“Where did you hear these rules?”

“Bishop Hallwick.”

“Not everyone in the church believes . . .”

“But they’re supposed to believe,” she interrupted, her agitation apparent now. She was wringing her hands together and trying not to let the priest see how close she was to losing her composure.

“Why is that, lass?”

Why didn’t he understand? He was a priest, after all, and should be most familiar with the rules governing women.

“Because women are last in God’s love,” she whispered.

Father MacKechnie kept his expression contained. He took hold of Johanna’s arm and led her down the hallway. He didn’t want his laird to come outside and see his wife in such a distressed state.

There was a bench against the wall adjacent to the steps. The priest sat down, then patted the spot next to him. She immediately sat down. Her head was bowed, and she pretended great interest in straightening the pleats of her plaid.

Father MacKechnie waited another minute or two for his mistress to regain her composure before he asked her to explain her last remark.

“How would you know women are last in God’s love?”

“The hierarchy,” she answered. She repeated from memory what she’d been taught, her head bowed all the while. When she was finished, she still refused to look at the priest.

He leaned back against the wall. “Well, now,” he began. “You’ve given me quite a list to mull over in my mind. Tell me this, Johanna. Do you truly believe dim-witted oxen . . .”

“It’s dull-witted, Father,” she interrupted.

He nodded. “All right then,” he agreed. “Do you believe dull-witted oxen will have a higher place in heaven than women?”

Father MacKechnie was such a good man. She didn’t want to disappoint him. She wasn’t going to lie to the priest though, no matter what the consequences.

“No,” she whispered. She glanced up to see how her denial affected the priest. He didn’t look horrified. She took a breath and then blurted out, “I don’t believe any of it. I’m a heretic. Father, and will surely burn in hell.”

The priest shook his head. “I don’t believe it either,” he told her. “It’s nonsense made up by frightened men.”

She leaned back now. She was clearly astonished by Father MacKechnie’s attitude. “But the church’s teachings ...”

“The teachings are interpreted by men, Johanna. Don’t be forgetting that important fact.”

He took hold of her hand. “You aren’t a heretic,” he announced. “And now I want you to listen to what I have to say. There is but one God. Johanna, but two ways of looking at Him. There’s the English way and the Highlander’s way.”

“How are they different?”

“Some of the English pray to a vengeful God,” Father MacKechnie explained. “The children are raised to fear Him. They are taught not to sin because of the terrible retaliation in the next life, you see. The Highlanders are different, though certainly no less loved by God. Do you know what the word clan means?”

“Children.” she answered.

The priest nodded. “We teach our children to love God, not fear Him. He is compared to a kind, good-hearted father.”

“And if a Highlander sins?”

“If he is repentant, he will be forgiven.”

She thought about his explanation a long while before she spoke again. “Then I am not damned because I don’t believe God loves women least of all?”

The priest smiled. “No. you are not damned,” he agreed. “You have as much value as any man. To tell you the truth, lass, I don’t believe God keeps a list or hierarchy.”

She was so relieved to hear she wasn’t alone in her opinions and that she wasn’t a heretic because she refused to believe Bishop Hallwick’s dictates, she wanted to weep. “I don’t believe God wants women beaten into submission,” she whispered. “Still, I don’t understand why the church has so many cruel rules against women.”

Father MacKechnie let out a sigh. “Frightened men came up with these rules.”

“What would they be afraid of. Father?”

“Women, of course. Now don’t go repeating this to anyone, Johanna, but there are actually some men of God who believe women are superior. They don’t want them to get the upper hand. They believe, too, that women use their bodies to get what they want.”

“Some women probably do,” Johanna agreed. “But only some.”

“Yes,” the priest said. “Women are certainly stronger. No one can dispute that fact.”

“We aren’t stronger,” Johanna protested, smiling now for she was certain the priest was jesting with her.

“Yes, you are,” Father MacKechnie countered. Her smile proved contagious, and he couldn’t help but grin. “Think many men would have more than one child if they were the ones suffering through childbirth?”

Johanna laughed. The priest had painted an outrageous picture.

“Women have been given a harsh lot in this life,” Father MacKechnie continued. “Yet they survive and, in fact, find ways to flourish in such a restrictive setting. They certainly have to be more clever than men, lass, to get their voices heard.”

The door opened to Clare MacKay’s chamber, and Gabriel came out. He turned to pull the door closed behind him.

Both Johanna and Father MacKechnie stood up. “Thank you, Father,” she whispered. “You’ve helped me sort out a difficult problem.”

“From the look on your husband’s face, I would wager he could use a little help sorting out his problem.” He’d whispered his remark, then raised his voice when he turned to his laird. “Did your conference go well, Laird MacBain?”

The scowl on Gabriel’s face should have been proof enough to the priest that the conference hadn’t gone well. Johanna decided Father MacKechnie was just trying to be diplomatic.

Gabriel shook his head. “She refuses to name the man responsible,” he said.

“Perhaps she didn’t know his name,” Johanna suggested, instinctively coming to Clare MacKay’s defense.

“She told me she spent a full night with the soldier, Johanna. Do you honestly believe she didn’t bother getting his name?”

“Gabriel, you needn’t raise your voice to me.”

After giving her husband a good frown, she tried to walk around him so she could go to Clare’s room. Her husband grabbed hold of her arm.

“Let her rest,” he commanded. “She fell asleep during my questions.” He turned his attention to the priest and added, “If her face wasn’t distorted from the beating, I would have each one of my men come up here and look at her. Perhaps seeing her would nudge their memory.”

“Then you believe a MacBain ...”

“No, I don’t believe one of my own is responsible.” Gabriel said. “My men are honorable.”

“Did Clare say it was a MacBain?” Johanna asked. He shook his head. “She wouldn’t answer that question either,” he said.

“MacBain, Keith’s back from the MacKay holding!”

Calum shouted the announcement from the entryway. Gabriel nodded to the priest, let go of his wife’s arm, and went downstairs. He fairly ripped the doors off their hinges and went outside. Calum hurried to keep up with his laird. The doors slammed shut behind the two warriors.

Johanna spent the next hour wrestling with Dumfries while she removed his stitches. He carried on like a baby; and when she was finally finished poking at him, she spent a long while soothing him. She was sitting on the floor. Dumfries obviously didn’t realize how big he was, for he tried to climb onto her lap.

She was certain she smelled as horrid as the dog and decided it was high time Dumfries had a proper bath. Megan fetched her a rope. Johanna looped one end around the dog’s neck, collected her container of rose-scented soap, and dragged the hound out the back door and down the hill.

She ran into Glynis at the water well. Johanna was already a bit out of sorts. The constant worry about Clare MacKay preyed on her mind, and Dumfries’s shameful behavior was draining her strength. Her arms ached from dragging him along. Johanna believed she would have been able to control her anger if she’d been in a better frame of mind.

Glynis was polite enough to call out a proper greeting to her mistress before asking about Clare MacKay. “You aren’t thinking of letting that whore sleep under the same roof with our laird, are you?”

Johanna came to a dead stop. She slowly turned to look at the Maclaurin woman. “Clare MacKay isn’t a whore!” she shouted at the woman. She was about to add a forceful thought or two about the rewards Glynis would receive in the next life if she showed compassion now but changed her mind. Glynis deserved a good kick in her backside. Johanna resisted the impulse and decided to give her a kick in her arrogance instead.

“I didn’t mean to raise my voice to you, Glynis, for it isn’t your fault you were led to believe Clare MacKay was a whore. Still, given your nickname, I would think you above all others would reserve judgment until you had all the facts. The Maclaurins wouldn’t have given you such a name if you weren’t worthy, now would they?” she asked. She nodded to the other women lined up at the wall.

Glynis shook her head. She looked confused and wary. Johanna sweetened her smile. “We have only Laird MacInnes’s word that Clare didn’t act honorably, and we aren’t about to believe anything that man tells us, are we now? Clare’s a welcomed guest in my house. I expect her to be treated with dignity and respect. Do excuse me now. Dumfries and I are going to Rush Creek. Good day, Glynis.”

Johanna tightened her hold on her rope and walked away. She started counting. She could hear the women whispering among themselves behind her. She doubted Glynis would be able to contain her curiosity for more than a minute or two.

She was wrong. The Maclaurin woman called out to her before Johanna had even reached the number ten.

“What nickname have you heard, m’lady?”

Johanna slowly turned around. “Why, Glynis, I thought you knew. They call you Pure.”

Glynis let out a little gasp and she visibly blanched. Johanna should have felt guilty over her lie. She didn’t, though. The Maclaurin woman thought she was so terribly clever with her backhanded insults. She didn’t know Johanna understood the names were actually the opposite of what they really meant.

“Dumfries,” she whispered, “we’re going to let her simmer until tomorrow. By then Glynis will have realized how cruel her game is. Then I’ll tell her I made up the name.”

Guilt wouldn’t allow Johanna to wait that long. By the time she’d bathed the dog, she was feeling miserable. She was certain that if she was struck by lightning at that very moment, she’d go straight to hell.

She decided to go to Glynis’s cottage and confess her sin. She was drenched from head to shoes, thanks to Dumfries’s misbehaving in the creek, and she was given several stares on her way back to the well.

“M’lady, what happened to you?”

Leila asked her the question. She backed away from the dog and kept her gaze on the hound while she waited for her mistress to answer her.

“I gave Dumfries a bath. He pushed me in the creek,” Johanna explained. “Twice as a matter of fact. Where does Glynis live? I wish to have a word with her.”

Leila pointed out the cottage. Johanna dragged the dog along by her side, muttering over his stubbornness. She reached the cottage, hesitated for only a minute while she pushed her hair out of her face, and then pounded on the door.

Glynis pulled the door open. Her eyes widened when she saw her mistress. Johanna noticed Glynis’s eyes looked teary. Lord, had her cruel remark made her cry? Johanna’s guilt intensified. She was a little surprised, too, for Glynis was such a big, strapping woman, almost manly in her build, she didn’t think she was the sort to ever weep.

She spotted Glynis’s husband sitting at the table then. She didn’t want him to overhear what she was going to say.

“Could you spare me a moment of your time, Glynis? I would like to speak to you in private.”

“Yes, of course,” Glynis answered. She glanced over her shoulder, then turned back to her mistress. She had a worried expression now. Johanna guessed she didn’t want her husband listening in either.

Introductions were made. Glynis’s husband was a head shorter than his wife. He had red hair, freckles on his face and arms, and handsome white teeth. His smile seemed sincere.

Johanna was invited inside. She declined as graciously as possible, using her sorry condition as her excuse.

She asked Glynis to please step outside instead. When the Maclaurin woman had closed the door behind her, Johanna motioned her close.

Glynis started to walk forward, then stopped. Dumfries’s low growl obviously intimidated her.

Johanna ordered the dog to quit his bluster before she gave her apology.

“I came here to tell you I made up the nickname. No one calls you Pure,” she announced. “I did it out of spite, Glynis, and I’m sorry for my sin. I caused you needless worry, but in my defense I will tell you I was thinking to teach you a lesson. It stings to have the tables turned on you, doesn’t it?”

Glynis didn’t answer her question, but her face turned pale. Johanna nodded. “I know you’re the one who came up with the name for me. I also know that when you call me Courageous, you’re really meaning I’m a coward.”

“That was before, m’lady,” Glynis stammered out.

“Before what?”

“Before we knew you well and realized you weren’t a coward at all.”

Johanna wasn’t going to be swayed by that bit of praise. She was certain Glynis was only trying to ease her way out of an awkward situation.

“I do not care for your foolish games,” she announced with a nod. “Father MacKechnie boasted that the Highlanders never hide their feelings. They don’t use subterfuge.”

She had to take the time to explain what that word meant before continuing. “I find I admire that trait, Glynis. If you think I’m a coward, then have the courage to say it to my face. Don’t make up silly games. They’re hurtful . . . and very like something the English would do.”

If Glynis nodded any more vehemently, Johanna thought her neck would snap.

“Did you tell our laird?” she asked.