“All right, Willa. I’ll take care of it,” he answered.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw others coming—the stonemason holding yet another shredded rope in his hands, the smith with the new sword blade ready to be inspected, the young soldier—all with immediate problems to be solved.
He answered several questions and then motioned to everyone else to wait so that he could finish explaining to Gabrielle what he planned to do. She was nowhere in sight.
“What the…Gabrielle!” he shouted.
“Begging your indulgence, Laird, but I think your lady is making her way to the stables,” the soldier said.
“I saw her guards following,” another volunteered.
“Ah, hell.” She was at it again. The woman was forever trying to leave him.
Calling for Braeden to take over and answer the remaining questions, Colm headed for the stables.
Gabrielle had disappeared before he finished his statement, and therefore she did not understand what he had been trying to tell her—that there would be no marriage in five months because he could not wait five months to bed her, and that the last month had been torture and he couldn’t continue this way. He couldn’t be in the same room with her without thinking about what he wanted to do to her. It was getting ridiculous. She would walk up the stairs; he would walk down. She walked into a room; he walked out. She had no idea the power she held over him, and so he had done everything he could to stay away from her.
Since she was so innocent, she couldn’t possibly know how her touch affected him. But after they were married, he would take his time showing her how crazed she could make him.
He caught up with her as she was opening Rogue’s stall. He reached around her and kicked the gate shut, then ordered her guards to leave. Without questioning, they filed outside and waited at the stable doors.
Colm wasn’t gentle as he forced her to turn around and face him. There were tears in her eyes.
“You are not leaving,” he told her.
“As you say.”
“No, you are not leaving me.”
“You are not leaving me.” His voice shook with emotion.
She pushed against his chest, but she couldn’t budge him. “I cannot stay here,” she cried out. “I can’t. I won’t be able to stop chasing you and kissing you and demanding your attention. I know you think you can keep avoiding me, but you can’t, Colm. I can be relentless when it’s something I want.” She took a breath and whispered, “And I want you.”
And there it was, out in the open for him to accept or reject. She looked up at him. He’d gone completely still. She wasn’t even sure if he was still breathing. She knew she’d shocked him by pouring her heart out to him. It was unseemly for a lady to admit she felt passion, but it was too late to take the words back, and Gabrielle wouldn’t have wanted to anyway.
“You say you cannot marry me, and I will accept your decision,” she said. “But if I stayed, it wouldn’t matter if we were married or not. I would still chase you, and eventually I would wear you down. You could not get away from me.”
He stroked the side of her face with the back of his hand as he struggled to find the words to give her. “There are times I don’t know what to think of you. You constantly astound me. You save my brother’s life, and ask nothing in return. I offer you marriage, and you worry that I will ruin my life. You have been dragged through Hell, and you show only kindness. Now you think I reject you, and you open your heart to me. I don’t know how this miracle came to pass, but I cannot imagine living the rest of my life without you. I want you, Gabrielle, and I will not wait five months to have you. We will marry now.”
T HE WEDDING WOULD TAKE PLACE IN TWO WEEKS. IT WAS AS long as Colm was willing to wait, and he believed fourteen days was more than enough time to prepare for the celebration.
Maurna and Willa were frantic. Everything needed to be perfect for their laird and his bride. Maurna took charge of the women who would give the keep a proper scrubbing while Willa and her helpers began making their special recipes. There would be pheasant, fully dressed and trimmed; stuffed pigs; pullets, of course—four dozen would do nicely—meat pies; and berry tarts. Honey would be mixed in almost every sweet dessert. The best wine would be served.
“You’ll be a vision, milady, floating down the stairs in your finery,” Maurna said. “Father Gelroy will hear you say your vows outside in the courtyard. There will be pretty flowers to garnish your hair and more flowers will be strewn in a circle around you and our laird, and the priest as well. Father thought the ceremony should take place at Arbane Abbey. As he explained, you are a princess of St. Biel and should have a royal wedding, but our laird wouldn’t hear of it. He isn’t explaining why, but Willa and I think it’s because he knows his clan would want to join in the celebration.”
“It will be a grand day,” Willa predicted, “and here before you know it.”
The best-laid plans had a way of changing.
GABRIELLE RECEIVED JOYOUS NEWS from her father. Laird Buchanan came to the MacHugh holding to tell her that he had received a message from Baron Geoffrey.
“Your father is well. He has not been harmed by the king, nor have his estates been seized. He knows that you are living with the MacHugh clan, and he wants you to know that he will be here soon to see you, and to explain what happened with the king.
“There is more news,” he added, looking at Colm. “Your father believes you will be going home with him.”
“He knows I have been banned. Why would my father think I could go into England with him?” she said.
Brodick had no answer.
Not an hour later, while Colm and Brodick discussed the trouble the new Monroe laird was stirring up, one of the MacHugh soldiers on duty at the drawbridge came to the gate of the courtyard to announce that an envoy from King John was asking permission to speak to Lady Gabrielle.
“There are a bishop and three other holy men, along with a few servants, traveling with the envoy,” he said. “They insist that you will want to hear what they have to say. They brought a scroll with them and a gift for Lady Gabrielle.”
“And soldiers?” Colm asked. “Did the envoy bring the king’s soldiers as well?”
“He did, Laird. Twelve in all. They have already placed their weapons on the ground to show their good intentions.”
Colm scoffed. “The English don’t have good intentions.”
Colm was going to refuse to let any of them cross his drawbridge, but Brodick urged him to reconsider. “Aren’t you curious to know what they have to say? And if you don’t like what you hear, you could always—” He stopped when he realized Gabrielle was listening.
Colm gave his order: the soldiers would remain outside, but the others could come forward.
The shout to lower the bridge echoed down to the guards.
“Gabrielle, go inside,” Colm said.
“As you say.”
She wanted to stay. She was as curious as Brodick to find out what the envoy had to say, but she would not oppose Colm in front of his ally and friend. Besides, she knew protesting wouldn’t do any good. Once Colm had his jaw set, nothing could change his mind.
Although no command was given, MacHughs began to line up on either side of the worn path from the drawbridge to the courtyard. Most were armed and ready for any outcome. Gabrielle thought they were being overly cautious. What harm could one envoy, some holy men, and a handful of servants cause? None of the priests or servants would be armed, and the envoy would not dare to carry a sword. To do so would be a grave insult to the laird.
Stephen appeared at Gabrielle’s shoulder and explained what was happening as they made their way into the castle. “It is believed that the procession is coming for you, Princess, with the intent of taking you away. The clan knows there are English soldiers waiting outside the walls, and word has spread that the envoy brings news to you. He could be carrying an order for you to return to England.” He nodded toward the men standing on either side of the path. “The MacHughs are letting it be known that they will not let you be taken away from them without a fight.”
“These men came here unarmed, and are few at that,” she said.
“But they will report back to the soldiers waiting outside the walls, and those soldiers will tell King John what has happened here today.”
“There has been so much deceit of late. How can we even be certain the envoy comes from King John?”
“We must assume that he does and be prepared,” Stephen answered gravely.
Just as he reached for the door, Liam pulled it open and came outside. He nodded to Gabrielle, stepped aside so that she could pass, then crossed the courtyard to take his place beside his brother.
They were a fearsome sight. Colm stood in the middle of the warriors. Liam and Braeden were on his left, Brodick to his right. Christien and Lucien joined the line next to Braeden. Faust went to the opposite side to stand beside Brodick.
“Go and take your place with the others,” she said to Stephen. “I will stay inside and cause you no worry.”
Stephen bowed his head and turned to do as she asked.
The door had just closed behind her when it was flung open again as Father Gelroy ran inside, looking like a pack of wild dogs was on his heels.
“The bishop has come,” he told her, “and I’m not ready to receive him!”
He rushed ahead of her to the steps. Then, remembering courtesy, Gelroy stopped suddenly and let her go in front of him. But as soon as they reached the second level, he cut around her and raced up the next flight. He didn’t have time to change his robes, but wanted to at least wipe the dust off and wash his hands and face.
Gabrielle paced in the hall while she waited for someone to come and tell her the news.
Panting from his haste, Father Gelroy joined her a moment later. “I’m to stay with you until I am called outside. Our laird will not allow felicitations until the envoy has explained the purpose of his visit.”
“I would stand by the window so that I would see what is happening,” said Gabrielle, “but those outside would also see me. It would be unseemly.”
“Aye, it would,” the holy man agreed.
“And it would be wrong to try to overhear what is being said, but if you were to stand slightly closer to the window, you couldn’t help but hear some of the conversation. I do not see any wrong if you were to just happen to walk toward the window…”
Gelroy nodded. “No, no, of course it wouldn’t be wrong, and I am certainly in need of fresh air.”
The priest positioned himself at the edge of the window with the hope he wouldn’t be noticed.
“I’m just in time to see the procession,” he reported. “There is pomp and splendor. The bishop is dressed in his rich finery, riding a docile horse. He’s not a young man, but he’s not so old, either.”
“And the envoy?”
“Walking he is, with a scroll tucked under his arm. His clothes are unremarkable, and I must say he seems the jittery sort, for he keeps darting quick looks to his left and right. I think the poor fellow believes he will be pounced on any minute.” Gelroy chuckled as he added, “And well he could. I remember such a feeling myself.”
“What of the others?” she asked.
“It is quite a procession. First comes the bishop, then the envoy, then, one at a time, the monks, and last the servants. I recognize a few faces. They are indeed from the abbey.”
Gabrielle kept edging closer to Gelroy, hoping she could sneak a peek. The priest shooed her back.
“The bishop can see straight through this window, Lady Gabrielle. Do not let him see you.”
“Then tell me what is happening now.”
“The bishop is still atop his horse, but he has stopped. A servant is coming forward to take the reins and aid the bishop.”
Gelroy made the sign of the cross and folded his hands as though in prayer. Then he explained. “The bishop decided to give his blessing. If he had hoped the lairds would bow to him, he was mistaken. None of them have moved.”
The bishop didn’t seem offended that Colm and the others didn’t drop to their knees. The servant stood by his side and held the reins, but the bishop didn’t dismount.
The envoy came forward. Assuming the warrior standing in the center of the stone-faced men to be Laird MacHugh, he addressed him.
“His Highness, King John of England, sends word to Lady Gabrielle. She is here?”
“She is,” Colm answered, “but you will give me the king’s message, and I will then decide if you can speak to her.”
The envoy was quick to agree. He cleared his throat, straightened his shoulders, and took a step forward. He then began his rehearsed speech as a herald would do, in a loud booming voice so that many would hear.
“There has been a terrible injustice done to Lady Gabrielle. She has been wrongly vilified and persecuted. His Highness now knows and has absolute proof that the lady is innocent. The king wants it known that Baron Geoffrey of Wellingshire will be lauded and richly respected for his vigilance over his daughter, and Lady Gabrielle, a treasure to England, will from this day forward be called Princess Gabrielle of St. Biel and friend to England’s king.”
The envoy paused to await a response. It was not long in coming.
“Every man here knows Lady Gabrielle is innocent. We do not need your king to tell us so,” Colm said.
“King John will be pleased to hear that you and others have seen through the treacherous lies told and wrongly believed by many. He wishes to prove his sincerity.”
“And how will he do that?” Colm asked.
The envoy held out the scroll so all could see the seal was unbroken.
“To prove sincerity,” he repeated, “and in hopes of forgiveness for this grievous injustice, His Royal Highness hereby confers the land known as Finney’s Flat to Princess Gabrielle. He has signed his name and affixed his royal seal as his solemn promise that the land will never belong to England again. He also has had it written that God may strike him if he does not keep his word.”
The envoy took another step forward and with both hands held out the scroll. Colm took it and handed it to Liam. “Why do these priests travel with you?” he asked.
“For protection, Laird MacHugh,” he answered. “It was hoped…sincerely hoped…that you would hear the message from my king and not harm the messenger.”
Colm glanced at Brodick before speaking to the envoy again. “Holy men would not save you from my fist if I were displeased with your message.”