"Would it be all right if Alec rode with me for a little while?"
"He'll ride with Robert."
"But Robert won't talk to him."
Exasperated, he said, "My soldier has more important matters on his mind."
"The child doesn't understand that."
With a sigh, he said, "All right. He can ride with you. We're on safe land now."
He started toward his horse, then stopped. "Do all boys his age talk as much as he does?"
"I don't know. Alec's the first child I've ever been around."
"You're good with him," he said abruptly. "You have a kind heart, Gillian."
She watched him walk away. The sun seemed to be following him. Beams of light shone down on his head and shoulders as he crossed the glen, and in the golden glow, her bronzed warrior looked as though he'd been sculpted by God in the archangel Michael's image so that he, too, could fight the demons roaming the world. It was at that moment that she became aware of him in a way she never had before. Now she reacted as a woman, and she was consumed with a yearning so intense tears came into her eyes. Annie and Kevin
Drummond's charming home suddenly came into her mind. She pictured their pretty little cottage, but in her fantasy, Kevin wasn't standing in the doorway, Brodick was, and he was beckoning her.
Daydreams were dangerous because they made her wish for things she could never have.
"Milady, is something wrong?" Liam asked.
At the sound of his voice she jumped. "No, nothing's wrong."
Before he could question her further, she picked up her skirts and hurried to her horse. She couldn't get a proper grip with her left hand, and after trying twice without success, she gave up and called Brodick for assistance.
He nudged his mount close, leaned down, and all but tossed her onto her mare's back. Robert lifted Alec into her lap and went to fetch his horse.
"Brodick?" she whispered so the others wouldn't overhear.
"You told me that arrogance wasn't my greatest flaw. You had another imperfection in mind?"
He'd wondered how long it would take her to get around to asking him that question and had to force himself not to laugh. "You have many flaws," he announced. He swore he saw a spark of fire ignite in her emerald eyes as she straightened her shoulders. The lass had a temper, and he found that flaw quite pleasing. "But there was one flaw that made all the other imperfections pale in comparison."
"Was?" she asked. "I don't have this flaw any longer?"
"No, you don't."
"Pray tell," she muttered in exasperation, "what was this terrible flaw?"
He grinned. "You used to be English."
Gillian felt as though she'd entered another world. Even the sunset seemed different in the Highlands. The sky had turned into a brilliant canvas filled with broad, sweeping strokes of gold and splashes of orange. The center of the sun was a bold red, unlike any color Gillian had ever seen before, and she knew tomorrow the palette would be just as magnificent. God, she thought, surely favored this land.
"Gillian, you know what? I'm almost home."
"We must be close," she replied. "We've climbed almost to the top of the mountain."
Alec yawned loudly. "Tell me the story again when you scared your uncle Morgan and made him scream," he pleaded.
"I've told you that story at least five times now."
"But I want to hear it again. Please?"
"You close your eyes and rest and I'll tell you the story again."
Alec cuddled up against her chest and yawned once more. "I'm ready now."
"When I was a little girl—"
"You didn't talk for a whole long year."
The little boy obviously had memorized the story. "Yes, that's right. I didn't speak for almost a full year."
Brodick slowed his mount and waited until Gillian was even with him. He'd heard what she'd said to Alec and was curious to know the rest of the story.
"And you went to live with your Uncle Morgan, remember?"
She smiled. "I remember."
"But you got to tell it."
"One night I had a terrible nightmare—"
"Like the nightmares I sometimes have."
"Yes," she agreed. "My lady's maid, Liese, woke me up so I'd stop screaming, and as was her habit, she held me in her lap and rocked me."
"And then she almost dropped you on top of your head 'cause you finally talked to her."
"That's right, Alec."
"And the bad man who told you you killed your sister lied 'cause Liese said you didn't kill her. He was being mean, but you know what?"
"Uncle Brodick will make him sorry he was mean."
Embarrassed because she knew Brodick could hear what the child was saying, she hastily continued the story.
"I was very happy to learn that Christen was alive, but then I also worried that she might be lost. Liese told me not to fret about my sister because she was certain my Uncle Morgan would help me find her. She said that all I needed to do was ask him. She meant for me to wait until morning, but I surprised her when I jumped off her lap and went running to my uncle's chamber."
"'Cause it was the middle of the night, right?"
"Right," she answered.
Alec started giggling because he knew what was coming and he could hardly contain himself. His shoulders shook as he covered his mouth with one hand and eagerly waited, his eyes twinkling with anticipation.
"Liese tried to stop me, but she wasn't fast enough, and she couldn't chase me into my uncle's private chamber. I ran to the side of his bed, climbed up on the platform, and poked him in the ribs to get him to wake up. He was in such a deep sleep, he was snoring, and no matter how hard I poked and prodded, I couldn't get him to open his eyes."
The story captured Brodick's attention, but he wasn't sure if it was because of the way she told the tale or if it was Alec's reaction that so amused him. The child could hardly sit still in her lap.
"And then what did you do?" Alec demanded.
"You know very well what I did. I've told you this story so many times you know it better than I do."
"But you got to tell it."
"I shouted at the poor man and gave him quite a fright."
Alec burst into raucous laughter. "And then he screamed, right?"
"Oh, my, yes, he screamed all right."
"And then you screamed, didn't you?"
She laughed. "Yes, I did. Poor Uncle was so startled, he leapt up and grabbed his sword, but his feet got all tangled up in the covers, and he fell out of bed and rolled all the way down the platform. And that's the end of the story."
"But you got to tell how you followed him around everywhere he went, talking and talking and talking all the day long."
"You just told it," she said. "Uncle told me that for the year I didn't speak he would pray every night that I would one day say his name—"
"But when you started talking and you wouldn't stop, that's when he started praying for a little peace and quiet?"
"Yes," she answered. "You know, Alec, when you get home, there's going to be quite a lot of excitement, and I doubt you'll get to bed early tonight. Why don't you close your eyes and rest?"
Yawning, he wrapped his arms around her waist. "Gillian?" he whispered.
"I love you."
"I love you too, honey bear."
The little boy was clearly worn out and fell asleep minutes later. It was blissfully silent as they continued the steep climb up the side of the mountain. Every once in a while, Brodick would turn back and look at her, a puzzled expression on his face, as though he were trying to work something out in his mind.
The wind picked up, a brittle cold wind that felt as if it were slicing through her bones. She felt Alec shiver and wrapped the plaid around him.
The weight of the child against her left arm soon became unbearable, and she finally asked Brodick for help. Alec was so exhausted he didn't wake up as he was transferred onto his uncle's lap. The tenderness in Brodick's eyes as he carefully placed the child's head against his chest made her think of her uncle Morgan and how he used to hold her on his lap while he told her bedtime stories, and she was suddenly so homesick and scared she wanted to weep.
Brodick caught her watching him. "Alec will get an ache in his ear if you don't cover his head," she blurted to cover her embarrassment.
He pulled the plaid over Alec's head but kept his attention centered on Gillian.
"What has you so worried, lass?"
"Nothing," she lied. "I was thinking…"
"Thinking about what?" he prodded.
He'd moved so close, his leg rubbed against hers. She pretended not to notice.
"Answer me," he demanded.
She sighed. "I was thinking that when you marry and have children, you will make a fine father."
"What makes you think I don't already have children?"
Her eyes widened. "But you're not married."
He laughed. "A man need not be married to father children."
"I realize that, she replied, trying her best to sound worldly. "I'm not completely ignorant."
"But you are completely innocent, aren't you?"
"That, sir, is none of your affair."
Her cheeks had turned bright pink with embarrassment. She was a delight to observe, he thought, and a sure temptress.
"Do you?" she whispered.
"Do I what?"
"Then you were teasing me."
She seemed to require an answer to her statement, and so he gave her a quick nod before he nudged his mount and took over the lead.
A few minutes later she heard the sound of thunder and the ground began to tremble. Stephen, Aaron, Liam and Robert all moved forward to circle her.
"Protect Alec and your laird," she ordered.
"Milady, we're on Maitland land now. There isn't any danger," Stephen explained.
"Then why are the four of you pressing in on me?"
Robert grinned. "We're just letting the Maitlands know."
"Know what, Robert?"
He wasn't inclined to explain. The Maitland soldiers crashed through the trees then and surrounded them. The noise startled Gillian's mare. Before she could calm the horse, Liam grabbed hold of the reins and forced the mare's head down.
They were encircled by warriors, and their closeness became oppressive. They were at least forty in number, and every one of them looked grim.
One soldier broke through the line and rode forward to speak to Brodick. There was something vaguely familiar about the man.
She asked Liam, "Is that soldier angry with your laird?"
"No, milady," he answered. "His name is Winslow, and he always frowns."
"Winslow is Iain Maitland's commander in arms," Stephen told her. "He's also Brodick's brother."
No wonder he seemed so familiar to her, for now she could see the resemblance in the brother's coloring and piercing eyes. Winslow even frowned like Brodick, she thought, when the Maitland commander turned toward her, narrowed his eyes, and said something to his brother.
Stephen deliberately nudged his mount closer to Gillian on one side and Liam squeezed closer on her other side.
"Winslow wants to know who you are, milady," Robert whispered from behind.
She watched Brodick shrug as though she were so unimportant to him he couldn't remember who she was.
And that's the way it should be, she thought to herself. She wasn't important to him; she was simply a means to an end. For a short time, she and Brodick had a united goal of getting an innocent child back to his family. But now they were on Maitland land, and soon their duty would be over. Alec would be with his parents again, Brodick would no doubt go home, and she would begin her search for her sister. Her mind understood that their time together was over, yet her heart ached with regret. It was logical that Brodick would return to his duties as laird over the Buchanans… and it was right. Why, then, did she feel so alone? Gillian didn't need him, or any other man… except her uncle, of course. Uncle Morgan was her family, and when her quest was over, if she succeeded, she would return to him.
But she would never forget Brodick… or the spontaneous kiss he'd given her that had meant nothing to him and everything to her.
Winslow caught her attention when he once again glanced her way and frowned with obvious displeasure. She heard him say the word "English" and assumed he was angry because Brodick had brought an outsider to the Maitlands.
Brodick's response was severe, but he spoke so rapidly, Gillian couldn't catch a single word. Whatever he said seemed to placate his brother, though, because he backed down and reluctantly nodded. Then Brodick lifted the blanket away from Alec's face. Winslow was so stunned he let out a shout. Alec immediately woke up, pushed the plaid down, and sat up straight, smiling as the Maitland soldiers moved forward.
All of the men began to hoot and holler, making such a ruckus Gillian's ears rang.
Alec loved the attention. He gleefully waved to his father's soldiers, then turned in Brodick's lap to look back at Gillian. Alec's joy was wonderful to see, and she knew that she would never forget this wonderful moment. Thank you, God, she prayed, for getting this child home.
Gillian's radiant expression took Brodick's breath away, and when she looked at him and smiled, she made him feel invincible. How could one woman have such an impact on him in such a short time? He felt as though his world had been changed forever, and, honest to God, he didn't know if he liked that one bit. Gillian was a disruption—
"Iain's on his way back from the training fields," Winslow said, breaking into his brother's thoughts.
"You should prepare him," Brodick said. "It's bound to be a shock having a son return from the dead."
Winslow laughed. "A joyous shock," he remarked before leaving.
The Maitland soldiers tried to press in on Gillian, which the Buchanan soldiers took immediate exception to, and had Brodick not put an end to the budding hostility, Gillian was certain a real fight would have broken out. Angry words and hard shoves were exchanged, but no real damage was done.