Laird MacKay shook his head. “I won’t be moving a foot until I hear the name of the man who disgraced you, Clare. I’m wanting to know who my son-in-law is, and I’m wanting to know now. Which MacBain shamed you, girl?”
“There wasn’t any MacBain.”
Clare’s voice shook when she gave her father her answer. Johanna tried to hush her before she could say any more.
Clare shook her head. “He’ll have to know,” she whispered.
“What did you just say? It wasn’t a MacBain?” her father demanded.
“Father, will you please listen to me,” Clare implored. “I have to explain what happened.”
“The only thing I’m wanting to listen to is the name of the man you’re going to wed.”
Nicholas hadn’t said a word during the debate between father and daughter. He seemed completely unconcerned. Yet when Clare tried to walk past him to get closer to her father, he reached out and grabbed hold of her arm to keep her from going any further.
“Nicholas?” Johanna whispered.
“Hell,” Nicholas muttered.
Clare was thoroughly confused by Nicholas’s action. “Please let go of me,” she said. “This matter doesn’t involve you.”
“Oh, but it does,” he countered.
She shook her head. He nodded. “I’m responsible for you, Clare MacKay, and you are accountable to me. I haven’t given you permission to go anywhere. Get behind me and stay there.” The last of his command was given in a hard, downright mean, tone of voice.
Clare was simply too astonished to argue. She turned to Johanna for guidance. Nicholas’s sister lifted her shoulders in a shrug. She looked as confused as Clare was by Nicholas’s behavior.
“Do it now.”
Clare obeyed the command before she had time to think about it. She moved to stand behind Nicholas, then leaned up on tiptoe so he could hear her whispered protest. “I am not accountable to you.”
Nicholas didn’t bother to whisper his reply. “You will be.”
Clare still didn’t understand what Nicholas was telling her. Johanna understood, though. She walked over to her brother. Keith appeared out of nowhere and blocked her path. He obviously didn’t want her to get too close to Laird MacKay.
She tried to ignore the soldier’s interference. “Nicholas? Are you certain you want to do this?”
Her brother didn’t answer her. Laird MacKay strutted forward. He wanted to snatch his daughter back.
“MacBain promised me a wedding,” he announced. “He’s not a man to go back on his word.”
“No, he isn’t,” Nicholas agreed. “There will be a wedding.”
The laird looked appeased. He grunted low in his throat and gave a brisk nod.
“Papa, there isn’t . . .”
“Be silent, lass, while I get my particulars,” her father ordered. He kept his gaze centered on Nicholas. “And who is my future son-in-law?”
Laird MacKay’s mouth dropped open. His eyes looked as though they were going to bulge right out of his face. He shook his head in denial and took a step back in an attempt to distance himself from the Englishman.
“No!” he bellowed.
Nicholas wouldn’t let the laird retreat. “Yes,” he answered, his voice emphatic.
Clare grabbed hold of Nicholas’s tunic and tried to pull him back. “Are you crazed?” she asked.
Johanna nudged Keith out of her way and hurried over to Clare’s side. “Let go of him,” she ordered.
Clare started to protest the outrageous pledge Nicholas had just given her father, but Johanna stopped her by grabbing hold of her hand and demanding in a whisper that she wait until later to argue.
“Is it a trick then?” Clare asked, thinking Nicholas might be giving the rash promise in order to stall for time.
“It could be,” Johanna allowed, knowing full well her brother never said anything he didn’t mean. He was going to marry Clare MacKay all right, and from the set look on his face, no one was going to stop him, not even a reluctant bride.
“You’re English,” the laird shouted. “It’s unthinkable.”
Nicholas didn’t seem to be at all affected by the old man’s fury. He actually smiled when he said, “I won’t require a substantial dowry.”
“Clare MacKay, you might as well have taken a dagger and plunged it into your father’s very own heart,” the laird wailed.
“But, Father . . .”
Nicholas snapped the command. He didn’t take his gaze off Clare’s father when he gave his order. He waited for the angry old warrior to either pounce on him or gain control of himself.
Johanna tried to soothe Clare, but it was difficult for her to pay attention to what she was doing and keep her attention on the laird at the same time. She was mesmerized by the man’s behavior. Lairds didn’t weep, but this one looked like he was going to break down and cry at any moment. He was certainly having difficulty accepting Nicholas’s announcement.
“An English baron wed to my daughter? I’ll die first, I will. ”
Johanna quit rubbing Clare’s shoulder and stepped forward. “A very rich baron,” she blurted out.
The laird frowned at Johanna with what she thought was indignation. “Wealth is not an issue here,” he muttered. “How rich?”
They were married an hour later.
There wasn’t time for a celebration. Father MacKechnie had only just blessed the union when Michael came running into the great hall. He was looking for Keith or Nicholas to give his news.
He spotted the baron first. “One of our soldiers doing border patrol has just arrived with the news,” he said. “English soldiers were spotted coming onto our land. It’s an army, Baron, and only an hour away from the keep.”
“How many were sighted?” Keith demanded.
“Too many to ever count,” Michael told him.
Nicholas let out a roar so forceful and so filled with fury, the sound surely reached the Lowlands.
He had been betrayed by his king. The bond between vassal and overlord was destroyed. John had lied to his baron, for he hadn’t sent a messenger and escort. He’d sent an army.
The keep would be under siege in less than an hour’s time. Keith immediately took charge of readying the area for attack by posting guards all along the walls, and Nicholas took on the responsibility of leading a contingent of men down the ridge to meet the English soldiers in a flanking attack.
Laird MacKay was told to go home before the fight began. He refused the order and mounted his horse to ride by his son-in-law’s side. He told one of his men to ride like lightning back to his own holding and gather his considerable troops. Nicholas was damned thankful for the old man’s interference. He knew they were going to need every fighting man available.
Clare couldn’t seem to make up her mind if she wanted to get hysterical because she was now married to an Englishman or if she wanted to be helpful in the battle against the intruders. Then Nicholas turned to leave, and Clare picked up her skirts and ran after him.
“Don’t you dare make me a widow, Baron,” she demanded. “I’m wanting an annulment, not a funeral.”
Nicholas reached his stallion, grabbed the reins in one hand, and then turned to his bride. “You won’t be getting either,” he announced.
She didn’t know what to say to him next. Nicholas stared at her for a long minute, then decided he’d wasted enough time on his new bride. He started to turn away.
Words still eluded her. And so she simply threw herself into his arms. Nicholas knew what to do next. He let go of the reins, wrapped his arms around his trembling bride, and gave her a kiss filled with promise, commitment, and a fair amount of lust.
“You look like a boy with your hair cut so short, but you sure as hell kiss like a woman, Clare MacKay.”
She forgot how to breathe. She couldn’t seem to gather her wits about her until her husband was riding away.
“Take care of him, Papa!” she shouted.
“I will, lass. Get yourself inside and stay there.” Clare turned to do just that when she spotted Johanna running across the yard. “Johanna, where are you going? It isn’t safe for you to stay out here.”
Johanna wasn’t listening. She ran all the way to Auggie’s cottage. She was crying by the time she got there.
Alex took one look at his mother and started wailing. She picked the child up and hugged him tight.
“Auggie, take Alex up to my chamber. I’m making you responsible for him. Don’t let any harm come to him. Promise me.”
“I promise you,” he said. “And where will you be while I’m looking out for the boy?”
“There isn’t time for me to explain,” she answered. “King John has sent an army four times the size of our own.”
“We’ve survived before, lass. We’ll survive again.”
The price was too dear to pay for Johanna to be reasonable. She didn’t want a single man to die because of her fight with England’s king. She believed she was the only one who could avert a massacre.
“The king betrayed my brother,” she said. “He used trickery, Auggie, and so I will use the truth to stop this before it’s too late.”
Johanna kissed Alex and handed him to Auggie. “Go,” she whispered. “I must know both of you will be safe.”
“If it gets too threatening, I’ll take the boy and hide. I’ll bring him back when it’s finished.”
“How will you get outside the walls?”
“I have my ways,” Auggie boasted. “Quit your crying, boy. We’re on an adventure now. Let’s fetch your wooden sword and have our own battle.”
Johanna stayed inside Auggie’s cottage for several minutes. She knelt down and said a prayer for courage.
She finished her petitions, made the sign of the cross, and then stood up. Clare and Keith were both standing in the doorway, watching her.
“They’re swarming up the hills, m’lady,” Keith announced. “We’re going to have to find a way to get you out of here. We can’t defend ourselves against such numbers.”
Clare was trying not to cry. “Papa and Nicholas are both going to get killed. I’ve never seen so many soldiers, Johanna. I don’t know what we will do.”
“I have a plan,” Johanna announced. “They’re here to fetch me, aren’t they? Keith, you will simply give me to them.”
He shook his head. “I cannot, m’lady.”
“You don’t have a choice in the matter,” she countered. “Listen carefully. We were taken by surprise, isn’t that so?”
She waited for his nod before continuing. “If we’d had time to prepare, what would you have done?”
“Called up our allies,” Keith replied. “And when they arrived, we would outnumber the enemy. Even now the word is being passed through the Highlands, for the sight of such a vast army would be spread like wildfire. Most of our allies are to the north, however, and they are probably only just now hearing the news. They’ll come.”
“But it will be too late, won’t it?”
“There is always hope, m’lady.”
“There is also a better plan,” she replied. “If I willingly go to the English soldiers, they will retreat.”
“They’ll take you back to England!” Clare cried out.
“They will if Keith cannot mount an attack in time. How long before you can gather enough men?”
“A single full day,” he answered.
“Gabriel hasn’t reached England yet. He will have heard. Add him to your numbers.”
Johanna continued to try to make the commander listen to reason. Keith wouldn’t agree with her plan, however, and kept insisting he would give up his life to keep her safe.
And so she resorted to trickery to get her way. She pretended to give in. Keith asked her to go back to the great hall and wait there with Clare until he sent men to sneak the two of them out of the keep.
Johanna nodded agreement. She started up the hill with Clare at her side, but just as soon as Keith had regained his mount and ridden away, she turned to her friend.
“You’ve going to have to help me,” she announced. “You know it’s the only way, Clare. I won’t be harmed.”
“You can’t know that, Johanna,” Clare whispered with fear. “What about your baby?”
“We’ll be all right. Raulf doesn’t know I’m carrying, and the pleats in my plaid hide my condition.” She nodded again. “We’ll be all right.”
“And if Baron Raulf is leading the army? How will you keep him from hurting you?”
“I have not forgotten how to cower,” Johanna replied. Her voice was filled with sadness. “And I will try not to incite his anger. Clare, I love my brother and all these good men here. I cannot let them die because of me.”
“Dear God, I don’t know what to do.”
“Please help me.”
Clare was finally swayed. She gave a quick nod. “Aren’t you frightened, Johanna?”
“Oh, yes,” Johanna answered. “But I’m not overwhelmed with it. In my heart, I know it’s a sound plan. Gabriel will find me.”
Tears streamed down Clare’s face. She forced a smile to hide her terror. “I wish I had someone like Gabriel who I could love and trust.”
“Oh, Clare, you do. Nicholas is every bit as gentle and good as my husband.”
Her friend’s smile became genuine then. “Dear Lord, I forgot I was married,” she blurted out. “Come now. We must get you out of here before I also forget I have courage.”
The two women turned direction and ran toward the back entrance to the stables. Twenty minutes later, and after considerable subterfuge and plain sneakery, Johanna rode out of the keep and down the steep hill.
She was going back to hell again. Yet when she spotted Raulf riding toward her, her heart didn’t stop beating and her stomach didn’t twist in agony.
Johanna wasn’t terrified now; she was determined. She had a sound plan.
She had Gabriel.
They took her to the Gillevrey keep. Raulf and his army had crossed the clan’s border and immediately found themselves under attack. The Highlander soldiers were courageous in battle, but Laird MacKay’s evaluation was proven true. They were a poorly trained group of men, and it had only taken the English infidels one day to conquer the land and the castle.