"Uncle, you know what?"

Brodick turned to Alec. "No, what?"

"I didn't drown."

Brodick was still too shaken to laugh over the ridiculous understatement. "I can see you didn't," he answered dryly.

"But did you think I did? I told Gillian you wouldn't believe it, 'cause you're stubborn, but did you?"

"No, I didn't believe you drowned."

Alec leaned around Brodick so he could see Gillian. "I told you so," he boasted before turning his attention to his uncle once again. "They put me in a wheat sack, and I got real scared."

"Who put you in a sack?" he demanded, trying to keep the anger out of his voice so he wouldn't frighten the child.

"The men who took me. I maybe even cried." He sounded as though he were confessing a terrible sin. "I wasn't brave, Uncle, but you know what? Gillian said I was."

"Who were these men who put you in a sack?"

His abruptness worried the boy, and he looked down when he answered forlornly, "I don't know. I didn't see their faces."


"Alec, he isn't angry with you. Why don't you go and collect our things while I speak in private to your uncle."

Brodick gently lowered Alec and watched him run to the front of the church.

"Will you help me get him home to his parents?" she asked.

He turned to her. "I'll make certain he gets home."

"And so will I," she insisted. "I made Alec a promise, and I mean to keep it, but I must also speak to his father. The matter is extremely urgent. Besides," she added, "I trust you, Laird Buchanan, but I don't trust anyone else. I was told eight men ride with you today. Is that true?"


"I would like to see every one of them before Alec steps outside."

"You want to look at them?" he asked, puzzled by the bizarre request. "They're Buchanans," he added, "and that's all you need to know."

Alec came running down the aisle just as Gillian made her demand once again. "I will see them first."

"'Cause you know why, Uncle?"

Brodick looked at the little boy. "Why?"

"She saw the traitor," he blurted out, wanting to be the first to explain. "I fell asleep, but Gillian saw him good. She told me so. She made us hide a long time just so she could see him. He's a Highlander," he thought to add.

"Oh, Alec, you weren't supposed to tell anyone—"

"I forgot," he interrupted. "But Brodick won't tell nobody if you ask him not to."

"The man I saw is probably just now on his way back to the Highlands," she said. "I don't know how long he was going to stay in England, but I'm not taking any chances. It's better to be safe."

"And you want to see my soldiers just to make certain one of them isn't the man you saw?" he asked, his outrage clearly evident.

She was suddenly feeling so weary she needed to sit down, and she certainly wasn't in the mood to be diplomatic and come up with a suitable reply that would placate the laird. "Yes, that's exactly what I'm wanting to do, Laird Buchanan."

"You have said that you trust me."

"Yes," she agreed, and then quickly qualified her answer. "But only because I have to trust someone, and you are Alec's protector, but I'm not going to trust anyone else. Alec told me he thought that there were three Highlanders who took him from the festival, but there could be more besides the man who planned the kidnapping, so you see, Alec is still in danger, and I'm going to continue to guard him until I get him safely home."

Before he could respond to her argument, a whistle sounded outside, drawing his attention. "We must leave now," he announced. "My men grow impatient, and it's only a matter of time before the MacDonalds gather more soldiers and come back here."

"Are you feuding with the MacDonalds?" Alec asked.

"We weren't," Brodick answered. "But now it seems we are."

"Why?" Gillian asked, puzzled by his half-given explanation to Alec. "The MacDonald I met was a very pleasant gentleman, and he obviously was also a man of his word because he kept his promise and took my message to you."

Brodick nodded. "Aye, Henley was his name, and he did give me your message, but only after he had told his laird and pricked the curiosity of his clan."

"And they came here to fight you?" she asked, trying to understand.

He smiled. "Nay, lass, they came to steal you, and that, you see, is an insult I cannot allow."

She was astounded. "Steal me?" she whispered. "Why in heaven's name would they want to do that?"

He shook his head to let her know he wasn't willing to go into further explanation. "As much as I would like to kill a few MacDonalds, I will have to wait until after I have gotten you and Alec to the Maitlands. We're leaving now."

Alec would have run to the door if Gillian hadn't grabbed hold of his hand and forced him to stay by her side. "You will wait until I'm convinced that it's safe for you to go outside."

"But I don't want to wait."

"And I don't want to hear any argument, young man. You'll do as you're told. Do you understand me?"

Alec immediately looked to Brodick for help. "I keep telling her my papa's a laird and she's not supposed to tell me what to do all the time, but she won't listen. She isn't afraid of Papa at all. Maybe you should tell her."

Brodick hid his amusement. "Tell her what?"

"To let me have my way."

"The lady wants to do what's best for you, Alec."

"But tell her about Papa," he pleaded.

Brodick conceded. "Iain Maitland is a powerful man in the Highlands," he said. "Many fear his wrath."

She smiled sweetly. "Is that right?"

"Many would also guard what they say to his son."

Alec was nodding his agreement when Gillian looked at him. "I am more interested in keeping you alive than in winning your father's approval by spoiling you and perhaps getting you killed."

"Let me see your arm," Brodick demanded.

She blinked. "Why?"

He didn't answer her or wait for her to comply with his command but took hold of her hand and pushed the sleeve up past her elbow. A thick bandage covered her skin, but he could see from the swelling and the redness at her wrist that the injury was infected.

"How did this happen?"

Alec squeezed closer to her side. "Are you gonna tell on me?" he whispered worriedly.

Brodick pretended he hadn't heard the boy's question. He had his answer; Alec was somehow responsible for Gillian's injury, and later, when he and Alec were alone, he would get the particulars. For now he would let the matter rest.

Gillian and the boy were clearly exhausted, for both had dark circles under their eyes. Her complexion was flushed, and Brodick was pretty certain she was feverish. He knew that if the wound wasn't taken care of soon, she would be in real trouble.

"It isn't important how I hurt myself, Laird."

"You will call me Brodick," he said.

"As you wish," she replied, wondering why his voice had softened and the scowl had left his face.

Before she realized what he was doing, he grabbed hold of her chin and tilted her head to one side so he could see the faint marks on her cheeks. "How did you come by this bruise?"

"The man, he hit her with his fist," Alec blurted out, thankful his uncle's attention had turned away from Gillian's arm. He was ashamed that he had cut her and hoped that his uncle would never find out. "And, Uncle Brodick, you know what?" he rushed on.

Brodick was frowning at Gillian when he answered. "What?"

"Her back is all black and blue too. It used to be, anyway, and maybe it still is."

"Alec, do be quiet."

"But it's the truth. I saw the bruises when you got out of the lake."

"You were supposed to be sleeping," she said before pushing Brodick's hand away from her face. "May I see your soldiers now?"

"Yes," he replied.

She had intended to leave Alec inside while she stepped out on the step to look at the soldiers, but Brodick had other ideas. He whistled, loud and shrill, causing Alec to giggle and cover his ears with his hands. The door flew wide and eight men immediately rushed inside the church. Gillian noticed that every single one of them had to duck under the doorframe. Were all the Buchanans giants?

The second the door had opened, she had shoved Alec behind her back, thinking to protect him, which really was laughable considering the sheer size and obvious strength of the warriors coming toward her. Brodick saw how she shielded the boy and tried not to take offense over the insult she was giving him and his soldiers. Though considered ruthless against their enemies, the Buchanans would never raise a hand against a woman or a child. Everyone who lived in the Highlands knew them to be honorable, but Gillian was from England, and he therefore excused her behavior because she didn't know any better.

Dylan tossed his laird's sword to him as he strode forward, and Brodick slipped the weapon into the sheath at his side, inwardly smiling over the stunned soldiers' faces. They were obviously taken with the beautiful lady, for they couldn't take their eyes off her.

His amusement quickly turned to irritation, however, and he found he didn't like them openly staring at Gillian after all. It was one thing to look, and quite another to gawk. Hadn't they ever seen a pretty woman before?

Alec peeked out from behind Gillian, spotted Dylan, and waved to him. The commander's step faltered, and he bumped into Robert, who promptly shoved him back.

Gillian studied each man while Brodick kept his attention focused on her. "You are convinced now?" he asked calmly after she had finished scrutinizing each one of his soldiers.

"Yes, I am convinced."

"Is that a Maitland hiding behind a woman's skirts?" Dylan asked, his composure still not completely recovered. "I swear to God, the brat looks like Alec Maitland."

Alec immediately ran to Dylan and laughed with delight when the soldier lifted him high up over his head. "She made me hide. I didn't want to, but she made me."

"We thought you drowned, boy," Liam whispered, his voice as raspy as dried leaves.

Dylan lowered Alec and settled him against his shoulder. The child immediately put his arms around the warrior's neck and then leaned to the side so he could see the others. "I didn't drown," he announced.

The eight soldiers surrounded Alec, but several continued to stare at Gillian. Broderick took a possessive step closer to her and scowled his displeasure at Liam and Robert, the worst offenders, so that they would know their laird was angered by their behavior.

"Is the Maitland holding a great distance from here?"

"No," he answered. "Robert, get her satchel and tie it behind your mount," he ordered as he took hold of Gillian's hand and started for the door. "Alec will ride with you, Dylan," he added, and as he marched past Robert, he muttered, "Have you never seen a pretty woman before?"

"Never one as pretty as this," Robert replied.

Dylan shifted Alec to one side and stepped forward to boldly block his laird's path. "Aren't you going to introduce us to your bride, Laird?"

"She's Lady Gillian," he said. He then introduced his soldiers to her, but he said their names so quickly and in such a thick brogue, she only caught one or two.

She would have made a curtsy, but Brodick continued to hold her hand, and so she bowed her head instead. "It is a pleasure to meet you," she said slowly, speaking in Gaelic for the first time since she had met Brodick, and she thought she had done an adequate job until they all smiled at her. Were they pleased with her attempt at their language or were they laughing at her because she'd failed miserably? Her speech became more halting with her growing lack of confidence when she continued, "And I would thank you now for your assistance in helping me get Alec back to his parents."

She was thrilled when all of them nodded.

Robert stepped forward. "Are you his bride?" he asked, blunt as always.

"No," she answered, blushing slightly.

"But you claimed to be his bride," Aaron reminded her.

She smiled. "Yes, I did, but you see, it was just a lie to make your laird curious so that he would come here."

"A claim's a claim," Liam said. The others immediately concurred.

"What does that mean?" she asked the warrior.

Dylan smiled. "It means, lass, that you're his bride."

"But I lied," she argued, thoroughly confused by the conversation. Her explanation seemed simple to understand, yet these soldiers were acting perplexed.

"You have said it is so," a soldier said. She remembered his name was Stephen.

"Now isn't the time for this discussion," Brodick announced.

He led the way outside, pulling Gillian along in his wake, and barely paid any attention to the two Englishmen waiting by the side of the steps. The horses were tethered near the line of trees.

"You'll ride with me," Brodick told her.

She pulled away from him. "I must say good-bye to my friends."

Before he could stop her, she hurried over to Waldo and Henry. Both men bowed their heads and smiled when she spoke to them. Brodick couldn't hear what she was saying, but he could tell from the men's faces that they were pleased.

When he saw her take hold of their hands, he went back to her side. "We've wasted enough time."

She ignored him. "Laird, I would like you to meet Waldo and Henry Hathaway," she said. "If it were not for these courageous men, Alec and I would never have made it this far."

He didn't speak, but he did bow his head slightly to the two brothers.

"Waldo, will you please return the horse I borrowed," she requested.

"But you stole the horse, milady," Henry blurted out.

"No," she countered. "I borrowed the mount without permission. Please promise me, too, that you will both hide until this is finished. If he finds out you helped me, he'll kill you."

"Aye, milady," Waldo said. "We know what the blackheart is capable of, and we will both hide until you return. God protect you on your quest."

Tears came into her eyes. "Twice now you have come to my aid and saved me from disaster."

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