propriety. She should have made a curtsy to seal her promise.
“It is appropriate,” he said quietly. “But I prefer to kiss like this.”
He didn’t grab her or wrap her in his arms. Nay, he simply lowered his head and kissed her senseless. His mouth covered hers completely. His warm lips parted and when she imitated him and parted her lips, he deepened the kiss. His tongue stroked hers, sending shivers through her. It was shocking and thrilling at the same time. And sinfully arousing.
One kiss was all it was, yet when he lifted his head, her heart was thundering in her ears and her legs were trembling so, she was afraid she was going to fall on her face. She had never been kissed like this before.
Gabrielle tried to read his eyes. Evidently, the kiss didn’t have the same effect on him.
She lowered her head. “It is a good thing that we are alone. It isn’t seemly to kiss as we just did without being married. It’s probably a sin.”
She didn’t sound too worried about it, he noticed. “We’re soon to be married, so it isn’t a sin, and we aren’t alone.” Without turning around, he called, “Stephen?”
“How many soldiers are watching us?”
“I count seven.”
Colm was disappointed. He expected the experienced guard to be more observant. “Nay. There are eight.”
Stephen stepped forward. “There were eight watching. Seven now.”
“What happened to the eighth?”
There was satisfaction in Stephen’s voice when he answered. “Christien happened to him. Your soldier wanted to follow our princess too closely. Christien didn’t think he should, so he stopped him. He didn’t kill him,” he added. “He just put him to sleep.”
Colm muttered something under his breath and strode back to the horses. Gabrielle would have had to run to keep up with him. When he noticed she wasn’t behind him, he waited for her, then took hold of her hand and pulled her along, forcing her to keep up.
“Laird, if you knew your men were watching, why did you kiss me so…”
“It is my right,” he answered. “And Gabrielle, since we are to be married, you may call me Colm.” He didn’t look back at her as he continued, “And another thing, when we return to my home, you will not ever argue with me again. You and I have come to an agreement regarding your guards, but that is all I will concede. I cannot spend my days chasing after a stubborn wife. I have more important duties to see to.”
“I am never to argue or disagree with you?”
That sounded good to him. He nodded. “I will have your agreement now, Gabrielle.”
She bowed her head. “As you say.”
T O SARAH TOBIAS, GOSSIP WAS AS ADDICTIVE AS SWEET BUTTER biscuits. She craved it. She loved being the first to spread the latest rumors and didn’t care if the stories she repeated were true or false. The telling was all that mattered to her. By the time she reached the end of her tales, Sarah felt such a rush that her face was flushed, the palms of her hands were sweating, and her breath came in short gasps. Gossip, she had discovered, was every bit as good as sex. Sometimes even better.