“It is only because I worry about your safety,” she countered. “I would be most unhappy if anything happened to you while you were . . . hunting.”
“You have just given me another insult,” he announced, though his voice had lost its hard edge. “Have you so little faith in me? My men and I are so quiet when we take what we need, no one hears us. We are in and out of their stores before their animals even catch our scent.”
She wasn’t at all impressed with his boasts. She let out a rather inelegant snort. “I happen to have complete faith in you,” she muttered. “I was merely curious to know where you were going. That was all there was to my question. However, if you don’t want to tell me, then don’t.”
He didn’t. When she found out he was planning to be away for at least two weeks, perhaps as many as three, she became even more curious.
She didn’t nag him, though certainly not because she thought she was above such tactics. Gabriel simply didn’t give her time. He told her he was leaving, argued with her for a minute or two, then kissed her soundly and left.
He didn’t confide in her because he didn’t want her to worry. He and a full contingent of soldiers were joining Laird MacKay in the war against the MacInnes clan, and once they’d finished with those infidels, Gabriel planned to ride to Laird Gillevrey. Yet another request had come from Baron Goode begging an audience with Johanna. The Englishman obviously didn’t understand what the word no meant. Gabriel planned to personally and forcefully insist the baron give up. He wanted to make sure the ignorant baron comprehended what would happen to him if he dared to pester Johanna again. He prayed the baron hadn’t sent a vassal.
His wife was kept busy with Alex, Clare MacKay, and mundane everyday household affairs. Glynis trimmed Clare’s hair; and after another two weeks resting in her chamber, the MacKay woman was finally strong enough to join Johanna for supper in the great hall.
Clare was getting prettier with each new day. Once the bruises faded and her facial features were no longer distorted from swelling, she turned into a strikingly beautiful woman. She had a wonderful sense of humor and an appealing brogue that sounded musical to Johanna. She tried to copy it, much to Clare’s amusement.
Johanna tried to keep her concentration on the preparations for her mother’s visitation. She was anxious to see her but actually hoped she wouldn’t arrive for another month or two. With a bit of prodding, Johanna was certain she could convince her mama to stay until after the baby was born.
Johanna was getting thick through her middle, but she wasn’t actually showing yet. She was sleeping quite a lot now. She took an afternoon nap, then still went to bed early each night. She and Alex kept the same hours. It became a ritual for her to take him up to bed. After he’d washed and cleaned his teeth, they would kneel side by side at the foot of the bed and say their nightly prayers together.
She was usually nodding off by the time they were finished. Alex wanted to delay sleep, and for that reason he liked to include everyone he’d ever met in his prayers. Gabriel was always at the top of their list, of course. They prayed for him first, then for Alex’s relatives and Johanna’s; and after all the acquaintances had been named, Johanna insisted on a prayer for King John’s nephew, Arthur. Alex wanted to know why they were praying for him, and Johanna explained that Arthur should have been king, and since that right had been denied, they would pray he’d made it to heaven.
Gabriel came home just a few minutes after Johanna had taken Alex upstairs, but by the time he finished listening to Keith’s report and had his supper, his wife and son were sound asleep.
It was as hot as hell inside the chamber. Fall had come to the Highlands and with it a cooling breeze his wife could barely tolerate. The furs covered the window, and his wife was hidden under a mound of plaids. Since Alex wasn’t sleeping on his mat, Gabriel assumed he was also hidden somewhere under the covers.
He found his son at the foot of the bed and carried him over to his mat. Alex must have put in an exhausting day, for he didn’t even open his eyes while he was being carried from one bed to another.
Gabriel barely made a sound as he got ready for bed. He stripped out of his clothes, washed, and then started discarding covers in his attempt to find his wife.
Johanna was sleeping in the center of the bed. He stretched out next to her and gently pulled her into his arms.
He needed her tonight. Hell, he always needed her, he thought to himself. Not an hour had passed during their separation that he hadn’t thought about her. It was a shameful habit he was getting into, for he was behaving like a lovesick husband who only wanted to stay at home with his wife.
The comforts of family life had actually taken the pleasure out of warring.
Johanna was wearing a long white nightgown. He hated the thing. He wanted to feel her smooth body pressed up against him. He eased the garment up over her thighs and began to stroke her while he nuzzled the side of her neck.
She took her time waking up. He wasn’t deterred, however, and when she finally realized where she was and what her husband was doing, she was very enthusiastic in her responses.
It proved to be a difficult challenge to keep her from making any of those arousing sounds he liked so much, but he didn’t want Alex to wake up, and so he sealed her cries of ecstasy with long hot kisses. When she found fulfillment, she tightened all around him and let out a soft whimper.
When he found his own pleasure, however, he let out a loud shout.
Johanna went rigid in her husband’s arms. Her hand moved to her mouth to keep herself from laughing.
“It’s all right, Alex. Go back to sleep.”
“Good night, Papa.”
“Good night, son.”
Gabriel’s head dropped to the crook of Johanna’s neck. She turned so she could nibble on his earlobe. “Welcome home, husband.”
His grunt in reply made her smile. She fell asleep hugging him tight. He fell asleep wishing he had enough strength to make love to her again.
It was a thoroughly satisfying homecoming.
Nicholas arrived late the following afternoon. Gabriel stood on the steps outside, waiting for his brother-in-law to dismount. Calum stood by his laird’s side. He spotted the look of displeasure on Gabriel’s face.
“You going to kill him this time?” he asked.
Gabriel shook his head. “I can’t,” he replied in a voice that sounded a bit forlorn. “My wife would be unhappy, but by God, that is the only reason her brother’s still breathing.”
Calum hid his grin. He knew his laird’s anger was all pretense. He turned to watch their guest.
“Something’s wrong, MacBain. The baron isn’t wearing his usual daft smile.”
Johanna’s brother was all alone. He was in a hurry to get to MacBain, too, for he swung his leg over his mount and jumped to the ground before the stallion had stopped. The horse’s coat was lathered, indicating he’d been pressed hard.
Something was wrong, all right. Nicholas wasn’t the sort of man to abuse his mount.
“Take care of his horse,” Gabriel ordered Calum. He went down the steps and walked forward to meet his brother-in-law.
Neither warrior was much on proper greetings. Nicholas was the first to speak. “It’s bad, MacBain.”
Gabriel didn’t question Nicholas. He simply waited for him to explain.
“She’s upstairs, getting Alex ready for bed.”
“I could use a drink.”
Gabriel tried to contain his impatience. He followed Nicholas inside, dismissed Megan from finishing her task of preparing the tables for supper so that he and Nicholas would have privacy, and then waited by the buttery while his brother-in-law poured himself a drink.
“You’d better sit down to hear this news,” Nicholas suggested. “It’s a hell of a mess, and Johanna’s in the middle of it.”
Johanna had just come down the stairs when she heard her brother’s voice. She didn’t pick up her skirts and run to Nicholas, but came to an abrupt stop instead, for the anger in his tone, added to his worrisome words, made her wait to hear what mess he was talking about before she intruded.
She knew it wasn’t polite to eavesdrop, but concern and curiosity overrode manners now, and she knew that if she interrupted, the men would change the topic. Both her husband and her brother were overly protective of her feelings. Aye, they would change the topic all right, and it would take her a good amount of nagging to get any answers out of either one of them. Listening in on the conversation might not be proper, but it was certainly effective. Besides, she’d heard her name and knew the mess somehow involved her. She edged a little closer to the entrance and waited to hear her brother’s next remarks.
“Just get it said, Nicholas,” Gabriel commanded.
Johanna nodded. She was in full agreement with her husband’s demand and feeling every bit as impatient as he’d sounded.
“Baron Raulf has returned from the dead. He wants his wife back.”
Johanna didn’t hear her husband’s reaction to Nicholas’s news. She was too stunned to hear anything more. She felt as though she’d just been struck a powerful blow. A scream gathered in the back of her throat. She backed up until the railing prevented her from going any further. She shook her head in denial. It couldn’t be true. Raulf had fallen from a cliff. There was a witness. He was dead.
Demons stayed in hell, didn’t they?
And then she ran. She didn’t have any clear destination in mind. She simply wanted to find a place where she could be all alone until she gained control over her panic and her fear.
She went down the back corridor, but by the time she reached the door leading outside, she realized what she was doing and why. The fear had been immediate and instinctive. It was a black remnant from her past, she thought to herself, and in the past her fear had always controlled her. She wouldn’t allow it to control her now.
Johanna sat down on the bench and leaned back against the wall. She took several deep, calming breaths. After a few minutes, the panic began to ease, and with it the fear.
She was a different woman now, she reminded herself. She’d found courage and strength, and no one, not even a demon, could take those things away from her.
Her hand moved to her stomach in a protective action. Tears came into her eyes, but they were tears of joy, not apprehension, as she thought about the miracle growing inside her.
She said a prayer in thanksgiving for all the blessings God had given her. She thanked Him for giving her Gabriel and Alex and the baby sleeping inside her and thanked Him, too, for giving her a safe haven where she could be free of pain and where she could learn how to love, and last of all she thanked Him because He’d made her strong and clever.
And then she set about using her cleverness to find a way out of the mess.
Johanna sat on the bench in the dark for almost an hour, but when she finally stood up, she had a clear plan in mind. She was feeling peaceful now, actually serene. Most important in her mind, she was in complete control.
Yes, she had come a long way. She smiled over the compliment she’d just given herself, then had to shake her head because she was acting daft. She wasn’t crazed. She believed she would be all right. If it came to a battle of wits, Raulf wouldn’t stand a chance against her. In her estimation, men who beat women were ignorant. They were also weak-minded and filled with insecurities. Raulf had all of those sorry traits. Yes, she would be victorious if the battle was waged in London’s court with threats and accusations. She would use her knowledge of his sins to condemn him.
But if Raulf decided to use his fists and his sword to get his way, Johanna knew she wasn’t physically strong enough to withstand his attack. It didn’t matter though. Raulf could summon an army to aid him, but in the end, she would still be victorious. Because of Gabriel. He was her champion, her protector, her saving grace. She had complete faith in his ability to keep his family safe. Raulf was no match against him.
A demon, after all, could easily be crushed by an archangel.
Johanna let out a sigh. She was ready to let her husband comfort her. She picked up her skirts and ran to him.
Nicholas intercepted her in the center of the hall. He lifted her into his arms and swung her off the floor.
“Oh, Nicholas, I’m so happy to see you!” she cried out.
“Put her down, damn it!” Gabriel roared. “And get your hands off her. My wife isn’t in any condition to be tossed about like a caber.”
Both Johanna and Nicholas ignored Gabriel’s commands. She kissed her brother and hugged him tight. He finally put her down and draped his arm around her shoulders.
“My sister may look delicate, MacBain, but surely you’ve noticed by now she’s really as strong as an ox.”
“I’ve noticed you haven’t let go of her yet,” Gabriel snapped. “Johanna, come here. You should stand by your husband.”
He sounded surly, but the sparkle in his eyes indicated he was pleased to see her happy. She thought he might actually like Nicholas, too, but Gabriel would go to his grave before admitting it. Men, she’d learned, were a complicated lot.
She pulled away from her brother and went to her husband. He immediately put his arm around her shoulders and hauled her close into his side.
“Why didn’t you bring Mama with you, Nicholas? She would have been happy for your company, and she is planning to come here for a visitation. Isn’t that right, husband?”
Gabriel nodded. “Yes, Nicholas,” he said. “Why didn’t you bring her?”
“She wasn’t ready to leave England just yet,” Nicholas countered. “Besides, there developed a bit of a problem, Johanna . . .”
Gabriel wouldn’t let him finish. “Your mother will come next month.”
“Explain, please, the problem you mentioned,” she requested.
Both men looked wary now. She thought they didn’t know how to give her the bad news. After several minutes of prodding, however, she came to the realization neither one had any intention of telling her about Raulf.
Gabriel could barely make himself let go of Johanna. When they sat down at the table to share their dinner, he kept reaching over to take hold of her hand.
Nicholas sat across from his sister and adjacent to Gabriel. Keith sat next to him. Clare joined them a few minutes later and took her seat next to Johanna.
Both Nicholas and Gabriel stood up when Clare entered the room. Johanna had to motion the other soldiers to also stand.
Nicholas kept his gaze on the lovely woman walking toward him. Gabriel kept his full attention on his brother-in-law. He waited to see a sign of recognition.