Alford drew her attention when he let out a loud belch. She watched him wipe his face on the sleeve of his velvet tunic, then lean back in his chair. He seemed to be having difficulty keeping his eyes open, and his voice was heavily slurred when he spoke to her. "What am I going to do with you, Gillian? You've resisted me at every turn. Don't you realize I only have your best interests at heart?"
Edwin burst into raucous laughter. Hugh chuckled as he reached for his goblet again.
"You've been quite a nuisance," Alford continued. "I've been very accommodating to you. Didn't I leave you alone all the while you were growing up? I'll admit I was shocked to see what a beautiful woman you've become. You were such a homely, unappealing child, the transformation is really quite amazing. You have value now, my dear. I could sell you to the highest bidder and make a pretty fortune. Does that possibility frighten you?"
"She's looking bored, not frightened," Edwin remarked.
Alford shrugged indifference. "Are you aware, Gillian, that it took a full unit of soldiers to pry you away from your sainted relative? I heard that your Uncle Morgan put up quite a fight, which I find quite amusing considering the fact that he's such an old, feeble man. Do you know I believe it would be an act of mercy on my part to put him out of his misery. I'm sure he'd appreciate a quick death in lieu of lingering on and on."
"My uncle is neither old nor feeble," she told him.
Edwin laughed. Gillian fought the almost irresistible urge to strike him. Dear God, how she wished she were stronger. She hated feeling so powerless and afraid.
"You will leave my uncle alone, Alford," she demanded. "He cannot hurt you."
He acted as though she hadn't spoken. "He's become a doting parent, hasn't he? Morgan wouldn't have fought so to keep you if he didn't love you like a father. Aye, he was defiant on your behalf, damn his hide," he added with a sneer. "I was also displeased to hear about your defiance. It was embarrassing, really. I expected you to immediately obey my summons. I am your guardian, after all, and you should have come running to me. I simply don't understand your resistance. No, I don't," he said. He paused to shake his head before resuming. "This is your home, is it not? I would think you would be eager to return. King John has decreed Dunhanshire will remain yours until you're wed. Then, of course, your husband will rule on your behalf."
"As it should be," Hugh interjected.
"You haven't weasled Dunhanshire away from the king yet?" Gillian couldn't keep the surprise out of her voice.
"I haven't asked for it," he muttered. "Why should I? It belongs to me all the same, for I am your guardian and therefore control all that is yours."
"Did John appoint you my guardian?" She asked the question to irritate him, for she knew the king had not granted Alford that right.
Alford's face turned red with anger, and he scowled at her while he adjusted his ill-fitted tunic and took another drink of wine. "You're so unimportant to our king that he's all but forgotten about you. I have said that I am your guardian, and that makes it so."
"No, it does not make it so."
"Alford is our king's most trusted confidant," Edwin shouted. "How dare you speak to him in such an insolent tone."
"She is insolent, isn't she?" Alford remarked. "Like it or not, Gillian, I am your guardian and your fate is in my hands. I shall personally choose your husband. As to that, I might wed you myself," he added offhandedly.
She wouldn't allow herself to think about such a repulsive possibility and continued to stare at Alford without reacting to his threat.
"You've promised her to your cousin," Hugh reminded him. "I've heard that Clifford is already making grand plans."
"Yes, I know what I promised, but when have you ever known me to keep my word?" Alford asked with a grin.
Hugh and Edwin laughed until tears streamed down their faces. Alford finally demanded silence with a wave of his hand.
"You've made me lose track of what I was saying."
"You were telling Gillian how displeased you were with her defiance," Edwin reminded him.
"Yes, so I was," he said. "It simply cannot go on, Gillian. I'm a forgiving man—a flaw really—and I can't help pitying the less fortunate, so I let your uncle's outrageous behavior go unpunished. I also forgave you your resistance to my summons to come home."
He took another long swallow from his goblet before continuing. "And how do you repay me for my kindness? You try to help the little savage escape. As your guardian; I simply cannot allow your disobedience to go unpunished. It's time for you and the boy to learn a lesson in humility."
"If you beat her, Alford, she'll need time to recover before she goes on your important quest," Edwin cautioned.
Alford drained the rest of the wine, then motioned for the servant to refill his goblet. "I'm aware of that possibility," he said. "Have you noticed, Edwin, how the boy has attached himself to Gillian? He must foolishly believe she'll protect him from harm. Shall we prove to him how mistaken he is? Hugh, since you so enjoy your work, you can beat the boy."
"You will not touch him." Gillian made the statement very softly. It was far more effective than shouting, and she could tell from Alford's puzzled expression that she had caught him off guard.
"No, you won't."
He drummed his fingertips on the table. "Pain will convince the boy how futile it is to try to escape. Besides, you have both inconvenienced me and I really can't disappoint Hugh. He so wants to hurt one of you."Alford turned to his friend. "Try not to kill the boy. If Gillian fails me, I'll have need of him."
"You will not touch the child," Gillian said again, though this time her voice was hard, emphatic.
"Are you willing to take his beating?" Alford asked.
Alford was stunned by her quick agreement and infuriated because she didn't look at all frightened. Courage was a foreign concept, and he had never been able to figure out why some men and women exhibited this strange phenomenon, while others did not. The trait had eluded him, and though he had certainly never felt the need to try to be courageous, those who did enraged him. What he lacked in his own character he detested in others.
"I will do whatever pleases me, Gillian, and you cannot stop me. I just might decide to kill you."
She shrugged. "Yes, you're right. You could kill me and I couldn't stop you."
He raised an eyebrow and studied her. It was difficult to concentrate, for the wine had made him quite sleepy and all he wanted to do was close his eyes for a few minutes. He took another drink instead.
"You're up to something," he said. "What is it, Gillian? What game do you dare play with the master?"
"No games," she answered. "Kill me if that is your inclination. I'm sure you'll come up with an adequate explanation to give our king. However, as you have just said, you have left me alone all these many years and then suddenly you force me to come back here. You obviously want something from me, and if you kill me—"
"Yes," he interrupted, "I do want something from you." He straightened up in his chair and looked triumphant when he continued, "I have joyous news. After years of searching, I have finally found your sister. I know where Christen hides from me." He watched Gillian closely and was disappointed because she didn't respond to his announcement. Rolling the goblet between his fingertips, he smirked. "I even know the name of the clan protecting her. It's MacPherson, but I don't know the name she uses now. One sister will surely recognize another, and that is why I want you to go and fetch her for me."
"Why don't you send your soldiers to get her?" she asked.
"I cannot send my troops into the thick of the Highlands, and that is where she hides from me. Those savages would slaughter my men. I could, of course, gain King John's blessing for this undertaking, and I'm certain he would give me additional soldiers, but I don't want to involve him in a family matter. Besides, I have you to do this errand for me."
"The soldiers wouldn't know which woman she is, and the heathens certainly wouldn't tell. They protect their own at all costs," Hugh interjected.
"And if I refuse to go?" she asked.
"Someone else can bring Christen to me," he bluffed. "It would just be less complicated if you were to fetch her."
"And would this someone else be able to recognize her?"
"The Highlander who gave us this information knows the name Christen uses," Edwin reminded Alford. "You could force him to tell you."
"For all we know the Highlander could be bringing Christen with him tomorrow," Hugh said. "The message he sent indicated there was a problem—"
"An urgent problem," Edwin interjected. "And it isn't for certain that he will arrive tomorrow. It could be the day after."
"I don't doubt the problem is urgent." Hugh leaned forward in his chair so he could see around Alford. "The traitor wouldn't take the chance of coming all this way if it weren't an urgent matter. He stands the risk of being seen."
Edwin rubbed his triple chins. "If you beat the boy, Hugh, the Highlander might be displeased and demand his gold back."
Hugh laughed. "He wants the boy killed, you old fool. You were too drunk at the time to pay attention to the conversation. Suffice it to say that a bargain was struck between the Highlander and Alford. As you know, every so often a new rumor surfaces that the golden box has been seen, and every time King John hears of it, he sends troops to scour the kingdom. His desire to find the culprit who killed his Arianna and get his treasure back has not dampened over the years."
"Some say his fervor has increased tenfold," Edwin remarked. "The king has even sent troops into the Lowlands looking for information."
Hugh nodded. "And while John searches for his treasure, Alford searches for Christen because he believes she knows where the box is hidden. He means to prove her father stole it. Alford has also sent inquiries over the years to all the clans asking about Christen…"
"But none of his inquiries were ever answered."
"That is true," Hugh agreed. "No one would admit he knew anything about her… until the Highlander arrived."
"But what of the bargain struck between this traitor and our Alford?"
Hugh looked at the baron, waiting for him to answer the question, but Alford's eyes were closed and his head drooped down on his chest. He appeared to be dozing.
"I've never seen the baron so drunk," Hugh whispered loudly to his friend. "Look how the wine has lulled him to sleep."
Edwin shrugged. "And the bargain?" he nagged.
"The baron agreed to hold the boy captive to draw out his brother, Laird Ramsey Sinclair, so that the Highlander could kill him. The child's simply a pawn, and when the game is over and Ramsey is killed…"
"The boy no longer serves any purpose."
"Exactly," Hugh agreed. "So you see, beating him will not concern the Highlander at all."
"What did the baron get out of this bargain?"
"The Highlander gave him gold and something more," he said. "I will leave that for Alford to explain. If he wants you to know, he'll tell you."
Edwin was incensed to be left out. He shoved his elbow hard into Alford's side. The baron jerked upright and muttered a blasphemy.
Edwin then demanded to know the particulars of the bargain. Alford took a drink before answering.
"The traitor gave me information more important than gold."
"What could be more important?" Edwin asked.
Alford smiled. "I told you he gave me the name of the clan Christen hides in, and when he has gotten what he wants, he vows to tell me the name she uses now. So you see, if Gillian should fail me, the Highlander will come to my aid."
"Why won't he tell you now? It would make it so much easier if you knew…"
"He doesn't trust our baron," Hugh chuckled. "This Ramsey must die first. Then he swears he'll give us her name."
Gillian couldn't believe the three of them were talking so freely in front of her. They were all too drunk to be cautious, and she doubted that any of them would remember a word he said come tomorrow morning.
Edwin and Hugh seemed to think Alford was going to be given a reward by the king, and they were now discussing what he would do with it. She was blessedly thankful for their inattention, for when she had heard that the Highlander would soon arrive at Dunhanshire, she felt as though the floor had just dropped away. Inwardly reeling, her stomach lurched with her panic and she swayed on her feet. Fortunately, Alford appeared oblivious to her distress.
She knew why the traitor was coming, of course. He was going to tell Alford that the wrong boy had been taken, and God help Alec then. Time was about to run out.
Alford yawned loudly and squinted at her. "Ah, Gillian, I forgot you were standing there. Now what were we discussing? Oh, yes," he said as he turned to Hugh. "Since Gillian has so graciously offered to take the boy's beating for him, you may accommodate her. Don't touch her face," he warned. "I've learned from experience that the bones in the face take much longer to heal, and I do so want to send her on my errand as soon as possible."
"And the boy?" Hugh asked.
Alford sneered at Gillian when he answered. "I want him beaten too."
She pushed Alec behind her. "You'll have to kill me first, Alford. I'm not going to let you touch him."
"But I don't want to kill you, Gillian. I want you to bring your sister to me."
The mockery in his voice was deliberate, for he wanted her to know he was laughing at her pitiful attempts to protect the child. Did she really believe her wants mattered to him? And how dare she give him orders, telling him what he could and could not do.
He would get his way, of course, but also teach her a valuable lesson at the same time. She would learn once and for all how insignificant she was.
"I swear to you, if you harm the boy, I won't bring Christen to you."
"Yes, yes, I know." Alford sounded bored. "You've already made that empty threat."
Hugh pushed his chair back and struggled to stand. Gillian frantically tried to think of something she could do or say that would stop the atrocity.