Gabrielle was so shocked by the woman’s absurd claims, she was speechless. At this last hideous allegation, however, she could remain silent no longer.

“That’s a lie!” she shouted. “I don’t know why this woman is saying these things, but nothing she’s told you is true.”

“It is true!” Isla shouted back. “I saw you, and you were giving yourself to a man.”

An uproar swelled among the onlookers. It took MacKenna several minutes to get them to calm down so that he could be heard.

“It appears,” he said to Isla, “that this is your word against Lady Gabrielle’s.”

Almost everyone in the crowd nodded agreement. Only a few people knew Baron Coswold’s niece, so her words held little credence with most.

Suddenly, a man standing behind Laird MacKenna spoke up. “The woman speaks the truth.”

Everyone turned toward the voice. A young monk with his head covered by his hood and his arms folded inside the sleeves of his robe slowly moved forward.

“What are you saying?” MacKenna questioned. “Who is telling the truth? What do you know of this?”

Unaccustomed to having so much attention paid to him, the monk hesitated a moment before answering, then said, “Lady Isla is being truthful. I know this because I, too, saw Lady Gabrielle.”

The circle at the stone cross expanded so that everyone could see and hear the monk. He took a tentative step forward then halted as though he suddenly realized the magnitude of his actions.

“I saw the lady…” he began.

“Go on,” Percy demanded impatiently.

“I had just come out of the chapel at midnight after my hour of adoration and I saw someone hurrying toward the sleeping quarters where a few of the guests were staying. At first I saw only a dark figure, but as she passed under the candlelight shining from the chapel window, I recognized Lady Gabrielle.” He looked over at the astonished Isla and said, “Lady Isla is not lying.”

“She’s a whore!” someone behind Percy shouted.

“Unfit to marry anyone!” a member of the Monroe clan yelled.

Before long, dozens of angry voices joined together in condemning her.

Gabrielle was numb. She felt as though she’d just been thrown over a cliff and the wolves were waiting at the bottom to tear her apart. She had been judged and damned.

She tried to make sense out of the insanity. How could this be happening? How could people be saying such vile things about her? Isla had to be demented to be making such ludicrous accusations. But what of the monk? Why did he agree with Isla? What could possibly make him confirm that Gabrielle had done these wicked deeds?

Liam. Dear God, it was Liam. Maybe the monk had seen her on her way to look in on the sick man. But she was never alone when she left her rooms. At least one guard accompanied her, but if he had stepped ahead and the monk happened to look up just as she was walking past, he might have assumed she was alone. That could be the only explanation.

If she tried to defend herself, tried to tell the truth, no one would believe she was simply visiting a sick man and nothing improper had happened.

Two people had accused her. And that was enough to prove her guilt.

“Have you nothing to say for yourself?” Coswold shouted at Gabrielle.

She refused to answer. The incensed crowd had already passed judgment.

She had given her word that she would tell no one about her part in saving Liam, and even if she hadn’t promised, what would the reaction of the mob be if they knew that she was responsible for killing a man at Finney’s Flat? Who would turn against her and her guards then? She could neither do nor say anything that would end this nightmare. Tears flooded her eyes, but she would not let them spill down her cheeks. She would not respond to the slurs these people were hurling at her.

Baron Coswold’s anger toward his niece subsided, and he released his grip on her arm. Isla’s motives for coming forward were now clear to him. She was only trying to save him from the humiliation that would surely come when the truth about Lady Gabrielle was revealed, for inevitably it would be known. Even if the monk stayed silent and never uttered a word about her sin, surely Baron MacKenna would be enraged when he discovered his new bride was not a virgin. No, Isla may not have chosen the most appropriate time to speak up, but she was only trying to protect him.

The turmoil over Gabrielle’s future had suddenly shifted. Just moments ago four men had been vying for her hand, but with this revelation everything had changed. For who among them would step forward to accept her now? Who would take a harlot as a wife?

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

C OSWOLD WAS ENRAGED. IT WAS TRUE. IT WAS ALL TRUE. Gabrielle was a whore. She had tricked him. She’d tricked them all into believing she was pure. Her appearance made it so easy for her to dupe men. Her angelic face and those eyes, those bewitching violet eyes…she was so beautiful. What man would even consider that she might be anything but innocent?

What a fool he had been to want her. How many men had she given herself to? It made him sick to think about it.

Coswold looked at Percy to see how he was taking the news. A look of horror seemed frozen on his face. His mouth was open as though he were about to speak, but he uttered not one word.

Even if he had said something, he wouldn’t have been heard over MacKenna’s roar. The laird was ranting about his good name and the shame Gabrielle would have brought to it. With each statement in his tirade, he’d look up at the wall. Did he expect the Highlanders watching to applaud his refusal to marry Gabrielle?

“She has no value now,” Percy said when MacKenna paused to take a breath. “King John won’t give her a dowry. Finney’s Flat is no longer yours for the taking, MacKenna. The same goes for you, Monroe.”

“Do you think I still want her?” Monroe spat on the ground in front of Gabrielle. “The devil take her.” He turned and walked away. As he passed MacKenna, he said, “She’s all yours, MacKenna, as long as you don’t mind the mocking behind your back. You heard the baron. You can have the whore, but you won’t be getting Finney’s Flat.”

MacKenna had never felt so humiliated. His wrath turned on Coswold. “Did you know she was a whore when you struck your bargain with me? You did, didn’t you?”

Indignant, Coswold responded, “I most certainly did not. I believed her to be innocent, as everyone else did. I knew you wanted Finney’s Flat. You were already calling the land Glen MacKenna before I even suggested the bargain, and I wanted—”

He stopped in the middle of his sentence before he accidentally blurted out the promise he’d forced MacKenna to give to seal the bargain.

MacKenna didn’t want anyone to know the particulars of their agreement. He pulled Coswold aside and turned his back to the others. “You demanded that I agree to let you see her whenever you wanted, but you refused to explain why. Tell me, were you one of the men she’d already given herself to? Were you planning to continue to bed her? Was she your mistress?”

With each question he posed, his complexion turned a darker shade of purple.

Coswold had almost forgotten about the gold. Gabrielle’s shocking conduct had pushed every other thought aside. Coswold didn’t want her any longer, but he was still determined to get the treasure. His mind raced for a solution. If he was ever going to find out where the treasure was hidden, he needed access to Gabrielle, but if he took her back to King John, she would be lost to him. The king would probably be so furious he’d order her execution, and if he were in one of his rare forgiving moods, he would most likely use her until he became bored and then pass her on to his favored underlings. Either way, Coswold wouldn’t be able to see her.

Percy wasn’t as worried. While he would have preferred to have Gabrielle in marriage, he was prepared to take her as his mistress. His obsession did not require a public ceremony. If Gabrielle were banished, she would be free for the taking, and he could have her whenever and however he wanted. All he had to do was wait until Coswold washed his hands of her.

Coswold had devised a plan, too, and knew exactly what he would do. He had to act quickly because Gabrielle was still in a state of shock. He feared that she would react with a vengeance and perhaps even try to escape to her father for protection. He couldn’t let that happen.

“I think it’s a waste of my time to take the woman back to England and wait for King John to return. Since I speak on his behalf, I will decide her fate this very minute.”

“You will not kill her,” Percy shouted.

Isla’s hand flew to her chest. “Why do you care what happens to her?” she cried. “You can’t possibly still want her.”

“Can’t you shut her up, Coswold? No one wants to hear anything more from her.”

“Be silent,” Coswold ordered as he shoved Isla away from him. “Percy’s right. You’ve said enough.”

“I mean what I say, Coswold,” Percy warned. “You cannot kill Gabrielle.”

Coswold sneered at his adversary. “No, I won’t kill her. I want her to suffer for the rest of her life, however short that might be.”

He turned his full attention to Gabrielle then and took a step toward her. The crowd gave him a wide berth.

“With the power bestowed on me by King John, I hereby banish you.”

The assemblage cheered the punishment. Some clapped, others shouted approval. “Good riddance.” “She’s getting what she deserves.”

Coswold waited for everyone to settle down before he continued.

“Do you understand what this means, Gabrielle? From this moment on, you are an outcast. You have no home, no country, no king, and no title. King John and his faithful subjects no longer acknowledge your existence. You are nothing.”

“Does she answer to the king?” someone shouted.

“She does not, for she has no king,” Coswold answered.

“What about Baron Geoffrey?” Percy asked. “Don’t you wonder what he’ll do when he hears his daughter has been banished?”

“By the time he finds out, it will be too late.”

Percy was desperately trying not to show his joy. Gabrielle would be forced outside the walls, and he planned to follow her. Once she was far enough away from the abbey and no one could see her, Percy would take her. He had enough men to ambush her guards and overwhelm them. No one would even know or care what happened to her, and if Percy wanted to, he could lock her in the bowels of his castle and keep her there for as long as he wished.

Coswold had the same intention. “Isla, go and tell my servants to prepare to leave,” he commanded in a whisper.

She nodded and hurried to do his bidding. But as she passed the scorned woman, she slowed her pace and turned her head so that only Gabrielle could witness her sly smile.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

W HAT MALICIOUS REASON DID THE WOMAN HAVE TO lie? What was her purpose? And what about the monk? Why did he substantiate her lies? What did he have to gain?

Brodick didn’t have any answers. The only fact he knew to be true was that in less than ten minutes’ time the two of them had destroyed Gabrielle’s life. They had disgraced and dishonored her, snatched her future from her, and shamed and humiliated her father. Both Baron Geoffrey and his daughter would no doubt suffer King John’s displeasure, for she was no longer of any value to him. Brodick knew there was a good chance that the baron’s lands would be confiscated—John was notorious for taking what belonged to others, including wives and daughters—and with his twisted mind and his unpredictable temper, there was also a possibility that he would have Baron Geoffrey executed to make an example of him.

And Gabrielle? What would he do to her?

“We’re seeing the English in all their depravity,” Colm said with disgust.

“Gabrielle is innocent.” Father Gelroy had tears in his eyes, so great was his distress. “She’s kind and gentle,” he insisted. “If only you knew…”

The priest stopped in the nick of time. He was about to blurt out that, if Colm and Brodick were aware of the lengths Gabrielle had gone to to protect Liam and save his life, they would know for a certainty that she would never do anything to disgrace her family’s name.

“If we only knew what?” Colm asked.

“If you only knew her,” he hastily said. “She is innocent of these terrible accusations.”

Colm turned to the priest. “We already know she’s innocent.”

“Aye, we do,” Brodick agreed.

“You do?”

Brodick sighed. “We do,” he repeated. “But at the moment, that doesn’t matter, does it? Look at them. They have all condemned her.”

“Yes, they have.” Gelroy was wringing his hands. He stared at Gabrielle as he whispered, “Terrible things will happen to her if they take her back to England and hand her over to King John. That lecherous man is capable of vile deeds, and I will tell you this, when he is finished with her, he’ll…” He couldn’t go on. Gabrielle’s future was too horrible to speak of.

“The woman who accused her…” Brodick began.

“Isla,” Gelroy said. “I heard them say her name.”

“She lies,” Colm said.

Gelroy agreed with a nod. “She will have to answer to God for this.”

“But what about the monk?” Brodick asked. “Why did he confirm her lies?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you know this monk?” Brodick asked.

“I do. He’s young and eager to serve, and I believe him to be an honest man. I can’t imagine why he would say that he had seen Gabrielle. It has to be a mistake, and I’ll seek him out and ask him to tell me exactly what he thinks he saw.”

“The damage is already done,” Brodick said.

Gelroy’s shoulders slumped. “Yes it is. They have ruined Lady Gabrielle’s life. Shame to them.”

“Priest?”

“Yes, Laird MacHugh?”

“When I leave the abbey, you’re coming with me.”

Gelroy had the sudden urge to throw himself over the parapet. He took a step back, judged the distance to the steps, and then found a bit of courage. He wouldn’t run. He would politely decline.

“You’re inviting me to serve your clan…”

“If you choose to think of it as an invitation, you may.”

“And if I decline?” the priest gulped.

“You won’t.”

The lump in Gelroy’s throat made it difficult for him to speak, and it took every ounce of self-control he possessed to stand before the MacHugh. Praying that the laird had indeed come to the abbey to seek a priest, and not, as Gelroy feared, to exact revenge for his brother, he rasped, “I will be happy to go with you.”



----