"I'll give you their names after you promise me you and Iain and Ramsey won't retaliate until I've accomplished my goal and my Uncle Morgan is safe. You're a man of your word, Brodick. Promise me."
"Gillian, I cannot let you go back. You'd be walking into a death trap, and I can't—"
"You cannot stop me."
"Yes, I can." His voice was forceful now, angry. He sat up and roughly pulled her into his arms.
"I have to go."
"Brodick, Morgan is now your uncle too, and it's your duty to look out for him, isn't it?"
"I'll find him for you, Gillian, and see that no harm comes to him."
She shook her head. "You wouldn't know where to look. I have to go back and finish this."
He tried to reason with her. "You told me that the bastard demanded you return with the king's box and your sister. You will be going back empty-handed. How then can you expect to save your uncle?"
"The baron's far more interested in getting the jeweled box back than anything else. I'm going to try to convince him that my sister's dead."
"But you don't have the box, do you? And you don't know where the hell it is, remember?"
"I'm praying that my sister remembers," she said quietly.
"And if she doesn't?"
"I don't know," she cried out. "I have to go back. My uncle's life is at stake. Why won't you understand?"
"I can't let you put yourself in such jeopardy. If anything happened to you…" His voice shook, and he couldn't go on, couldn't even think about Gillian being hurt without shuddering. "I wouldn't like it," he muttered.
"Promise me, Brodick."
"Be reasonable," she demanded.
"I am being reasonable. You aren't."
"You knew… before you married me… you knew what I had to do."
"Gillian, things have changed."
She tried another strategy. "You could protect me. You could make certain I was safe, couldn't you?" He didn't answer her. "If you and Ramsey and Iain came with me, I would be very safe. After I've found out where my uncle is, then you could retaliate… but not before."
"So it's your plan to walk into the demon's den alone? You're out of your mind if you think…"
"You could make it safe for me."
She wasn't going to bend, and he had to have the names.
"All right," he finally agreed, but before she could get excited over his promise, he qualified it.
"If your sister has the box or knows where it is and you then have something to bargain with, and if you do exactly what I tell you to do when we get there, then I'll let you go with us."
"And you will wait until my uncle is safe to retaliate?"
"Yes. I give you my word."
She was so pleased she kissed him. "Thank you."
"I swear to God, Gillian, if anything happens to you, I could not live with it."
"You'll protect me."
Heaven help him, he was already regretting his promise. How in God's name could he let her near the bastards?
She put her head down on his shoulder. "There are three of them," she whispered, and felt him tense in reaction. "All of them are barons and close friends of King John. When they were boys, their antics amused him. Baron Alford of Lockmiere is the most powerful. He's the adviser to the king. My Uncle Morgan told me that he was the one who introduced Arianna to John, and for that reason alone, John will always protect him. You're going to have to be very cunning and careful, Brodick. The king will not care what your reasons are if you harm Alford."
"Is Alford the one who killed your father and laid claim to your estates?"
"Yes," she answered. "He's called Alford the Red because of the color of his hair and his temperament. He's the one who struck the bargain with the Highlander, but he had help from the other two. Hugh of Barlowe and Edwin the Bald are always at Alford's beck and call. Both have estates adjacent to Alford's."
"Where is Alford now?"
"Waiting for me in Dunhanshire," she answered.
"Do you think your uncle is there as well?"
"I don't know."
"You're going to have to accept the possibility that Alford has already killed your uncle."
"No," she replied. "Oh, I know Alford would if he could and not suffer a minute of remorse, and I've heard him proudly declare that he has never kept his word, but he needs to keep my uncle alive in order to gain my cooperation. Alford knows he won't get the box unless he can produce my uncle… and in good health… first."
"And then he's going to try to kill both of you."
"You won't let that happen."
"No, I won't," he agreed. "This is a dangerous game you're playing, Gillian, and I promised to let you go with us if you had something to bargain with."
"You'll take me with you," she said. "With or without the box."
Brodick didn't agree or disagree. For the next hour he made her describe in minute detail both her Uncle Morgan's estate and Dunhanshire, and once he was satisfied, he questioned her about the number of soldiers under Alford's command.
It was past midnight when he finally let her rest. She fell asleep sprawled on top of him, safe and protected in his arms.
He stayed awake another hour while he formulated his plans, and when he finally fell asleep, he dreamed of killing the man who had dared to touch her.
Aye, he dreamed of revenge.
Gillian was sick and tired of waiting for her sister to come to her senses. She was also angry with Ramsey because he still hadn't kept his promise to speak to Christen on her behalf, and though she had threatened that she would give him until noon today before she would take matters into her own hands, noon had come and gone, and so had Ramsey. One of the servants told her that he had left the holding early that morning with Brodick and a small band of soldiers. The servant didn't know where they had gone or when they were coming back.
She finally decided to find Brisbane and demand his help. With that intent she got up from the table just as Bridgid came running into the hall, carrying two sets of bows and arrows. She paused to smile at one of Ramsey's soldiers standing guard near the entrance, then continued on until she reached Gillian.
"Shall we go to the lake and swim?" she suggested in a loud voice.
"I don't want—"
"Yes, you do," she whispered. "Play along," she added with a barely perceptible nod at the guard.
"I'd love to go swimming," Gillian replied in a near shout.
Bridgid's eyes sparkled with merriment. "I've brought bows and arrows for both of us," she said. "If we're clever and quick, we will have rabbit stew for supper."
Gillian slipped the pack of arrows over her shoulder and carried the bow as she followed Bridgid through the buttery to the back door. They were outside and across the clearing in a matter of minutes.
Once they reached the cover of the trees, Bridgid, in her excitement, clasped Gillian's hand. "I know where Christen lives. Anthony didn't forget after all. He followed Brisbane yesterday morning just like he promised he would, but then he was ordered to relieve one of the border guards and didn't get back to the holding until dark. It was too late by then, of course. He even apologized," she added. "He's such a dear man."
"Yes, he is," she agreed. "Will you take me to Christen now?"
"Of course I will, but slow down, Gillian. People will notice if you run. Anthony's hidden two horses near the lake, and if luck stays on our side, we'll be on our way soon. You can't tell anyone where we're going. Anthony made me promise, and we can't let anyone know he helped us."
"I won't tell," she assured her friend. "I wouldn't like to see him get into trouble for doing a good deed."
"I doubt anyone will give us a second notice. It's the perfect opportunity. Brodick and Ramsey have gone to settle some trouble on the western border."
"Do you think Ramsey will be angry because I didn't wait for him to speak to Christen?"
"Probably," she replied. "But if he is, he'll talk to Brodick about it, not you. He would never let you see his anger."
"I'm worried about you," she countered. "I don't want you to get into trouble."
"Then we'll hurry and get back before anyone knows we've left," she said. "Besides, I'd be more concerned about your husband's anger if I were you. Brodick's known to have a fierce temper."
"He won't be angry with me. I told him I was going to take matters into my own hands if Ramsey didn't keep his promise to me. And he didn't," she insisted vehemently.
"He would have," Bridgid said in defense of her laird. "Ramsey's a man of his word."
"I don't know what I would do without your help. I even thought about pounding on every door until someone told me where Christen was."
Bridgid lifted a tree branch for Gillian to duck under as she said, "You never would have found her. It's peculiar really. Your sister lives in a very remote area. I've never been that far north, but Anthony assured me it's part of the MacPherson territory."
"Did he tell you how long it will take us to get there?"
"Yes," she answered. "We should be there by midafternoon."
They finally found the horses Anthony had hidden for them. "The gray's yours," Bridgid decided as she ran to the chestnut mare and climbed into the saddle.
Gillian took one look at the beautiful horses and the ornate saddles and shook her head in disbelief. "He borrowed Ramsey's horses?"
"Ramsey won't miss them."
"But they're such grand horses, and if anything—"
"Will you stop worrying?"
Gillian was too close to finally finding her sister to change her mind now.
"Just think. In a very little while you'll be reunited with your dear sister."
Gillian was suddenly brimming with excitement. Slipping the bow over her shoulder, she swung up into the saddle and tried to get comfortable. It was no easy feat. Made of a thin layer of wood, then covered with wide, thick strips of leather, the saddle was stiff, unyielding, but smooth against her skin. Because it was constructed to accommodate a man, she, like Bridgid, rode astride, and after tugging her skirts down over her knees, she picked up the reins and followed her friend down the gentle slope into the valley.
They both spotted Proster on the rise when they crossed the meadow, and Gillian thought he was watching them leave, but Bridgid was just as certain he hadn't noticed them at all.
It was a beautiful day for a ride. The sky was clear, the sun was bright and warm, and the scent of summer was everywhere. They crossed a clearing golden with buttercups, and a few minutes later they climbed a hill. At the summit, Gillian turned to look back. The vista was so incredibly beautiful she imagined that this land surely resembled heaven.
They continued along at a quick pace and descended into a narrow glen, following its long winding corridor until they reached a dense forest. The farther they rode into the wilderness, the more nervous Bridgid became. She kept looking behind her to make certain they weren't being followed.
Gillian also began to worry. She wondered why Christen and her husband would deliberately isolate themselves from all the other MacPhersons. It didn't make any sense to her, for everyone knew there was safety in numbers against hostile clans and marauders. No, it didn't make any sense.
Bridgid was having the same thoughts. "I don't like this," she whispered, as though she were concerned she would be overheard. Pulling on her reins she stopped her horse and waited for Gillian to catch up with her. "I don't like this at all," she repeated.
"We must have taken a wrong turn," Gillian suggested.
"I don't think so," her friend said. "I memorized Anthony's instructions, and I'm sure this is the way he said we should go. He was very specific, but I must not have—"
"Something's wrong," Gillian argued. "This cannot be the right way. Bridgid, do you notice how quiet it is? It's as though the birds have all left the forest."
"It's too quiet. I don't have a good feeling about this. I think we'd best turn around and go back."
"I think we should too," Gillian quickly agreed. "We've been riding most of the afternoon, and we should have found Christen's cottage by now."
"If we hurry, we can be home by sunset. Are you very disappointed? I know how much you want to see your sister again."
"It's all right. I just want to get out of here. I feel like the forest is closing in on us."
Their instincts were telling them to hurry, and both of them admitted that they had acted rashly by going into the wilderness barely armed and without an escort.
Because the path was so narrow and broken, they had to back their horses to a wider area so they could turn around. Then Gillian took the lead. She had just broken through the thicket and was crossing a stream when she heard a shout. Turning toward the sound, she saw a soldier riding hard down the slope toward them. Squinting against the sun, she recognized the MacPherson plaid, but she couldn't see the man's face.
Bridgid rode forward to flank her side. She put her hand above her eyes to block the sunlight, then cried out, "It's Proster. He must have followed us."
"What in heaven's name is he doing?" Gillian asked, as she watched the MacPherson soldier swing his bow up and reach for an arrow, his gaze intently locked on the trees behind them.
The ambush took them by complete surprise. Gillian heard a whistling noise behind her and turned just as an arrow sliced through the air in front of her face.
And then more arrows whizzed past. Gillian's horse bolted into a gallop, keeping pace with Bridgid's strong mare as they raced up the bank of the stream. Thinking they were easy targets together, Gillian veered her horse away from her friend, screaming to Bridgid to get to Proster.
There was a fleeting moment when she thought she was going to make it to the cover of the trees. She flattened herself against the gray, lifted her knees, and tucked her head low beside his mane to make herself less of a target. And that was when the arrow caught her.