Johanna quit talking when she realized Clare MacKay was sound asleep. She tucked the covers around the woman, moved her chair back, and left the room.

Gabriel was reaching for his boots when Johanna walked into their chamber.

“Good morning, m’lord,” she said in greeting. “Did you sleep well?”

He frowned in reaction. Johanna went over to the window and pulled the furs back. From the yellow cast in the sky, she guessed it was only a few minutes past dawn.

“You were told to stay in bed,” he said. “Did you wait until I fell asleep and then leave again?”

“Yes.”

His frown intensified. She decided to try to placate him. “I thought I would rest for a few minutes before going downstairs. I am weary.”

“You look half dead.”

“My appearance isn’t important,” she announced even as her hands flew to her hair and she tried to tuck the curls back into her braid.

“Come here, Johanna.”

She walked across the room to stand in front of him. He reached down to untie the belt holding her plaid in place.

“You will stay where you’re put,” he announced.

She tried to slap his hands away. “I’m not a piece of jewelry or a trinket only to be taken off a shelf when the mood strikes you, m’lord.”

Gabriel caught hold of her chin and leaned down to kiss her. He thought only to get her to quit frowning, but her lips were so damned soft and appealing, he forgot his reason. He put his arms around his wife and hauled her up against him.

His kisses made her weak-kneed and dizzy. She put her arms around her husband’s waist and held tight. She decided it was quite all right to allow him to rob her of her every thought. He was her husband, after all. Besides, when he was kissing her, he couldn’t scowl . . . or lecture.

She didn’t remember undressing or getting into bed. Gabriel must have carried her there. He’d taken his clothes off, too. He covered her with his body, captured the sides of her face with his hands, and gave her a seering kiss. His tongue moved inside her mouth to rub against hers.

She loved to touch him, to feel his hot skin under her fingertips, to caress the splay of hard muscle along his upper arms and shoulders. When she wrapped her arms around her husband, she felt as though she’d captured his strength and his power.

He was a wonder to her, a revelation. Gabriel was as strong as the fittest of warriors, and yet so incredibly gentle whenever he touched her.

She loved the fact that she could make him lose his control. She didn’t have to guess that might be true either; Gabriel told her. She felt . . . free with him, and completely uninhibited as well, for her husband seemed to like whatever she wanted to do.

He made her lose her own control, of course. She wasn’t one to scream her demands, but by the time he quit his teasing and moved to mate with her, she was wild to make him end this sweet torment.

She cried out when he entered her, and he immediately stopped. “God, Johanna, I didn’t mean to ...”

“Oh, God, I hope you did mean to,” she whispered. Her nails dug into his shoulder blades. She wrapped her legs around his thighs and squeezed him tight inside her. “Gabriel, I don’t wish you to stop now. I want you to move.”

He thought he’d died and gone to heaven. He ignored her command and leaned up on his elbows to look into her eyes. He saw the passion there and almost lost all his control then. Dear Lord, she was beautiful . . . and so damned giving.

“You’re a lustful wench.” He was trying to tease her, but his voice sounded gruff. “I like that,” he added with a groan when she moved so restlessly against him.

Gabriel had made her burn for him and now refused to give her fulfillment or take his own.

“Husband, this activity requires your participation,” she cried out, her frustration beyond reason now.

“I thought I’d drive you daft first,” he told her in a husky whisper.

It turned out to be an empty boast, for Gabriel felt as though he was the one who lost his mind when she dragged him down for a long, passionate kiss and moved against him so provocatively. His discipline deserted him. His movements became forceful and demanding, though surely no more demanding than his wife’s.

They found fulfillment together. Johanna held onto her husband as wave after wave of ecstasy washed over her. She felt safe in his strong arms, certainly sated, and almost loved. It was more than she’d ever had before or ever dreamed was possible.

She fell asleep sighing.

Gabriel thought he might have crushed her to death. She went completely limp in his arms. He rolled onto his side and whispered her name. She didn’t answer him. She was breathing though. Had passion sent her into a dead faint? Gabriel smiled, for that possibility did appeal to him. He knew the true reason, of course. Johanna was exhausted. She’d spent most of the night watching over their new charge.

He leaned down, kissed her brow, and got out of bed. “You will rest,” he whispered. He smiled then. The little woman was actually obeying him. Of course she hadn’t heard his order; she was already sound asleep, but it still made him feel damned happy to give a command he knew would be obeyed.

Gabriel covered his wife, got dressed, and quietly left the chamber.

The day started out pleasant enough, but it soured fast. Calum was waiting for his laird in the great hall with the announcement that another petition had arrived from Baron Goode requesting an audience with Lady Johanna. The messenger who delivered the request came from Laird Gillevrey again and waited by Calum’s side to hear Gabriel’s reply.

“Is the baron waiting at the border of your land?” he asked the soldier.

“Nay, Laird. He sent a representative. His goal is to convince Lady Johanna to meet with Baron Goode near England’s border.”

Gabriel shook his head. “My wife isn’t going anywhere. She doesn’t want to speak to Baron Goode. England is a part of her past now, and she looks only to her future here. Tell your laird I thank him for acting as mediary. I’m sorry he’s been inconvenienced by the English. I’ll find a way to repay him for his efforts in keeping the baron and his vassals away from my holding.”

“What exactly do you wish me to tell the representative?” the soldier asked. “I’ll memorize every word, Laird MacBain, and recount just as you’ve spoken.”

“Tell him my wife will not speak to any barons and that it would be foolish indeed if they continue to pester her.”

The messenger bowed and left the hall. Gabriel turned to Calum. “You will not mention this to my wife. She doesn’t need to know the baron is again trying to get to her.”

“As you wish, Laird.”

Gabriel nodded. He tried to put the irritant of the English baron behind him, but his day still didn’t improve. The Maclaurins weren’t getting any of their duties done, and there were three accidents before noon. The soldiers were preoccupied; they acted as though they’d been given a grave insult and couldn’t stand the thought of working side by side with the MacBain soldiers. It was apparent they blamed the MacBains for the mess they believed they were in.

Odd but the Maclaurins didn’t like warring much. Gabriel found their attitude puzzling. He thought they might have lost their zest for battle after they lost almost all they owned when last under siege by the English. Still, Gabriel found their attitude a shameful trait. Highlanders should embrace war, not abhor it.

The merging of the two clans was taking longer than he’d anticipated. He had wanted to give each clansman time to adjust to all the changes, but he now realized he had been too damned accommodating. All that was going to stop. His followers would either put their differences aside or suffer his displeasure.

Work on the wall was going at a snail’s pace. On a usual day, one MacBain soldier could do the work of three Maclaurins. Today didn’t qualify as usual, however. The Maclaurins were muttering like old men. Their concentration certainly wasn’t on their work, and nothing significant was getting done.

Gabriel’s patience was at an end. He was about to challenge a few of the blatant offenders when Calum chased him down with the report that yet another messenger had arrived.

Gabriel wasn’t in the mood for another interruption. He much preferred the idea of bashing a few Maclaurin heads together. He didn’t particularly care for the news he was given either. The news was sure to please his wife, however, he supposed.

He wanted Johanna to be happy. He wasn’t certain why it mattered to him, but he was honest enough to admit her happiness was important.

Hell, he was getting soft. The messenger was shaking in his boots by the time Gabriel gave him permission to leave. He made him repeat the message he wanted taken back to England, for the man’s attention was interrupted when Dumfries came running into the hall. The dog growled; the man bolted, and Gabriel found his first smile since early morning.

Johanna’s reaction to the news wasn’t what he expected. He was going to wait until dinner to tell her, but she came down the stairs just as the messenger was trying to run through the closed doors and wanted to know what the stranger wanted.

Dumfries was snapping at the man’s heels. Johanna was appalled by the treatment their visitor was receiving. She pushed the dog out of the way, then opened the doors for the man. She bid him good day, but she didn’t think he heard her. He was halfway across the courtyard, running like a madman, and Gabriel’s laughter surely drowned out her words.

She shut the doors and walked over to the steps. Her husband stood by the hearth, grinning like a well-gifted man on Christmas morn. She shook her head at him.

“It isn’t polite to frighten our guests, m’lord.”

“He’s English, Johanna,” he explained. He believed he had just given her an adequate excuse for his conduct.

She looked worried. She hurried down the steps and walked over to her husband. “He was a messenger, wasn’t he? Who did he bring news from? Was it King John? Or did Baron Goode send another request?”

She’d gone from worry to terror in less than a minute’s time. Gabriel shook his head. “He didn’t bring bad news, wife. The message came from your mother.”

She grabbed hold of Gabriel’s hand. “Is she ill?”

Gabriel hurried to soothe her. He hated seeing her frightened. “She isn’t ill,” he said. “At least I don’t believe she is,” he added. “She wouldn’t be coming here if she was sick, would she?”

“Mama’s coming here?”

She’d shouted the question. He was astonished. Johanna looked ready to swoon. Her reaction wasn’t at all what he expected.

“This news does not please you?”

“I have to sit down.”

She collapsed into one of the chairs. Gabriel walked over to stand in front of her. “Answer me, wife. If the news doesn’t make you happy, I’ll have Calum catch the messenger and tell him to deny the request.”

She bounded to her feet. “You’ll do no such thing. I want to see my mother.”

“Then what in God’s name is the matter with you? Why are you acting as though you’ve just received foul news?”

She wasn’t paying any attention to her husband. Her mind raced from one thought to another. She was going to have to get her house organized. Aye, that duty came first. Dumfries would have to have a bath. Was there time to teach the hound some manners? Johanna wasn’t about to let the dog growl at her mama.

Gabriel grabbed hold of his wife by her shoulders and demanded she answer him. She asked him to repeat his question.

“Why isn’t this good news, wife?”

“It’s wonderful news,” she countered. She added a look that suggested she thought he’d lost his mind. “I haven’t seen Mama in over four years, Gabriel. It will be a joyful reunion. ”

“Then why in God’s name do you look so ill?”

She shrugged his hands away from her shoulders and started pacing in front of the hearth. “There’s so much to do before she gets here,” she explained. “Dumfries will need to be bathed. The keep must be cleaned from top to bottom. I won’t have your pet growling at my mama, Gabriel. I’ll have to teach him some manners. Oh God, manners.” She whirled around to look at her husband. “The Maclaurins don’t have any.”

She’d wailed out her last remark. Gabriel didn’t know whether to laugh or frown over her rattled behavior.

He ended up smiling. She frowned in reaction. “I won’t have my mama insulted,” she snapped.

“No one’s going to insult her, wife.”

She snorted with disbelief. “I won’t have her disappointed either. She trained me to be a good wife.” She put her hands on her h*ps and waited. Her husband didn’t have anything to say. “Well?” she demanded when he stubbornly remained silent.

He let out a sigh. “Well, what?”

“You’re supposed to tell me I’m a good wife,” she cried out, her frustration evident.

“All right,” he soothed. “You’re a good wife.”

She shook her head. “No, I’m not,” she admitted.

He rolled his eyes heavenward. He didn’t know what she expected from him. He guessed she’d tell him when she got herself under control, and he patiently waited.

“I’ve been remiss in my duties. All that’s in the past, however. I shall start teaching your men proper manners at dinner tonight.”

“Now, Johanna,” he began, a warning in his voice. “The men are . . .”

“Don’t you interfere, Gabriel. You needn’t worry. Your soldiers will listen to my instructions. Do you think you’ll be home by dinner?” she asked.

He was confused by the question. He was home now, damn it all, and dinner would be served in just a few minutes. Still, she was rattled now, he reminded himself. Perhaps she didn’t realize what time it was.

“I’m home now,” he reminded her. “And dinner . . .”

She didn’t let him finish. “You have to leave.”

“What?”

“Go and get Alex, husband. I’ve been very patient with you,” she added when he started frowning. “Your son should be home when Mama gets here. Alex will probably need a bath, too. I’ll put him in the creek with Dumfries. God only knows what manners your son’s been taught. Probably none.” She paused to sigh. “Go and fetch him.”

She tried to leave the hall after giving him that order. He caught hold of her and forced her to turn around to look at him.



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