"They can't have gone far," Ramsey told Brodick. "It's nearly sunset now. We'll have to hurry if we're going to find them before dark. Which way did Anthony go?"
"South," he answered. "Laird, I take full responsibility for this. If I had been here instead—"
Ramsey cut him off. "You were needed at home," he snapped. "No one saw them leave?" he asked then. Incredulous, he shook his head. "How was it possible for them to get away without anyone seeing them?"
Gideon didn't have any answers. Brodick swung onto his stallion's back. "We're wasting time," he muttered. "I'll search the west. Gideon, take soldiers and search the east, and Ramsey, you go north."
"There's no reason to go north," Ramsey argued. "If they went out alone, they wouldn't have gone into the wilderness. Bridgid knows better."
Two scared young MacPherson soldiers waited on their horses near the base of the valley. They watched Gideon lead a band of soldiers down the hill and then head east.
"You tell Laird Buchanan," Alan whispered.
Ker shook his head. "You tell him. I don't want him to break my nose again. I'll tell Ramsey."
Brodick and Black Robert took the lead, followed by Dylan, Liam, and Aaron. They had just crossed the grassy plain when they heard a shout. Dylan turned back when he saw the MacPherson soldier chasing them, but the others continued on.
Alan's freckled face was bloodred, more from fear than exertion as he blurted out his important news. "Proster… he followed the ladies, and they went north."
Dylan whistled and within seconds Brodick and the others surrounded the boy.
"Proster followed my wife?"
The steely gaze of the laird so unnerved the soldier, he could barely get the words out. "He saw your wife and Bridgid KirkConnell riding north."
"Were there any soldiers with them?" Aaron demanded.
"No, they went out alone, and that's why Proster followed them. He said he was going to bring them back… that it wasn't safe…"
"Then why the hell didn't he bring them back?" Liam demanded.
"I don't know," Alan stammered. "Something must have happened to delay them. Ker and I were going to look for them, but then Gideon arrived, and on his heels, you and Ramsey returned."
"If you aren't telling us the truth, I swear I'll flay you alive," Black Robert threatened.
"As God is my witness, I'm telling you the truth. I swear it on my mother's grave. My friend… Ker… he went to tell Ramsey to go north."
"Bring him with us," Brodick ordered. Goading his stallion into a gallop, he raced toward the forest. He kept telling himself not to panic, but it didn't do any good. My God, what was she thinking to ride out into the wilderness without protection? One boy protecting two women? Something had happened all right, or Proster would have brought them back by now.
For the first time in his life, Brodick prayed. Dear God, let her be all right. I need her.
Gillian had had enough. She simply couldn't go on, and it was too dangerous anyway, as darkness was fast approaching and the gray mist was getting thicker. They had stopped beside a creek, and she was about to tell Proster that with or without his help she was going to get rid of the arrow, but then she heard a rumbling in the distance. Within seconds the ground beneath her began to tremble.
Proster grabbed his sword as Bridgid frantically reached for her bow and arrows. Gillian pulled her dagger from her belt and moved closer to Bridgid.
"Get ready," Proster called, grimacing over the tremor he heard in his voice.
"Maybe it's Ker and Alan." Bridgid whispered the hope out loud.
"Too many horses," Proster said as he nudged his horse forward to put himself in front of the women.
Seconds later, Brodick emerged from the mist. He saw the three of them and pulled hard on the reins. The sight of his wife, apparently safe and sound, filled him with such relief, his knees almost buckled when he leapt to the ground.
His soldiers followed. They, too, dismounted and headed straight for Proster. They boy was shaking so violently it looked as though he was waving at them with his sword. But he didn't back down or run. As terrified as he was, he held his ground, willing to risk his life for the women.
"Put your sword away, boy," Dylan commanded.
Brodick rushed to his wife. "Gillian, you are all right?"
He expected a quick yes, and then he was going to give her hell. Didn't the woman understand how much she meant to him? How dare she take such a risk? By God, he would demand that she beg his forgiveness for putting him through such torture. And it would be a month of Sundays before he forgave her.
She was so overwhelmed with relief and joy that Brodick had found her, she didn't care that he was furious. "No, I'm not all right, but Brodick, I'm so happy to see you."
Proster, his hands still trembling, after three attempts had finally gotten his sword back into its sheath. He had just swung one leg over and was jumping off his horse when Brodick reached for his wife. The soldier lunged at the laird and shouted, "Don't touch her."
Brodick reacted with amazing speed. Proster's feet hadn't even touched the ground before he was thrown backward with such force he landed on his backside in the grass.
"What the hell's the matter with him?" Brodick demanded as he turned back to his wife.
Dylan grabbed the crazed soldier by the scruff of his neck and hauled him to his feet. Then he began to shake him. "You dare to give my laird orders?" he roared.
"She's pinned to the saddle," Proster shouted. "An arrow—"
As soon as the words registered, Dylan let go of the soldier. Brodick had already noticed the arrow and had moved to the right side of the horses to get a closer look.
Gillian put her hand against Brodick's cheek. "I'm so happy to see you," she whispered.
"And I'm happy to see you," he whispered back. "Now let me see what you've done to yourself," he ordered gruffly.
Her spine stiffened. "I didn't do anything," she cried out. "Except try to get away. If it weren't for Proster, Bridgid and I would have been killed."
Suddenly the three of them were talking at the same time as each tried to explain what had happened.
"They were Sinclairs," Proster announced.
"They weren't trying to kill me," Bridgid said. "They were after Gillian."
"They would have killed you too," Gillian countered.
"Proster killed one of them," Bridgid told Brodick then.
"Their names were Durston and Faudron," Proster said.
Brodick was taken aback when he heard the name of one of Ramsey's most valued commanders. "Faudron tried to kill you?"
"Yes," Bridgid answered for Gillian. "He and Durston were waiting for us."
"It was an ambush," Gillian said.
"I killed Durston," Proster boasted.
"What about Faudron? Did he get away?" Brodick asked.
"Nay," Proster answered. "Your wife killed him."
Brodick's gaze flew to Gillian.
"I had to," she whispered.
"One arrow, Laird, that went through his forehead. Her aim was true."
Brodick was trying to wedge his hand beneath Gillian's thigh so that he could get a proper grip on the arrow, but when he saw her flinch, he pulled his hand back.
"Proster tried to get the arrow out, but he couldn't," she told him.
The soldier began to move away from the commander, but Dylan grabbed him by the neck again.
Exasperated, Gillian called out, "Dylan, please let go of him."
Brodick took Gillian's dagger, lifted her plaid, and then slit her underskirts all the way up to the top of her thigh. The soldiers crowded around their laird to watch what he was doing and Gillian, trying to maintain some semblance of modesty and decorum, hastily tugged the plaid down over her leg.
"This isn't the time for shyness," Brodick told her.
She knew he was upset. "It isn't as bad as it looks."
"Could have fooled me," he countered.
"She might wish to sleep through this, Laird," Robert suggested.
"You're going to wait until she falls asleep?" Bridgid asked. She'd pushed her way through the men so that she could take hold of Gillian's hand.
Gillian was more astute than her friend. She was also outraged by Robert's suggestion. "No one's going to knock me out. Have I made myself clear?"
"But milady," Robert began.
She stopped him cold. "I cannot believe you would suggest such a thing."
"A light tap is all it would take," Aaron argued. "You wouldn't feel a thing."
"We don't like seeing you in pain, milady," Liam rasped.
"Then close your eyes," she snapped.
Brodick finally noticed Bridgid squeezed up against him. She had tears in her eyes as she stared at Gillian. He told her to move back so that he could, do what was needed, but Bridgid didn't budge, and Aaron had to lift her out of the way.
"What are you going to do?" Robert asked from behind.
In answer, Brodick pulled his sword free. "Dylan, hold the arrow steady. Liam, grab the reins."
Dylan moved forward, grabbed the arrow with both hands and pressed down against Gillian's thigh to keep it from moving.
Aaron pulled Bridgid out of the way, while Robert hurried to the other side of the horse and told Gillian to lean toward him.
"Are you still thinking about punching me, Robert?" she asked suspiciously.
"Nay, milady, I would never strike you without gaining permission."
She decided to trust him and put her hands on his shoulders as she slowly leaned down toward him.
And then she closed her eyes and waited. She heard the whistle of the sword as it sliced through the air, felt only a slight jarring as the blade cut the arrow, and then it was over. When she opened her eyes again she saw that the arrow had been cleanly cut in half just a thumb's width above Dylan's hands.
She knew what was going to happen next, and, Lord, how she dreaded it. Brodick was slipping his arms under her knees. "Put your hands on my shoulders," he ordered.
"What is it?"
"I don't want to go back to Annie Drummond's cottage. Do you hear me? I don't want to go back there ever again."
He tightened his grip. "I thought you liked Annie's house."
Bridgid was wringing her hands in agitation. She could barely stand to watch her friend in such pain. "You'll feel better if you scream," she blurted. "I would."
Brodick looked into his wife's eyes, saw the tears, and said, "She will not make a sound."
He got just the reaction he wanted. Instantly furious, she shouted, "I'm supposed to say that, not you. If you tell me to be brave, then when I am, it doesn't count. I…"
She didn't make a sound, except her deep indrawn breath when Brodick lifted her and the arrow slid through her leg. She threw her arms around him and held tight, and when the tears fell, she buried her face in the crook of his neck.
He wasn't sure which one of them was shaking more. Without a word, he turned and carried her to the creek. Bridgid tried to follow them, thinking she could help bind the injury, but Dylan grabbed her and told her to wait until they returned.
"It's over with," Brodick whispered, and his voice was hoarse with relief. He held her tight against him and couldn't seem to make himself let go. It was going to take some time for him to get over the scare of losing her. He kissed her forehead and then begged her to stop crying.
She wiped her face with his plaid. "You're dying to yell at me, aren't you?"
"Damn right I am," he admitted. "But I'm a thoughtful man, and so I'll wait until you have recovered."
She didn't believe a word of it. "That is thoughtful of you," she agreed.
"What in God's name were you thinking, to leave without… my God, Gillian, you could have been killed."
He had only just gotten warmed up, and he continued to rant at her all the while he splashed cold water over her leg to wash off any dirt or dried blood. He stopped long enough to grudgingly admit the wound wasn't nearly as awful as he'd first thought, but he went right back to shouting at her while he tore strips from her skirt and wrapped them around her thigh to stop the bleeding. By the time he was finished, her thigh didn't hurt much at all, but her pride had taken quite a blistering.
He wouldn't let her walk, and she wouldn't let him carry her anywhere until he had finished giving her a piece of his mind. She wasn't about to let him scold her in front of the men.
Scooping her up into his arms, his tirade continued. "When we get home, I swear I'm putting two guards in front of you and two behind you. You're never going to get another chance to scare me like this again."
She put her hand against his cheek, a simple caress that magically calmed him. Then she ruined it by trying to explain her actions, inadvertently getting him riled up again.
"I didn't deliberately leave the holding in hopes of getting attacked."
"But you did leave the holding, didn't you? And without a proper guard to protect you. How could you leave Sinclair land without—"
"I didn't know I was leaving Ramsey's territory."
He closed his eyes and told himself for the hundredth time that she was all right. The thought of losing her scared the hell out of him and infuriated him at the same time. How had he allowed himself to become so vulnerable?
"Shouting at me isn't going to accomplish anything."
"Sure it is," he snapped. "It's making me feel a hell of a lot better."
She didn't dare smile, guessing he would take grave offense if she did. She wanted to soothe him now, not incite his wrath further.
"Will you please be reasonable?"
"I am being reasonable. Haven't you figured it out yet? It took me a while, but by God, I finally have."
"Figured out what?"
"Trouble follows you like a shadow, Gillian. You're prone to injuries. I swear to God, if a tree decided to fall right now, it would find your head to land on."
"Oh, for heaven's sake," she muttered. "I'll admit that I have had a run of bad fortune, but—"