MacBain ignored her suggestion and grabbed hold of her wrist so she would stop poking at his cut, then turned to Nicholas.
“Say your good-byes now,” he ordered. “You won’t see her again.”
“No!” Johanna cried out. She pulled away from her husband and ran to her brother. She threw herself into his arms.
“You didn’t tell me the truth about him,” she whispered. “He isn’t a gentle man. He’s hard and cruel. I can’t bear the thought of never seeing you again. I love you. You protected me when no one else would. You believed in me. Nicholas, please take me home with you. I don’t wish to stay here.”
“Hush, Johanna. It’s going to be all right. MacBain has good reason for wanting me and my men to stay away from here. Learn to trust him.”
Nicholas held MacBain’s gaze while he gave his sister his instructions.
“Why doesn’t he want you to come back?”
Nicholas shook his head. His silence told her he wasn’t going to explain. “What message would you like me to give Mother? I’ll see her next month.”
“I’m going home with you.”
Her brother’s smile was filled with tenderness. “You’re married now. This is your home. You have to stay with your husband, Johanna.”
She wouldn’t let go of him. Nicholas leaned down, kissed her forehead, and then pulled her hands away from him. He gently nudged her toward her husband.
“Treat her well, MacBain, or by all that’s holy, I’ll come back here and kill you.”
“That would be your right,” MacBain answered. He walked past Johanna to slap his hand against Nicholas’s. “You and I have come to an understanding. My word is my bond, Baron.”
“As my word is my bond, Laird.”
The two men nodded. Johanna stood there with tears streaming down her face as she watched her brother walk away. His mount had already been made ready for him. Nicholas gained his stallion’s back, then rode down the hill and out of sight. He never looked back.
Johanna turned around and found that her husband had also left. She was suddenly alone. She stood at the edge of the clearing feeling as bleak and desolate as her surroundings. She didn’t move until the sun had disappeared from the sky. The bone-chilling wind finally gained her attention. She shivered with the cold and rubbed her arms as she slowly made her way back to the courtyard. There wasn’t a Scot in sight, or so she thought, until she reached the center of the clearing. She saw her husband then. He was leaning against the door to the keep, watching her.
Johanna wiped the tears away from her face, straightened her appearance, and hurried forward. She climbed the steps with only one intention. Childish though it probably was, she was determined to tell him how much she disliked him.
She never got the chance. MacBain waited until she was close enough, then pulled her into his arms. He held her tight against his chest, dropped his chin to rest on the top of her head, and hugged her.
The man was actually trying to comfort her. His actions thoroughly confused her. He had been the one, after all, to cause her this upset. Yet now he was trying to soothe her.
Damn it all, it was working. She knew she was overly exhausted from the long, difficult day, and surely that was the reason she didn’t try to pull away from him. He was wonderfully warm: she told herself she needed his heat to chase away the cold. She was still going to give him hell, but she’d wait until she was warm first.
Gabriel held her for several minutes while he patiently waited for her to regain her composure.
She finally pulled away from him. “Your rudeness toward my brother made me most unhappy, m’lord.”
She hoped for an apology. She realized after a minute of waiting, she wasn’t going to get one.
“I would like to go to bed now,” she announced. “I’m very sleepy. Would you please show me the way back to my cottage? I’m not certain where it is in the darkness.”
“The cottage you slept in last night belongs to one of the MacBains. You won’t sleep there again.”
“Then where do I sleep?”
“Inside,” he answered. “There are two chambers above the stairs. The Maclaurins were able to stop the fire before it reached the steps.”
He pulled the door wide and motioned for her to go inside. She didn’t move.
“May I ask you something, m’lord?”
She waited for his nod, then said, “Someday will you explain why you sent my brother away and ordered him never to return?”
“In time you’ll understand,” he answered. “But if you don’t, I’ll be happy to explain.”
“I can be accommodating, Johanna.”
She didn’t snort because it wouldn’t have been ladylike. The look in her eyes told him she didn’t believe him.
“I released your brother from a burden, wife.”
“And I was his burden?”
Gabriel shook his head. “No, you weren’t his burden,” he answered. “Go inside now.”
She decided to obey his command. The woman who had handed her the fresh bouquet of flowers after the wedding ceremony was standing at the foot of the stairs.
“Johanna, this is ...”
She didn’t let her husband finish. “Leila,” she said. “Thank you again for the beautiful flowers. It was most thoughtful of you.”
“You’re very welcome, m’lady,” the woman replied. She had a soft, musical voice and a pleasing smile. Her hair was as red as fire and every bit as mesmerizing. Johanna guessed her age to be near her own.
“Was it difficult for you to leave your family and friends to come here?” Leila asked.
“There were no friends close by,” Johanna answered.
“What about your staff? Our laird surely would have granted you permission to bring your lady’s maid.”
Johanna didn’t know how to answer the question. She barely knew her staff. Raulf had changed the household every other month. At first she believed he was just overly demanding. Later she caught on. He wanted to keep her isolated, without anyone to confide in. She was to depend only upon him. After his death, she’d been forced to London and hadn’t formed any attachments while a prisoner in King John’s court.
“I would not have allowed any other Englishwoman here,” MacBain said when Johanna hesitated in giving her answer.
“They were content to stay in England,” Johanna interjected.
Leila nodded, then turned and started up the steps. Johanna followed her.
“Do you think you’ll be happy here?” she asked over her shoulder.
“Oh, yes,” Johanna answered, praying she was right. “I’ll be safe here.”
MacBain frowned. Johanna had no idea how much that comment said about her past. He stood at the bottom of the steps, watching his bride.
Leila wasn’t as astute as her laird. “But I asked you if you’d be happy,” she said with a bit of laughter in her voice. “Of course you’ll be safe here. Our laird will protect you.”
She could take care of herself, Johanna thought. She didn’t tell Leila that, however, for she didn’t want the woman to think she wasn’t grateful to have the laird’s protection. She turned around to look at her husband.
“Good night, m’lord.”
“Good night, Johanna.”
Johanna followed Leila up the rest of the steps. The landing was partially blocked by a stack of wooden crates on the left so no one would pitch over into the great hall or the hallway below. A narrow corridor was on the opposite side. There were candles perched inside bronzed holders braced against the wall to light the way. Leila started telling Johanna about the keep and begged her to ask questions that came to mind. Another woman named Megan waited inside the first chamber with a bath ready for Johanna. She had dark brown hair and hazel eyes and also wore the Maclaurin plaid. Her smile was just as inviting as Leila’s.
Their easy acceptance of Johanna helped her relax. The bath felt wonderful. She told them how thoughtful they were to think she would enjoy the luxury.
“Our laird ordered the bath for you,” Megan explained. “Since a MacBain gave up his bed for you last night, it was the Maclaurins’ turn to do something for you.”
“It was only fair,” Leila added.
Before Johanna could ask what she meant by that remark, Megan turned the topic. She wanted to talk about the wedding. “You looked so beautiful, m’lady. Did you do the embroidery work on your dress? It was quite lovely.”
“Of course she didn’t do the work herself,” Leila said. “Her maid . . .”
“But I did do the sewing,” Johanna interjected.
The conversation continued all during her bath. Johanna finally bid the ladies good night and went down the hall to the second chamber.
The room was warm inside and very appealing. There was a hearth against the outside wall, a huge bed draped with the MacBain plaid along the opposite wall, and a window overlooking the meadow below. A thick fur covering on the window blocked the night winds, and that protection, added to the fire blazing away in the hearth, made the room most inviting.
The bed all but swallowed her up. She imagined four people could sleep under the covers together side by side without touching each other. Her feet were cold, but that was the only discomfort she felt. She considered getting out of her bed in search of a pair of woolen stockings, then decided the task would require too much effort. She probably should have taken the time to braid her hair, she thought with a loud yawn. It was going to be full of tangles in the morning. She decided she was too tired to care. She closed her eyes, said her prayers, and went to sleep.
The door opened just as she was drifting off. Her mind didn’t register what was happening until she felt the side of the bed sag. She slowly opened her eyes. It was all right, she told herself. It was Gabriel and not an intruder sitting on the side of the bed.
He was taking his boots off. She tried not to be alarmed. “What are you doing, m’lord?”
Her voice was a groggy whisper. He looked over his shoulder to answer her. “I’m getting ready for bed.”
She closed her eyes again. He thought she’d gone back to sleep. MacBain sat there staring down at her for several minutes. She rested on her side, facing him. Her hair, as golden as a sunset, was spread over her shoulders like a coverlet. She looked exquisite to him. Innocent and fragile as well. She was much younger than he’d supposed she would be, and after he and Nicholas had resolved their differences and the baron had wisely decided to obey his commands, he’d asked him exactly how old his sister was. Nicholas couldn’t remember the date of her birth, but he’d said she’d been little more than a child when her parents received the order from King John to marry her to his favored baron.
Johanna suddenly bolted upright in the bed. “Here? You think to sleep here, m’lord?”
She’d choked on the question. He nodded, wondering why she looked so panic-stricken.
Her mouth dropped open. She was too stunned to speak. Gabriel stood up, untied the piece of leather holding his plaid in place, then tossed the strip of leather on the nearby chair. His plaid dropped to the floor.
He was stark naked. She squeezed her eyes shut. “Gabriel ...” His name came out in a low whisper.
She’d closed her eyes, but not before she’d gotten a thorough look at his backside. It was enough to make her feel fainthearted. The man was bronzed from the sun from neck to ankles, and how in heaven’s name was that possible? Did he walk around without a stitch on during the sunlight hours?
She wasn’t about to ask him. She felt the covers being pulled back, then felt the sag of the bed again as he stretched out beside her. He started to reach for her.
She bounded to her knees and turned around to face him. He was on his back and hadn’t bothered to cover himself. She grabbed hold of the blanket and fairly tossed it over his middle. She could feel her face burning with embarrassment.
“You’ve been tricked, m’lord. Aye, you have!” she blurted out in a near shout.
Gabriel didn’t know what in God’s name had come over her. She looked terrified. Her eyes filled with tears, and he wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d burst into sobs.
“How was I tricked?” He’d deliberately kept his voice calm and low. He stacked his hands behind his head and acted as though he had all the time in the world to wait for her answer.
His casual attitude helped to calm her. She took a deep breath, then said, “My brother didn’t tell you. He said he had explained . . . Oh, God, I’m so sorry. I should have made certain you knew. When I found out you already had a son, I thought you knew about me and that it didn’t matter. You had an heir. You . . .”
Gabriel reached up and put his hand over her mouth. Tears were streaming down her face. He kept his voice soothing when he said, “Your brother’s an honorable man.”
She nodded. He removed his hand from her mouth, then gently tugged her down next to him. “Yes, Nicholas is an honorable man,” she whispered.
The side of her face rested on his shoulder. He could feel her tears as they dropped on his skin.
“Nicholas wouldn’t trick me.”
“I didn’t think he would.” She sounded bewildered.
A long minute passed while he waited for her to tell him what was bothering her.
“Perhaps he forgot to tell you . . . or thought he had.”
“What did he forget to tell me?”
“I cannot have children.”
He waited for her to continue. “And?” he asked when she didn’t say another word.
She’d been holding her breath, waiting for his reaction. She thought he’d be furious. He didn’t appear to be, however. He was casually stroking her arm. An angry man wouldn’t caress. He would strike.
Johanna decided he didn’t understand. “I’m barren,” she whispered. “I thought Nicholas told you. If you want the marriage annulled, I’m sure that Father MacKechnie will see to the petition.”
“Nicholas did tell me, Johanna.”
She bolted up in the bed again. “He told you?” She looked thoroughly confused. “Then why are you here?”
“I’m here because I’m your husband and this is our wedding night. It’s a usual occurrence to share the bed.”
“Do you mean you wish to sleep here tonight?”
“Damned right I mean to,” he answered.