She lay down on her side facing the woods, her back to the soldiers, fully convinced she wouldn't get a moment's rest with an audience observing her every move, but exhaustion won out and she was asleep minutes later.
So that they wouldn't disturb her, the men continued their conversation in low whispers. Brodick couldn't stop watching her, worrying about foolish matters such as whether she had enough blankets. The wind had picked up and heavy rain clouds moved in, covering the moonlight. The sound of thunder rumbled in the distance, and the air became thick and heavy.
The darker it got, the more agitated Alec became. Robert doused the fire, and the camp became nearly pitch-black. Grabbing his blanket, the child scrambled to his feet and blurted out, "I've got to sleep with Gillian."
"Why?" Brodick asked, wondering if the boy would admit he was afraid of the dark.
"'Cause she gets scared in the night." Without waiting for permission, he dragged his blanket across the clearing and placed it next to Gillian. Carefully putting his stick within grabbing distance, he yawned and then curled up against her back.
Brodick watched him struggle to keep his eyes open, then heard him whisper, "Uncle?"
"What is it, Alec?"
"You won't leave… will you?"
"No, I won't leave. Go to sleep."
Gillian was awakened from a deep sleep during the night by a howling scream like the sound of a tortured animal. She was very familiar with the unearthly sound. Alec was trapped in another nightmare. She quickly rolled to her side and took the little boy into her arms to soothe him.
"Hush," she whispered as she stroked his brow. "It's all right now. You're safe."
The screams turned to whimpers, and his terror abated. She continued to stroke him until she felt him relax and heard his breathing calm.
The heart-stopping howling started all over again an hour later, and she repeated the ritual a second time. During the predawn hour, she awakened yet again, but this time for an altogether different reason. She was on her back with her left arm stretched wide. It was pinned down and throbbing painfully. She turned her head and saw that Alec was using her bandage as a pillow. Ever so slowly, so as not to disturb him, she eased her arm out from under him. She was bringing her hand down to her side when she noticed something resting on her stomach. It was a hand; it was heavy, and it didn't belong to her. Stupefied, she squinted at it for several seconds while she tried to clear her mind, and then she slowly followed the path from the hand up the muscular arm to the broad shoulder. She blinked. Good Lord, she was sleeping with Brodick. She slowly sat up and looked around her and realized she was in the center of a cocoon. Surrounding her in a circle were all of Brodick's soldiers. She couldn't comprehend how they had gotten there, or how she had ended up in Brodick's arms. She tried to think about it, but she was so sleepy she couldn't keep her eyes open long enough to make sense out of anything, and so she lay back down, put her head on Brodick's shoulder, her hand on his chest, and went back to sleep.
For the first time in a long, long time, she felt protected. Blessedly, her nightmares left her alone.
Brodick shook her awake an hour after dawn. The poor lass looked all wrung out and he hated to interrupt her sleep, for she'd had precious little of it but time was wasting away, and they had a hard ride through hostile territory ahead of them.
"We have to get going, Gillian."
"I'll only be a minute," she promised as she hurried to the lake with her satchel tucked under her arm. She washed quickly, then brushed her hair and dug through her bag for a ribbon. Because of the bandage, her left hand was useless and she couldn't get her hair braided. After trying unsuccessfully to bind it behind her neck with the ribbon, she gave up.
They were waiting for her when she returned to camp. Liam took her satchel and tossed it to Robert.
"You must eat, milady," Liam said as he thrust what looked like a fried triangle of mush into her hand.
"I'm not hungry, Liam, but I thank you…"
He wouldn't take the food back. "You must eat, milady," he insisted.
She didn't want to be difficult, and so she forced herself to swallow the bland-tasting food.
"Liam, would you please tie my hair back with this ribbon? I can't seem to…" Her voice trailed away when she saw his appalled expression. "It wouldn't be proper?" she asked.
"Nay, milady, it wouldn't. Your laird should be the only man to touch your hair."
Her laird indeed. How could she argue with such an absurd idea? The Buchanans, she'd already learned, were an obstinate lot, and when they got a notion into their hard heads, nothing could prod it loose.
They were also good and honorable men who were now protecting Alec and her, and nothing any of them did would cause her to lose her patience.
"All right then," she agreed.
Brodick was leading his horse toward her when she ran to him and asked his assistance. He also looked startled, but he did accept the ribbon. She turned around, swung her hair over her shoulder, and lifted it up with one hand. He pushed her hand away, pulled on her hair as though he were grooming his horse's tail, and roughly tied the ribbon into a hard knot.
The man was as delicate as a bull. She thought he might have pulled her hair on purpose because she'd asked him to do a woman's chore, but she held her smile and thanked him profusely.
"Will we reach Laird Ramsey Sinclair's holding before nightfall?"
"No," he answered curtly. He grabbed her by her waist and lifted her onto his stallion's back, then swung up behind her and took the reins. "We're going to the Maitlands'."
She bumped his chin when she turned to him. "We must go to Ramsey first and warn him of the danger to him and his brother before we take Alec home."
He was astonished that she had the gumption to contradict him. No woman had ever dared argue with him before, and he wasn't quite certain how to proceed. Didn't she realize his position of power?
"You're English," he said. "And I will therefore make certain allowances for you. I realize you don't understand you shouldn't argue with me, and so I'll explain it to you. Don't argue with me."
Incredulous, she said, "That's it? 'Don't argue with me' is your explanation as to why I shouldn't argue with you?"
"Are you trying to irritate me?"
"No, of course not."
Presuming she now understood he wasn't going to waste valuable time debating his decisions with her, he turned to call out to Dylan, but she regained his full attention when she put her hand on his chest. Her voice was low, insistent. "I must warn Laird Sinclair."
He tilted his head ever so slightly as he studied her. "Do you know him?" he asked softly. "Have you seen Ramsey?"
She couldn't understand why he had suddenly become so tense and irritable. His behavior was most puzzling, but she decided not to remark on it now because she was more interested in making him be reasonable.
"No, I've never met the man, but I know a good deal about him."
He raised an eyebrow. "Tell me what you know."
Ignoring his gruff tone, she answered, "I know he rules the Sinclair clan and that he's their new laird. Isn't that true?"
"It is," he answered.
Her fingertips were slowly trailing a path down his chest, her touch damned distracting. He wondered if she realized what she was doing or if it was a deliberate ploy to gain his cooperation. Did the woman actually believe that a kind word and a gentle caress would sway him? It was laughable, really. Anyone who knew him well understood that once he had made up his mind, he never changed it.
"And I have made certain assumptions about him," she continued. "A man doesn't become laird unless he's a very fit warrior. I imagine he's… almost… as strong as you are."
The tension eased out of him. "Almost," he arrogantly allowed.
She didn't smile, but the urge was nearly overwhelming. "I also know that Ramsey has a brother as young as Alec. He's a child, and it's therefore your duty, and mine, to watch out for him. Every child should be protected from harm, and Michael's no exception."
Her argument was sound. Brodick had thought first to get her and Alec to Iain Maitland, with whom they would be safe, and then go to Ramsey to warn him.
He reevaluated his decision now. "Your primary concern is for the boy, isn't it?"
"Yes," she replied.
"I'll send Dylan and two others to warn Ramsey, but the rest of us will go to the Maitlands'. Does that satisfy you?"
"Yes, thank you."
He grabbed her hand to get her to stop stroking him and said, "In future, you will not argue with me."
It wasn't a request but a statement of fact, and Gillian decided to let him think she agreed. "As you wish."
After receiving his instructions, Dylan left with Ossian and Fingal to go to the Sinclair holding. Alec rode with Robert, and Liam took the lead as they continued toward their destination. When they stopped to rest the horses at the nooning hour, Keith and Stephen split from the group. The soldiers caught up with the procession again an hour later, looking as smug as could be, and leading a feisty gray mare.
Gillian took to the animal right away. She was pleased they had borrowed the horse until she found out they didn't plan to ever give her back. Appalled, she refused to ride the horse unless they promised her that when they reached the Maitlands', they would return the mare to her rightful owner, but the soldiers were as stubborn as their laird and wouldn't agree to any such thing. Keith tried to be clever by changing the subject while Stephen tried to convince her that the man who owned the horse felt honored because a Buchanan had chosen his mare to steal.
"Do you want us to insult the man?" Stephen asked.
"No, of course I don't, but—"
"It would shame him," Keith told her.
"If you think I'm going to believe—"
"It's time to go." Brodick gave the order as he lifted her onto the mare. His hand rested on her thigh. "You do know how to ride, don't you?"
She began to push his hand away, but he merely tightened his grip while he patiently waited for her to answer his question.
She decided to give him a dose of his own arrogance. "Better than you, Laird."
He shook his head at her and tried to ignore the sweet smile she gave him with her outrageous boast. "I don't like arrogant women."
"Then you aren't going to like me at all," she replied cheerfully. "I'm horribly arrogant. Just ask my uncle Morgan. He tells me it's my greatest flaw."
"No, arrogance isn't your greatest flaw."
Before she realized what he was going to do, his hand cupped the back of her neck and he roughly pulled her toward him. He'd moved so quickly, she didn't even have time to blink, and she was still smiling at him when his mouth settled possessively on hers.
He kissed the breath right out of her. The heat of his mouth against hers sent a jolt of excitement surging through her body. The kiss was exhilarating, and then it got better. His tongue stroked hers, and the pleasure was so intense, she was certain it had to be a sin, but she couldn't make herself care. All she wanted to do was kiss him back as passionately as he was kissing her.
She wanted to get closer to him, to throw her arms around his neck, hold him close, and never let go. She tried to do just that, and when he ended the kiss, she very nearly toppled to the ground. Fortunately, he wasn't as addlebrained as she was—'twas a fact he didn't look at all affected by the searing kiss—and he was able to catch her before she disgraced herself.
She could hear Alec making gagging sounds of disgust in between his giggles, but didn't turn to look at any of the soldiers, knowing that her face was burning with embarrassment.
"You mustn't ever kiss me again, Brodick," she whispered hoarsely.
He laughed as he swung up onto his mount and took the lead. She nudged her horse into a trot to catch up with him.
"I mean it," she whispered.
He acted as though he hadn't heard her, and she decided to let the matter go.
They rode hard that day, stopping only once more to rest the horses and let Alec stretch his legs. Gillian stayed behind Brodick as they rode through rough, untamed, but breathtakingly beautiful land.
When they stopped for the night, she went to the nearby stream and washed, all the while thinking about the comment Brodick had made but hadn't explained, and the longer she thought about it the more curious she became. He'd told her that arrogance wasn't her greatest flaw, indicating he believed there was another more serious imperfection.
She was dying to ask him to explain himself, but determined not to, and though it was frustrating, she was able to control her curiosity for a while. She and Alec were so worn out from the long day, they went to bed directly after supper. Both of them slept like the dead, and if Alec had nightmares, she didn't remember soothing him. She awakened a little before dawn and found herself cuddled in Brodick's strong arms again. Content, she closed her eyes and went back to sleep.
So that Alec could catch up on his sleep, they got a late start the following day and didn't stop until the middle of the afternoon. Alec was more relaxed now, but he still wouldn't let her out of his sight. She had to order him to sit with Keith when she needed a few minutes of privacy, and as soon as she returned, he ran to her and latched onto her hand.
The poor innocent looked relieved to see her again.
"I'm not going to disappear on you, Alec."
"Uncle Brodick says we're close to my home now."
"Does this valley look familiar to you?"
"No," he admitted. Then he tugged on her hand. "Gillian?" he whispered.
She leaned down. "Yes?" she asked, wondering what he was worrying about now.
"Can I ride with you?"
"Don't you like riding with Robert?"
"He won't let me talk, not even when it's safe."
"You can ride with me."
"But you got to ask Uncle Brodick."
"I will," she agreed. "Finish eating, and I'll go ask right now."
Brodick was walking back from the forest and appeared to be preoccupied when she approached him.
"Brodick, how much farther is it to Alec's home?"
"A couple of hours."