Her husband didn’t show any reaction to her explanation. He simply continued to stare at her. He was waiting for his temper to calm. Seeing his wife come so close to death had frightened the hell out of him. It was going to take him a long while to get over it.
A full minute passed in silence. Johanna thought her husband was considering her penance.
“I apologize for interrupting your important work,” she said. “If you wish to strike me, please do so now. The wait is becoming unbearable.”
Calum couldn’t believe what he’d just heard. “M’lady . . .”
He was stopped from saying more when Gabriel raised his hand for silence.
The second his hand moved, she backed up. It was a protective action learned from past lessons. She realized what she was doing and immediately moved forward again.
Her husband had best understand she wasn’t going to let the past repeat itself. “I would warn you, m’lord. I cannot stop you from striking me, but the minute you do I’ll leave this holding.”
“Surely you cannot believe our laird would . . .”
“Stay out of this, Calum.”
Gabriel gave his command in a hard voice. He was furious over the insult his wife had just given him, but damn it all, the fear was real. He had to remind himself that she didn’t know him well and, therefore, had only jumped to the wrong conclusions.
He took hold of Johanna’s hand, started up the steps, then heard the pounding and immediately changed directions. He wanted privacy for this important discussion.
She tripped over the step when her husband turned, righted herself, and hurried to keep up. Calum shook his head as he watched his laird drag his mistress behind him. It wasn’t Lady Johanna’s awkwardness that caused him to frown but the paleness that had come over her complexion. Did she believe her laird was going to take her someplace private so he could beat her without an audience?
Keith, the red-haired leader of the Maclaurin soldiers, walked over to stand next to Calum. “What has you frowning?” he asked.
“Lady Johanna,” Calum answered. “Someone has filled her head with dark tales about our laird. I believe she’s afraid of him.”
Keith snorted. “Some of the women are already saying she’s afraid of her own shadow. They’ve given her a nickname,” he added. “After just one look at her, they’re calling her Courageous. ’Tis a pity, their mockery, for they’re judging her without giving her a fair chance.”
Calum was furious. In calling her Courageous, they, of course, meant just the opposite—they believed her to be a coward. “MacBain better not hear of this,” he warned. “Who started this blasphemy?”
Keith wasn’t about to give him the name. The woman was a Maclaurin. “Who it was isn’t important,” he argued. “The name caught on. The way Lady Johanna trembled at the sight of the laird’s hound started some of the women smirking, and the frightened look in her eyes each time MacBain spoke to her made them conclude she was . . .”
Calum interrupted him. “She’s timid, perhaps, but certainly not a coward. You’d best put the fear of God in your women, Keith. They think they’re so damned clever with their game. If I hear the name from any Maclaurin, I’ll retaliate. ”
Keith nodded. “It’s easier for you to accept her,” he said. “But the Maclaurins aren’t so forgiving. Remember, it was her first husband who destroyed all we’d worked so hard to build. It’s going to take time for them to forget.”
Calum shook his head. “A Highlander never forgets. You know that as well as I.”
“Then to forgive,” Keith suggested.
“She had nothing to do with the atrocity done here. She doesn’t require anyone’s forgiveness. Remind the women of that important truth.”
Keith nodded agreement. He didn’t believe his reminder would make much difference, however. The women were set against her, and he couldn’t imagine what he could say to change their opinions.
Both warriors kept their gazes on their laird and his bride and watched until they disappeared down the hill.
Gabriel and Johanna were quite alone now, but he still didn’t stop. He continued walking until they reached the meadow. He wanted to rid himself of his anger before he talked to her.
He finally stopped. Then he turned to look at her. She wouldn’t look at him. She tried to tug her hand away from his, but he wouldn’t let go of her.
“You’ve given me a grave insult by suggesting I would harm you.”
Her eyes widened in surprise. He sounded furious enough to kill someone. Yet he felt injured that she thought he would strike her.
“Have you nothing to say to me, wife?”
“I interrupted your training session.”
“Yes, you did!”
“I almost caused a soldier to harm me.”
“And you appeared to be very angry.”
“I was angry!”
“Gabriel? Why are you shouting?”
He let out a sigh. “I like to shout.”
“I had thought that in time you would learn to trust me. I have changed my mind. You will trust me,” he commanded. “Starting now, this minute.”
He made it sound so simple. “I do not know if that is possible, m’lord. Trust must be earned.”
“Then decide now that I’ve earned it,” he ordered. “Tell me you trust me, and mean it, damn it.”
He knew he was asking the impossible. He sighed again. “No man is allowed to beat his wife here. Only a coward would mistreat a woman, Johanna. None of my men are cowards. You have nothing to fear from me or anyone else here. I will forgive you your insult because you didn’t understand. I will not be as tolerant in future. You would do well to remember that.”
She stared into his eyes. “But if I do insult you in future? What would you do?”
He didn’t have the faintest idea, but he wasn’t about to admit it. “It will not happen again.”
Johanna nodded. She started to turn around to go back to the courtyard, then changed her mind.
Her husband deserved an apology. “Sometimes I react before I have had time to think it through. Do you understand, m’lord? It seems to be instinctive. I really will try to trust you, and I thank you for your patience.”
He could tell from the way she was wringing her hands together that her confession was difficult for her. Her head was bowed and her voice sounded with bewilderment when she added, “I don’t understand why I expect the worst. I never would have married you if I’d believed you would mistreat me, yet there seems to be a tiny part of me that has difficulty believing.”
“You please me, Johanna.”
He smiled over the surprise in her voice. “You do,” he repeated. “I know the confession was difficult for you. Where did you think you were going when you tried to run through a lance?” He added the question in an effort to change the subject. His wife looked like she might start weeping at any moment and he wanted to help her calm her emotions.
“To find Alex. I thought we could take a walk to look over the holding.”
“I ordered you to rest.”
“I was going to take a restful walk. Gabriel, there’s a man crawling on all fours behind you.”
She whispered the news and moved closer to her husband. He didn’t turn around to look. He didn’t need to. “That’s Auggie,” he explained.
Johanna moved to stand next to her husband so she could get a closer look at the man. “What is he doing?”
“He uses his staff to hit stones into the holes. It’s a game he enjoys.”
“Is he daft?” she whispered, lest the old man overhear her.
“He won’t harm you. Leave him be. He has earned his leisure.”
Her husband took hold of her hand and started back up the hill. Johanna kept glancing back over her shoulder to get a better look at the man crawling his way across the meadow. “He’s a MacBain,” she blurted out. “He’s wearing your plaid.”
“Our plaid,” her husband corrected. “Auggie’s one of us,” he added. “Johanna, Alex isn’t here. He was taken back to his mother’s brother’s family early this morning.”
“How long will he be away?”
“Until the wall is finished. When the holding is secure, Alex will come home.”
“And how long will that be?” she asked. “A son needs his father, Gabriel.”
“I’m aware of my duties, wife. You needn’t instruct me.”
“But I may give my opinion,” she countered.
“Have you begun work on your wall?” she asked.
“It’s half done.”
“Then how long before . . .”
“A few more months,” he answered. “I don’t want you walking in the hills without a proper escort,” he added with a frown. “It’s too dangerous.”
“Is it too dangerous for all the women or just for me?” He kept silent. She had her answer then. She held her exasperation. “Explain these dangers to me.”
“I haven’t the time. Simply obey my commands and we’ll get along quite well.”
“Of course we’ll get along if I obey your every command,” she muttered. “Honestly, Gabriel, I don’t believe ...”
“The horses are sound.”
His interruption turned her concentration. “What did you say?”
“The six horses you gave me are sound.”
She let out a sigh. “We’re through discussing obedience, aren’t we?”
“Aye, we are.”
He grinned. “You should do that more often.”
They’d reached the edge of the courtyard. Gabriel’s manner underwent a radical change. His expression hardened. She thought the serious look was for the benefit of his audience. Every soldier was watching.
“Yes?” He sounded impatient.
“May I offer an opinion now?”
“What is it?”
“It’s daft to use the courtyard for your training session as well as dangerous.”
He shook his head at her. “It wasn’t dangerous until this morning. I want you to promise me something.”
“Don’t ever threaten to leave me.”
The intensity in his demand surprised her. “I promise,” she answered.
Gabriel nodded, then started to walk away. “I won’t ever let you go. You do understand that, don’t you?”
He didn’t expect an answer. Johanna stood there for several minutes watching as her husband rejoined the training session. Gabriel was proving to be a complex man. Nicholas had told her the laird would marry her to secure the land. Yet Gabriel acted as though perhaps she were important to him, too.
She found herself hoping her guess was true. They would get along much better if he liked her.
She noticed Gabriel talking to Calum. The soldier glanced her way, nodded, and then started walking toward her. She didn’t wait to find out what order her husband had given his first-in-command. She turned around and ran down the hill to the meadow. The MacBain soldier named Auggie intrigued her. She wanted to find out what game it was that required digging holes in the ground.
The elderly man had a stock of white hair. He stood up when she called out to him. Deep lines around his mouth and eyes made her guess him to be at least fifty years old, perhaps even older. He had beautiful white teeth, handsome brown eyes, and a warm, inviting smile.
Until she spoke to him. Johanna made a quick curtsy, then introduced herself in Gaelic.
He squeezed his eyes shut and grimaced as though in acute pain. “You’re slaughtering our beautiful language, girl,” he announced.
He spoke so fast, his words tripped together, and his brogue was as thick as her mama’s stew. Johanna didn’t understand a word he’d said. Auggie was forced to repeat his insult three times before she gained the meaning.
“Please tell me, sir, which words I’m mispronouncing.”
“You’re doing a fair job ruining all of them.”
“I would like to learn this language,” she persisted, ignoring his comical expression of horror over her accent.
“It would take too much discipline for an Englishwoman to become fluent,” he said. “You would have to concentrate. I don’t believe you English have that ability.”
Johanna couldn’t understand much of what he said. Auggie dramatically slapped his forehead. “By all that’s holy, you’re taking the fun out of my insults, girl. You aren’t understanding a word I’m saying.”
He cleared his throat and spoke again, though this time in French. His command of the language was impressive, and his accent, impeccable. Johanna was impressed. Auggie was an educated man.
“I can see I’ve surprised you. Did you judge me simpleminded?”
She started to shake her head, then stopped herself. “You were crawling about on your knees, digging holes. I did jump to the conclusion you were a bit . . .”
She nodded. “I apologize, sir. When did you learn to speak . . .”
He interrupted her. “ ’Twas years and years ago,” he explained. “Now what was it you wanted, interrupting me in the middle of my game?”
“I was wondering what your game was,” she said. “Why do you dig holes?”
“Because no one will dig them for me.”
He snorted with laughter after giving her his jest.
“But your reason?” she persisted.
“The game I play requires holes to catch my stones if my aim is true. I use my staff as my club and round pebbles I strike forward. Would you like to have a try, lass? The game’s in my blood. Perhaps you’ll catch the fever, too.”
Auggie took her arm and pulled her along to where he’d left his staff. He showed her how he wanted her to hold onto the wooden pole, and when she’d braced her shoulders and her legs just the way he believed she should, he stepped back to give her further instruction.
“Give it a good whack now. Aim for the hole straight ahead.”