“You gave yourself away, you know.”
“You told me you felt trapped and that you did something you knew would eventually be found out. Pretending to be carrying a baby would eventually be found out, wouldn’t it? Didn’t you realize people would notice you weren’t getting bigger?”
Clare was openly sobbing now. “I didn’t think at all,” she confessed.
Johanna slowly leaned back in her chair. “What in heaven’s name are we going to do about this mess?”
“We? I’m the one who will suffer the consequences when my father finds out I lied.”
“Why did you make up such a tale?”
“I was desperate,” Clare admitted. “Can’t you understand? It was so horrible living there. Each day got worse.”
“I do understand,” Johanna said. “But . . .”
Clare interrupted. She was anxious to explain her reasons so Johanna wouldn’t condemn her.
“Father placed me in the Maclnnes household for training. I was supposed to marry the laird’s son in six months’ time. It didn’t take me long to realize how terrible they all were. Did you know the laird has two older daughters? They were born before his precious son,” she added in a rush. “One of the servants told me that each time the laird was given the news his wife had delivered him a daughter, he went up to the birthing chamber and beat the poor woman. She died after giving him a son. She probably welcomed death. I know I would have if I were married to such a monster.”
“And his son is just like his father, isn’t he?” Johanna already knew the answer to her question. She had vivid memories of the laird’s son standing over Clare with his hands formed into fists at his sides.
“He’s worse than his father,” Clare said. Her voice reeked with disgust. “I couldn’t abide the thought of being married to him. I tried to talk to my father, but he wouldn’t listen to me. I had run back home, you see, but . . .
Clare couldn’t go on for several minutes. Her sobs were wrenching. Johanna found it extremely difficult to maintain her own composure. Not only had Clare been placed in the hands of a monster, she’d also been betrayed by her father. It was unthinkable to Johanna, for her own father would have killed Raulf had the dear older man been alive and known the anguish his daughter suffered.
“Your father took you back to the Maclnnes clan, didn’t he, Clare?”
“Yes,” she whispered. “I don’t believe I’ve ever felt so abandoned . . . or . . . desperate. A few days later, I heard the Maclnnes soldiers talking. They’d spotted warriors wearing the MacBain plaid crossing their border.”
“And that is when you came up with the lie?”
Clare shook her head. “The soldiers didn’t realize I was listening to them. When they whispered your husband’s name, I could hear the fear in their voices. I decided then that I would go searching for these soldiers. I don’t know what I thought would happen if I found them. I didn’t have a plan, Johanna. I just wanted someone to help me.”
“Yes,” Johanna agreed, her voice a soothing whisper. She handed Clare a linen cloth to wipe her face, then took hold of her hand. “I would have done the same thing.”
The conviction in her voice assured Clare. Johanna felt a strong bond with the woman. They were united now, for their memories of nightmares past joined them together against the atrocities forced on women by a few bullying, frightened men.
“I had already been beaten once for insolence,” Clare said. “And I knew it would happen again and again. I never found the MacBain soldiers; and by the time I gave up my search, it was getting dark. I stayed in an abandoned cropper’s cottage all night. Dear God, I was afraid. I was terrified of going back to the Maclnnes keep and terrified not to,” she added. “They found me the next morning.” Clare was holding onto Johanna’s hand with such a strong grip, she was bruising the skin.
“You felt helpless, didn’t you?”
“Oh, yes,” Clare answered. “I still hadn’t thought up the lie though. Three months went by, and then one morning the laird announced he’d decided to move up the marriage date. Robert and I were to be wed the following Saturday.”
Clare’s voice was hoarse from strain and weeping. Johanna was going to get up to fetch her a drink of water, but Clare wouldn’t let go of her hand.
“My lie wasn’t planned ahead of time,” she said. “I gathered my courage and stood up to Robert. I told him I would never marry him. He went into a rage. He’s a possessive man, and jealous. I knew he wouldn’t want me if he believed I had willingly given myself to another man. I remembered the MacBain soldiers who had crossed the border, remembered, too, the MacInnes’ soldiers fear of your laird, and that is when I came up with the lie. I knew what I did was wrong and I’m sorry I lied to you. You have been so kind to me, Johanna. Hilda told me what you did to Robert. I wish your arrow had pierced his black heart. Dear God, how I hate him. I hate all men, even my father.”
“You have sound reason to despise Robert,” Johanna said. “In time you’ll get past your hatred. You might even begin to pity the man.”
“I’m not so forgiving.”
“Clare, I know you aren’t in the mood to listen to me, but I still must instruct you not to blame the majority of men for the sins of a few.”
“Didn’t you hate your first husband?”
Johanna sighed. “Yes,” she admitted. “But I didn’t hate all men. My father, if he’d been alive, would have protected me from Raulf. I would have found sanctuary with him. My brother, Nicholas, came to my rescue once he became aware of what was going on.”
“Once he became aware? Didn’t you tell him after the first beating?”
“It’s difficult to explain, Clare,” Johanna replied. “Raulf wasn’t like Robert, and I was much, much younger then. The beatings didn’t start right after we were wed. He set about destroying my confidence first. I was naive, and frightened, too, and when you are called ignorant and unworthy over and over again by someone who is supposed to love and protect you, well, in time a part of you will begin to believe some of the nonsense. I didn’t tell my brother because I was too ashamed. I kept thinking I would make it better. I never believed I deserved such foul treatment, and eventually I came to realize Raulf was never going to change. That is when I knew I had to find a way to leave. I would have gone to Nicholas, but as it turned out, it wasn’t necessary. My husband was killed.”
Johanna paused to take a calming breath. “You wouldn’t hate Nicholas if you knew him. He’s the reason I married Gabriel,” she added. “And you cannot hate my husband.’Tis the truth I can’ t imagine how anyone could.”
“I don’t hate him,” Clare said. “He has been protecting me, and I am appreciative. He does frighten me though. You obviously do not notice what a giant of a man he is, m’lady, or that his manner is most . . . abrupt.”
“He can be overwhelming, but only if you let him,” Johanna replied, a smile in her voice now. “Clare, you showed incredible courage standing up to Robert. You must have known what would happen. You almost got yourself killed.”
“My game is over, isn’t it? I’ll tell my father the truth. I promise.”
“Will he make you go back to Maclnnes?”
“I don’t know,” Clare said. “He wants the alliance.”
Johanna felt sick. The thought of the woman being forced back into Robert’s grasp was simply too appalling to think about. Only one thing was certain in her mind. She wasn’t going to let that happen.
“Don’t tell your father the truth just yet,” she said. “I must think about this. I cannot allow you to go back. No, I can’t let that happen. We will have to put our heads together and come up with a solution.”
“Why do you care, m’lady? You put yourself in jeopardy by keeping me. Your compassion will get you into trouble. My father ...”
Johanna wouldn’t let her finish her protest. “Clare, I believe you’ve already conquered the most difficult challenge.”
“And what was that, Johanna?”
“You were in an untenable position, and you took the most important first step. I wouldn’t have chosen your road to freedom, but that doesn’t matter now. You got out. Don’t you understand? You cannot consider going backward now.”
“What happens when my father’s soldiers war against the MacBains because of my lie?”
Johanna shook her head. “We will find a way to avert a conflict,” she announced.
“I don’t know . . . not yet, but you and I are clever. We can find a way to straighten out this mess.”
“But why would you put your clan in such a position?”
“I don’t believe one must be sacrificed for the other,” Johanna said. “I do believe that every woman has a responsibility to look out for the other. When one is in bondage or suffering, then aren’t all of us?”
Johanna knew she wasn’t making any sense. It was difficult for her to put her feelings into a coherent explanation. “Women are looked down upon by some men. There are members of our church who consider us inferior. God doesn’t, though. Remember that one important truth, Clare. It took me a long while to understand. Men make the rules, not women. They tell us they are interpreting God’s views, and we are supposed to be naive enough to believe them. We are not so inferior.” Her voice was filled with conviction now. “As women, we must try to stand together . . . like sisters, and when we see an injustice, we damned well should try to interfere. Together . . . if there are enough of us united, we can help. Attitudes can be changed.”
“And where do we start? With our sons?”
“We start by helping each other now,” Johanna explained. “Later, when we have sons and daughters, we teach them to love and honor one another. We are all made in God’s image, men and women alike.”
The sound of men coming down the hallway stopped the discussion. Clare surprised Johanna, for she didn’t look overly afraid. She let go of her hand, straightened her shoulders, and smoothed her covers.
The door was just opening when Clare whispered, “Together.”
Johanna nodded and then echoed the promise. “Together.”
Gabriel was the first to enter the chamber. He didn’t look happy to see his wife there. He shook his head at her. She pretended she didn’t notice.
Father MacKechnie led Laird MacKay into the room. The priest nodded to Johanna before turning his attention to Clare.
“You look a wee bit better today,” he announced.
Laird MacKay moved to the side of the priest so he could see his daughter. He started forward, then came to an abrupt stop. “Dear God,” he whispered, loud enough for everyone in the chamber to hear.
The sight of his daughter’s bruised face made the laird blanch. Johanna had been prepared to dislike the man. He had refused to listen to his daughter’s pleas and had forced her to go back to the Maclnnes men. Yet his reaction now made Johanna reevaluate her opinion. Perhaps he hadn’t realized how horrible Clare’s circumstances were.
No, she thought to herself. She wasn’t going to give him the benefit of the doubt. She didn’t care if she was being uncharitable or worse. In her mind he was just as responsible for Clare’s near death as Robert Maclnnes was.
He wasn’t a very appealing man in appearance. He was of medium size, judging by the fact that Gabriel towered over him. He was at least twice her husband’s age, too, for he had thick strands of gray streaked through his brown hair. He had deep lines around the corners of his eyes and around his mouth. Like his daughter, he had brown eyes. His nose was his most prominent feature, however. It was quite large, and hawklike. It was fortunate Clare hadn’t inherited that feature from her father.
Gabriel walked over to stand next to Johanna. The window was directly behind them. The furs had been tied back, and a faint breeze brushed her back.
“Good day, Father.”
Laird MacKay finally recovered from his initial surprise. He walked over to the side of the bed, reached down, and took hold of his daughter’s hand.
“Clare, what have you done to yourself?”
The caring was there in his voice, but Johanna thought the question obscene. She saw red. She walked over to put herself between father and daughter. The laird let go of Clare’s hand and backed up a space. He caught the look of fury on Johanna’s face and backed further away.
“What did Clare do, you ask? Do you honestly believe she inflicted those marks upon herself?”
The laird’s eyes widened. He took another step back, obviously trying to get away from Johanna’s anger. It washed over him like boiling water.
“Nay, I don’t think she did,” he replied.
“Robert Maclnnes and his father are responsible . . . and you, Laird MacKay,” she announced. “Aye, you are also responsible.”
Clare’s father turned to Gabriel. “Who is this woman?” he shouted.
Gabriel walked over to stand closer to Johanna. “She is my wife,” he announced, his voice hard. “And you will not raise your voice in front of her.”
“She isn’t from around here.” Laird MacKay made the comment in a much softer tone of voice.
“She’s from England.”
“Are English daughters allowed to speak to their elders in such a disrespectful tone of voice, I’m wondering?”
Gabriel turned to Johanna. He thought she was probably dying to answer MacKay’s question.
“She will speak for herself,” he said.
Johanna kept her gaze on MacKay. “Most English daughters are encouraged to voice their opinions,” she said. “Their fathers, you see, love and cherish them. They protect them, too, unlike some lairds who would put alliances before their daughters’ safety and happiness.”
MacKay’s face turned red. Johanna knew she was provoking his temper. She couldn’t seem to care. “Do you love your daughter?” she asked.
“Of course,” the laird replied. “I cherish the lass, too.”
Johanna nodded. “Do you realize, sir, your daughter almost died?”
The laird shook his head. “I didn’t realize,” he admitted.