Clare was shouting by the time she finished her speech. She’d bounded to her feet and folded her arms across her chest while she glared at Nicholas.
He showed no reaction to her behavior or her words. In truth, he wasn’t offended. Nay, he found Clare’s defense of Johanna admirable.
“How did you become so loyal to my sister in such a short time?” His voice was kind and soothing. The bluster seemed to leave her all at once. She collapsed back onto her stool, straightened her plaid across her shoulder, brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes, and then looked at Nicholas again.
He was smiling at her. He was a handsome man, she thought to herself, and the look of tenderness in his eyes made her feel warm inside. She shook her head against such thoughts and tried to remember his question.
“Your sister saved my life.”
Johanna mopped at her eyes, thanked the priest for his concern, and then turned to Clare.
“You saved yourself, Clare.”
“You had a hand in it,” Father MacKechnie announced.
Alex appeared at the entrance. He was hopping from one foot to the other while he waited to get some attention.
Johanna spotted her son and immediately excused herself from the table. “I must tuck him in,” she explained.
“Will you come back down?” Clare asked.
“I’m very weary tonight,” Johanna answered. “I believe I’ll go to bed.”
“I’ll go up with you,” Clare announced. She stood up, bowed to the priest, and then turned to Nicholas. “I didn’t mean to shout at you.”
Nicholas had stood up when his sister did. Clare walked around the end of the table to leave the hall but stopped when she reached his side.
He towered over her. She tilted her head back so she could look into his eyes. They were beautiful, she thought to herself . . . for an Englishman.
“I have apologized, Baron. Have you nothing to say in return?”
“And catch hell again? You seem to take exception to everything I say, Clare MacKay.”
“I haven’t,” she defended.
He grinned. Father MacKechnie snorted with his laughter. “He’s got you now, lass. You just proved him right.”
Clare didn’t know if Nicholas was jesting with her or not. She could feel herself blushing and didn’t understand why. She certainly hadn’t done anything to feel embarrassed about.
She decided she’d wasted enough time trying to understand the strange Englishman. She turned to the priest, bid him good night, and then muttered the same to Nicholas.
“Sleep well, Clare.”
The caress in his voice shook her. She glanced up to look at him.
He winked at her.
She didn’t run out of the hall. She walked at a ladylike pace. She didn’t smile until she reached the entrance. Then she smiled all the way up the stairs. She did a lot of sighing, too. Baron Nicholas was a thoroughly unacceptable man, and heaven help her, she was beginning to like him.
Nicholas watched her leave the hall. Father MacKechnie asked him to sit back down. “Don’t leave just yet. Share some brew with me. None of us is going to get much sleep tonight, worrying as we are.”
Nicholas reached for the jug and poured a drink into the priest’s goblet.
“Clare intrigues me,” he remarked.
“Of course she does,” Father MacKechnie agreed. “She’s a bonny lass, isn’t she now?”
Nicholas nodded. “Were you here when she arrived?”
“I was,” Father MacKechnie said.
Nicholas waited for the priest to tell him more. Father MacKechnie didn’t seem inclined.
“As long as Clare is here, I’m responsible for her safety, too, Father,” he said.
“Aye, you are.”
“MacBain told me her father will be coming to collect her tomorrow or the day after.”
“I hadn’t heard that,” the priest replied. “What are you going to do? Will you let her leave?”
“You’re going to have to tell me what happened to the woman. I can’t make any kind of decision until I know her history. Clare seemed upset over the news.”
“Do you mean upset because her father’s coming to get her?”
Nicholas nodded. The priest let out a loud sigh. “You’d best hear what happened to the poor lass. Clare MacKay arrived here so bloody and torn apart it looked as though the wolves had gotten to her. It’s a miracle her face wasn’t scarred. It’s a miracle she even lived. I gave her the last rites,” he added so Nicholas would understand he wasn’t exaggerating.
He took a long swallow of his drink and then told Nicholas the full story. He was pleased with the baron’s reaction. Nicholas was properly outraged.
“So she’s carrying a MacBain?” Nicholas asked when the priest finished his explanation.
“Nay, son, she isn’t carrying. She made it up, you see, and confessed the full truth to our laird only last night. Clare told me this morning, though not in confidence or in confession, so I am at liberty to talk about it,” he hastily explained. “She said she was feeling relieved. She’s a proud woman. She doesn’t like to lie.”
“Then why did she?”
“It was the only way she could think of to get away from the MacInnes men. She went to an extreme. She could have gotten herself killed.”
“From what you’ve told me about her injuries, she damned near did get herself killed,” Nicholas remarked.
The priest agreed with a nod. “Clare’s father is the only one who doesn’t know the truth yet. He’s expecting to meet the father of Clare’s babe and set a marriage date.”
The bizarre conversation of the night before was suddenly making sense to Nicholas. “The MacBain kept asking me if I recognized Clare. He thought I was the man responsible.”
“No one’s accusing you now, son. It would have been convenient if you had been the one, at least I imagine our laird thought it would have been convenient.”
Nicholas shook his head. “Son of a . . .”
He stopped himself from saying the blasphemy just in time. “What will Clare’s father do when he finds out she lied?”
“No telling,” the priest replied. “I will of course try to intercede if he loses his temper. ’Tis the truth I’m afraid for her. Laird MacKay’s a hard man. He loves his daughter, but when he finds out she lied, he might marry her off to the first unattached clansman he spots. She’s got a hard future in front of her.”
Nicholas thought about what the priest had told him for several minutes.
“I wasn’t able to save Johanna.”
Nicholas’s voice was whisper soft, as though he was in confession. The priest put his goblet down and turned to the baron. “You cannot blame yourself for what happened to Johanna. She told me she kept the truth from you because she was ashamed.”
“I should have known what was happening,” Nicholas muttered. “Raulf kept her hidden away, and I should have been clever enough to realize his reasons. He didn’t want me to see her bruises, of course. Dear God, how I want to be the one who kills him.”
The priest decided to turn the baron’s thoughts. “You’d best be deciding what to do when Laird MacKay gets here. Johanna doesn’t want Clare to leave. I’m warning you now, son. You’re going to have to contend with your sister as well as Clare’s father. You’ve also got the king’s messengers coming here with their demand to take Johanna back to England.”
“John assured me he would send only the messengers and four escorts,” Nicholas said. “It will only take a few minutes to give them Gabriel’s answer and send them home.”
“My laird believes he’s going to be able to change your king’s mind, doesn’t he?”
“I wonder how he thinks to accomplish his goal,” Father MacKechnie said.
Nicholas shook his head. “He was damned confident he would get the king to withdraw his support from Baron Raulf, but Gabriel wouldn’t tell me what he planned to say.”
“You’re caught in the middle, aren’t you? You can’t call up your own vassals to fight by your side, for you’re in the Highlands now and the battle might very well be waged against your own king.”
“We’re living in difficult times,” Nicholas said. “It is unthinkable for a vassal to lose his faith and trust in his overlord. Most of the barons in England have had their fill of John’s antics. There’s constant talk of rebellion.”
“I can understand why,” the priest remarked. “Your king’s made more enemies than allies.”
“That is true,” Nicholas agreed. “He has even turned the holy pope against him. Change is in the air, Father, and if John doesn’t mend his ways, he’ll eventually be forced to hand over his power just to remain king.”
“A king without power? How is that possible?”
“John will be forced to give over specific rights to the barons,” Nicholas explained.
The priest had never heard of such a thing. Yet in all of his considerable years he’d never seen such an inept leader as John. The stories he’d heard over time regarding King John’s behavior couldn’t all be exaggerations; and if only a few of them were true, then England’s leader would certainly have quite a bit of explaining to do when he stood before his Maker.
“Do you trust your king?”
“I will continue to serve my overlord until he breaks the bond. I am his vassal.”
“But do you trust him?”
Nicholas didn’t say another word. He pushed his chair back, bid Father MacKechnie good night, and then left the hall.
His silence was his answer.
All hell broke loose the following day.
The weather was a prelude to disaster. A violent thunderstorm erupted shortly before dawn. Lightning felled two giant pines. One crashed down on top of the tanner’s cottage, and the other fairly destroyed the kitchen’s roof. Thunder shook the castle walls. The storm seemed relentless.
Alex attached himself to Johanna. The noise frightened the child; and every time another clap of thunder sounded, he tried to bury himself underneath her.
By the time the storm had worn itself out, Johanna and Alex were exhausted. They slept until late in the morning.
Clare shook Johanna awake.
“Please wake up, Johanna. I must talk to you. Father’s riding up the last hill. What am I going to tell him? He’s going to be furious. I can’t think what to do. Oh, Alex, please don’t cry. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
Johanna sat up in bed just in time to catch her son as he hurled himself into her arms.
She soothed the little boy first; and when she finally made him realize neither he nor his mother was in any danger, he quit crying. Alex had been fretful since his father’s departure, and Johanna thought she might very well be responsible. The little one had latched onto her fear. She decided she was going to have to be more vigilant in hiding her worries.
“Clare, help Alex get dressed please. I must hurry if I’m going to talk to Nicholas before your father gets here. What did I do with my plaid?”
Johanna raced to get dressed. She was thankful the morning sickness had passed. She didn’t have time to deal with a bout of nausea now. She washed her face with cold water, cleaned her teeth, but didn’t take the time to brush her hair. On her way down the hallway she threaded her fingers through the mess to try to get the tangles out.
“Mama, wait for me,” Alex shouted.
Johanna stopped at the top of the steps. Alex ran down the hallway and took hold of her hand.
“How would you like to visit Auggie this morning? Lindsay will take you over to his cottage. He’ll be pleased for your company.”
Alex was thrilled. Auggie had become one of his favorite companions. He eagerly nodded, let go of Johanna’s hand, and ran downstairs shouting Lindsay’s name.
Nicholas wasn’t in the great hall. Clare called out to Johanna and motioned for her to come to the door, which she had partially opened.
“Father’s here,” she whispered. “Nicholas is waiting for him.”
“Stay inside, Clare,” Johanna ordered. “I’ll try to get my brother . . .”
“I’m going with you.” Clare announced.
Johanna didn’t argue. Clare pulled the door wide and then followed Johanna outside.
It was cold and damp. The clouds were gray, and a fine mist was falling.
Laird MacKay spotted his daughter immediately and gave her a quick nod in greeting. He was still mounted on his steed, and there were at least twenty clansmen with him.
“Where’s MacBain?” the laird shouted.
Nicholas waited until Clare’s father had dismounted before he answered him.
“He had an important matter to take care of and left yesterday morning. I suggest you come back in two or three weeks. He should be back by then.”
Laird MacKay frowned with anger. “Clare MacKay,” he shouted.
“You married yet?”
Clare walked down the steps and started across the courtyard. Her voice held a note of fear in it when she gave her answer.
“Then war it is,” Laird MacKay bellowed.
The veins in the side of his neck stood out. Nicholas shook his head. “MacBain doesn’t have time to war against you,” he announced. “He’s got another, more important battle on his hands.”
MacKay didn’t know if he should be insulted or not. “Who is he warring against?” he demanded to know. “The Gillevreys? Or is it the O’Donnells? They’re a sneaky lot. Makes no difference which clan it is, for they’re both poorly trained and can be defeated in a day’s time.”
“Laird MacBain went to war against England, Papa.” Clare blurted out the lie.
Her announcement gained her father’s full attention. “Well now, that’s all right,” he decided.
“Laird MacKay, you look soaked through. Won’t you come inside and warm yourself by our fire?” Johanna tried to play the gracious hostess now in hopes of soothing the old man’s temper. “You must be hungry after your long journey.” she added as she walked down the steps.
“I ain’t hungry and I can’t imagine why I’d be needing to warm myself. It’s hot as ever today.”
“Father, please come inside.”