She felt ridiculous. Auggie really was a little daft. But he was also a gentle man, and her interest in what he was doing seemed to please him. She wasn’t about to hurt his feelings.

She hit the round stone. It rolled to the edge of the hole, teetered, and then dropped in.

She immediately wanted to try again. Auggie beamed with pleasure. “You’ve caught the fever,” he announced with a nod.

“What is this game called?” she asked as she knelt to retrieve her pebble. She retraced her steps to her original position, tried to remember the correct stance, and then waited for Auggie to answer.

“The game doesn’t have a name, but it dates back to olden days. Once you’ve mastered my short holes, lass, I’ll take you along to the ridge with me, and you can try for distance. You’ll have to do your part, though, and find your own stones. The rounder the better, of course.”

Johanna missed on her second try. Auggie told her she wasn’t paying attention. She had to try again, of course. She was so intent on pleasing him and hitting the hole, she didn’t even realize they were now speaking Gaelic.

She spent a large part of the afternoon with Auggie. Calum had obviously been given the duty of watching out for her. He appeared at the top of the hill every now and then to make certain she was still there. And staying out of mischief, she supposed. After a few hours Auggie called a halt to the game and motioned her over to the opposite side of the meadow where he’d left his supplies. He took hold of her arm and let out a grunt when he lowered himself to the ground. Then he motioned her to sit beside him. He handed her a leather pouch.

“You’re about to have a treat, lass,” he announced. “It’s uisgebreatha.”

“Breath of life,” she translated.

“Nay, water of life, girl. I’ve got my own brewing kettle, fashioned it myself after the one I studied at the MacKay holding. Our laird let me bring it along when we came to the Maclaurins. We’re all castouts, you know, every one of us. I was a Maclead before I pledged myself to the MacBain.”

Johanna was intrigued. “Cast out? I don’t understand what you mean, sir.”

“All of us were tossed out of our own clans for one reason or another. Your husband’s fate was decided the day he was born a bastard. When he’d grown into manhood, he gathered us together and trained the younger ones to become fine warriors. Each of us has a talent, of course. You’ll be tasting mine if you’ll quit your lingering. I’m wanting a wee taste myself.”

It would have been rude to decline the invitation. Johanna lifted the pouch, flipped the cork off, and took a sip of the liquid.

She thought she’d swallowed liquid fire. She let out a gasp, then started coughing. Auggie delighted in her reaction. He slapped his knee first, then pounded her between her shoulder blades to get her breathing properly again.

“It’s got a fair bite to it, doesn’t it?”

She could only nod agreement. “Get on home now, lass,” he ordered. “Laird MacBain will be wondering where you are.”

Johanna stood up, then put her hand down to assist Auggie. “Thank you for a lovely afternoon, Auggie.”

The old man smiled. “You’ve taken on my burr, lass. That pleases me. You’re a clever one, aren’t you now? You must have a spot of Highland blood running in your veins.”

She knew he was teasing her. She bowed and turned to leave. “Would you be wanting to go to the ridge tomorrow, Auggie?” she called over her shoulder.

“I might,” he called back.

“Will you take me with you if you do?”

Johanna couldn’t quit smiling. The day had turned out to be quite wonderful. Granted, she’d started out by pricking her husband’s temper, but that little incident hadn’t been horrible, and the rest of the afternoon had been lovely. She’d learned something important about her husband, too. He could control his temper. Anger didn’t control him.

That was a revelation. Johanna pondered the significance on her way back up the hill. Calum was waiting for her. He bowed his head in greeting, then walked by her side back to the keep.

“I noticed you were playing Auggie’s game,” the soldier remarked.

“It was most amusing.” Johanna replied. “Do you know, Calum, I believe Auggie’s one of the most interesting men I’ve ever known, save for my father, of course.”

Calum smiled over her enthusiasm. “Auggie reminds me of my father, too. He tells the same kind of spicy tales about times past, and he laces his truths with legends like my father always did.” Thinking to compliment her, Calum added, “Auggie would be pleased to be compared to your father.”

She laughed. “He’d be insulted,” she guessed. “My father was English, Calum. Auggie wouldn’t get past that fact.” She changed the subject then. “You have more important duties, I’m certain, than keeping your eye on me. Will my husband expect you to follow me around every day?”

“There is no duty more important than protecting my mistress, m’lady,” the soldier answered. “Tomorrow, however, Keith will be assigned the duty of watching out for you.”

“Keith is the first-in-command over the Maclaurin soldiers, isn’t he?”

“That is so. He answers only to our laird.”

“And you are first-in-command over the MacBain soldiers.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Why what, m’lady?”

“Why isn’t there just one commander over both the MacBain and the Maclaurin soldiers?”

“Perhaps you might ask your husband that question,” Calum suggested. “He has sound reasons for allowing the Maclaurins their own leader.”

“Yes, I will ask him,” she said. “I’m interested in learning all I can about the land and the people here. Where is my husband?”

“Hunting,” Calum answered. “He should be back any time now. Do you realize, m’lady, we’ve been speaking Gaelic? Your grasp of our language is quite impressive given the fact you’ve only had a few short weeks of instruction before you came here.”

She shook her head. “Nay, Calum, it was closer to four months of intense study under Father MacKechnie’s supervision. I was a little nervous when I first met your laird, though I doubt you noticed for I’m very good at hiding my reactions. When he asked me how long I’d been studying Gaelic, I was a bit nervous and the answer flew out of my mind. I can tell from your occasional grimace I still haven’t mastered the burr.”

Odd, but as soon as Calum made the mention that she was speaking Gaelic, she started tripping over her words and mispronouncing something fierce.

They’d just crossed the courtyard when Calum spotted his laird.

“Here’s your husband now, m’lady.”

Johanna turned to greet Gabriel. She hurried to straighten her appearance. She brushed a strand of hair back over her shoulder, pinched her cheeks for color, and adjusted the folds in her plaid. She noticed the condition of her hands then. They were caked with dirt from spending the afternoon digging with Auggie. Since there wasn’t time to wash now, she hid them behind her back.

The ground fairly trembled as the band of warriors rode their mounts up the last slope. Gabriel led the soldiers. He was riding one of the horses she’d given him as a wedding gift. The mare he’d chosen was the most temperamental of the lot. She was also the prettiest in Johanna’s estimation. Her coat was as white as fresh snow with nary a mark on her. She was much bigger than the other horses, thicker in muscle as well, and certainly carried Gabriel’s weight easily.

“He’s riding my favorite horse,” Johanna told Calum.

“She’s a beauty.”

“She knows it, too,” Johanna said. “Rachel’s terribly vain. She likes to prance. It’s her way of showing off.”

“She’s showing off because she’s proud to carry our important laird,” Calum announced.

She thought he was jesting with her. She burst into laughter, then noticed Calum wasn’t even chuckling. She realized he was serious.

Calum didn’t know what she’d found amusing. He turned to ask her, saw the smudges of dirt she’d brushed on her cheeks, and smiled in reaction.

Gabriel’s hound came running toward his master from around the corner of the keep. The huge beast frightened the mare. Rachel tried to rear up and bolt at the same time. Gabriel forced her under control and dismounted. One of the soldiers led the horse away.

The hound rushed forward. With one leap, he planted his front paws on Gabriel’s shoulders. The dog was almost as tall as his master now and just as ferocious looking. Johanna’s knees went weak watching the two of them. Thankfully the dog held great affection for his master. He was diligently trying to lick Gabriel’s face. Her husband turned away before his pet could bathe him. He gave him a sound slap of affection. Dust flew from the hound’s thick gray coat. Gabriel finally pushed the dog down and turned to his wife.

He motioned her forward. She wondered if he expected her to plant her hands on his shoulders and kiss him in greeting. The thought amused her. She took a step forward, then came to a quick stop when the animal started growling at her.

Gabriel was going to have to come to her. She kept the hound in her sights, wary now, as her husband walked forward. The dog, she noticed, attached himself to Gabriel’s side and came with him.

Gabriel was amused by her timidity. The dog obviously intimidated her. He couldn’t imagine why. He heard the low growling. So did his wife. She backed up a step. Gabriel ordered his hound to quit his shew of bluster.

Some of the Maclaurin soldiers were still seated atop their mounts, watching their laird and his wife. A few grinned when they saw her fear of the dog. Others shook their heads.

“Did your hunt go well, m’lord?” Johanna asked.

“It did.”

“Was there enough grain to be taken?” Calum asked.

“More than enough,” Gabriel answered.

“You went hunting for grain?” Johanna asked, trying to understand.

“And a few other necessary items,” her husband explained. “There’s dirt on your face, wife. What have you been doing?”

She tried to wipe the dirt away. Gabriel grabbed hold of her hands and looked at them.

“I was helping Auggie dig holes.”

“I do not want my wife to dirty her hands.”

He sounded as though he was giving her an important commandment. Her husband appeared to be more than just a little irritated with her.

“But I have just explained . . .”

“My wife does not do common tasks.”

She was exasperated. “Have you more than one, m’lord?”

“More than one what?”

“Wife.”

“Of course not.”

“Then it would appear that your wife does indeed get her hands dirty,” she said. “I’m sorry if that displeases you, though I really can’t imagine why it does. I can tell you I’m certain to get them dirty again.”

She’d tried to use logic to soothe him. but he wasn’t in the mood to be reasonable. He shook his head and scowled at her. “You will not,” he commanded. “You’re mistress here, Johanna. You will not lower yourself to such tasks.”

She didn’t know if she should laugh or frown. She settled on a sigh instead. The man had the oddest notions.

He seemed to want some sort of answer. She decided to try to placate him. “As you wish, m’lord,” she whispered, determined not to let her sudden irritation show.

She was trying to be submissive, Gabriel decided. He thought it was probably killing her. She had a murderous look in her eyes, but she held onto her serene smile, and her voice sounded humble.

Johanna turned to Calum. She ignored the grin on his face. “Where do the women wash?”

“There’s a well behind the keep, m’lady, but most bathe in Rush Creek.”

Calum was going to escort her. Gabriel took over the task. He grabbed hold of her hand and pulled her along.

“In future, water will be carried to you,” he said.

“In future, I would appreciate it if you didn’t treat me like a child.”

He couldn’t believe the anger he heard in her voice. Johanna wasn’t quite so timid after all.

“I would also appreciate it if you didn’t berate me in front of your soldiers.”

He nodded. His quick agreement eased her irritation.

Her husband had a long-legged stride. They rounded the corner and started down the slope. Huts lined the hill, and more were clustered in a wide circle at the base. The well was in the center. Several of the Maclaurin women were standing in line with their buckets, waiting their turn to fetch fresh water. Several called out greetings to their laird. He nodded and continued on.

The wall was just beyond the line of huts. Johanna wanted to stop to look at it. Gabriel wouldn’t let her. They passed through the opening of the mammoth structure and continued on.

Johanna had to run to keep up with her husband. By the time they reached the second slope, she was out of breath. “Do slow down, Gabriel. My legs aren’t as long as yours.”

He immediately slowed his pace. He didn’t let go of her hand, however. She didn’t try to pull away. She heard the women’s laughter in the background and wondered what they found amusing.

Rush Creek was a wide, deep stream. It ran the length of the mountain, her husband explained, from the top to a pool at the bottom where their land bordered with the Gillevrey territory. Trees lined the sides of the waterway, and wildflowers were so abundant they seemed to be growing out of the water as well as along the banks. The area was breathtakingly beautiful.

Johanna knelt on the bank, leaned forward, and washed her hands. The water was clear enough for her to see the bottom. Gabriel knelt beside her, cupped a handful of the frigid water, and poured it over the back of his neck. Her husband’s pet appeared out of the woods, moved to her side, growled once, and then began to drink from the creek.

Johanna wet her linen cloth and washed her face. Gabriel leaned back to watch her. Her every movement was graceful. She was a mystery to him, and he assumed his curiosity and his fascination were both due to the fact that he’d never spent any significant amount of time with any woman.

Johanna wasn’t paying any attention to her husband. She spotted what appeared to be a perfectly round stone at the bottom of the stream, decided Auggie could use it for his game, and reached down to get it.



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