Stephen and Christien walked over to stand beside Colm.

“Lucien told us what happened to the men from the Boswell clan,” Stephen said.

Colm didn’t acknowledge the comment. Then Christien said, “Why didn’t you kill them? I would have.”

“Our princess would have been unhappy if they were killed,” Stephen explained. “I think that is why they’re still alive.”

The three remained quiet as they watched the exercises on the field. One young soldier dropped his sword.

“For the love of God,” Colm muttered. “I should let them kill each other and be done with them.”

“They should first learn to fight with their bare hands. They shouldn’t be fighting with weapons.” Christien voiced the criticism.

Colm nodded. Weapons could become crutches, and if disarmed, the warrior would be powerless against his enemy unless he possessed other skills. What in God’s name was Braeden thinking to let them use swords? By day’s end there would be severed limbs everywhere.

There were over a hundred clansmen on the field now, and that number didn’t include the unskilled beginners. Braeden couldn’t be in five places at the same time, and Colm realized he needed to delegate more responsibility to other worthy, seasoned warriors. No one would want to take on the beginners. Colm started back down the hill when an unexpected solution presented itself.

“Stephen, I think it’s time for you and the other guards to earn your keep here.”

“What did you have in mind?”

“I’ve yet to see your skill on the field. Tomorrow you will spar with some of my warriors. If I think you’re up to the duty, you will help train the young ones.”

Colm didn’t have to look at Christien to know he was smiling. Come morning he would knock some of that arrogance out of him.

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

G ABRIELLE HAD BEEN IN A FINE MOOD UNTIL SHE STEPPED outside to get a bit of fresh air and met the Boswells. Kinnon and Edward had taken delight in sharing the stories they’d heard about her. The tales were so outrageous she couldn’t help but laugh.

The humor of the situation eluded her now. How could anyone get joy from saying terrible things about another person? There was no excuse for such cruelty. She pondered the sad fact as she climbed the stairs and entered the great hall. Her frame of mind had turned quite gloomy.

Though it wasn’t logical, she decided to place the blame for her misery on Colm. She had been living with the MacHughs for two weeks, and if their laird had bothered to tell his clan that he was planning to marry her, word would have spread to the other clans by now, and the Boswells wouldn’t have dared to taunt her.

But he hadn’t told anyone, had he? There was only one conclusion she could draw from his silence. He didn’t want to marry her, and he was so dreading it, he couldn’t bring himself to say the words. He didn’t even like being in the same room with her. Aside from lecturing her every now and then about something he felt she’d done wrong, he hadn’t had a decent conversation with her.

On one of her many walks with Father Gelroy she had discussed her concern about Colm. The priest suggested that she try to be more understanding. Colm’s responsibilities as laird of his clan were sizable.

“I do realize his clan comes first,” she told him, “and I am an outsider.”

“They will come to love you,” he assured her.

She wasn’t as certain. Patience wasn’t one of her virtues. She decided she would give Colm one more week to make a formal announcement.

“One week. Then I’ll leave this place and go where he will never find me.”

Voicing her thoughts made her feel better and more in control. She straightened her shoulders and walked across the hall to the bench where she’d left her needlework.

“Did you say something?” Liam MacHugh asked the question.

Gabrielle was so surprised and pleased to see him, she didn’t mind that he had heard her mumbling to herself.

“Good day to you, Liam,” she called out.

Colm’s brother had been sprawled in one of two tall chairs flanking the fireplace. He stood as she crossed the room.

“Lady Gabrielle. Please, come and sit with me.”

She took the chair on the other side of the hearth and noticed that Liam didn’t grimace when he sat down. The cuts on the backs of his legs had obviously healed. There were a few wounds still visible just below his knees, but she didn’t think he would carry the marks the rest of his life. The deep cuts on his back, however, would surely leave scars. Lucky for Liam, his face had been untouched. He actually looked quite fit.

“Father Gelroy has told me all about you,” he said, smiling.

“How is it that I have been here two weeks, and this is the first I’ve seen you?”

“I didn’t want to see anyone until I was stronger. I’ve been up and about.”

“Are you feeling better?”

Her concern seemed genuine to him. “Yes,” he assured her. He studied her face for several seconds and then asked, “And how is it that you seem so familiar to me? I know we have never met, for I would remember such a beautiful woman. Perhaps I dreamed of you. The guards who traveled with you watched over me while I slept. I must thank you for allowing them to do so.”

“They didn’t need my permission, and they are the ones who should hear your gratitude.”

“Yes, you’re right,” he agreed. He then repeated what the priest had told him about the royal guard and was curious to hear more. He was also interested in hearing about St. Biel, and Gabrielle was happy to answer his questions.

She liked him. Unlike his brother, Liam was easy to talk to and quite charming. Women must flock to him, she thought, because of his easy smile and his good looks. He also had a roguish sense of humor. He made her laugh telling stories about pranks he and Colm pulled when they were boys. Spending the afternoon with Liam was the most pleasant time she’d had since arriving at the MacHugh holding. Best of all, Liam never mentioned the reason she was there, and for that she was most thankful.

GABRIELLE WAS ACCUSTOMED to eating her meals alone. That evening both Colm and Liam joined her. Colm, sitting at the head of the table, and Liam, sitting at the opposite end, stood when she entered the hall with Father Gelroy trailing behind. Liam beckoned to her while Colm, stone-faced as always, simply waited for her to sit down. She made a choice without giving it much thought. She smiled at Liam as she walked to Colm and took the seat adjacent to him.

Father Gelroy glanced in both directions before taking a chair next to Liam.

The room was quiet until Maurna carried in trenchers fashioned from day-old bread and filled with herring, salt cod, mutton, and salt beef. Last to be placed on the table were fat loaves of fresh brown bread. Still hot from the oven, the bread’s aroma filled the hall.

Determined to engage Colm in conversation, she asked, “Laird, how did your hunting go today?”

“As expected.”

She waited for him to elaborate, but he didn’t seem inclined. She took the wedge of bread Father Gelroy offered her and tore off a piece as she tried to think of something else to talk about.

The men ate their meal in silence, while, occupied in thought, she continued to tear the bread into shreds.

Finally, Gabrielle spoke. “What are your plans for tomorrow?”

“Why do you ask?”

“I was but curious.”

Father Gelroy began to tell an amusing story, and Gabrielle looked down at the table. She’d torn the bread into a million crumbs and made a mess. Thinking no one had noticed, she scooped up the crumbs and dropped handfuls onto the trencher.

Once the priest had finished his story, she turned to Colm and asked, “Is the weather unusually mild this time of year?”

“No.”

Gabrielle was frustrated. Nothing was working. Surely there was a topic that would get his attention. She moved on to a question about the new addition being built.

Liam was talking quietly to the priest, but he heard what she asked and leaned forward to answer.

Gabrielle sighed and reached for another wedge of bread, but Colm stopped her by putting his hand on top of hers. His voice was whisper soft. “Why are you so nervous with me tonight?”

Tonight? She was always nervous when she was with him. But why? There was no reason for this feeling, unless, of course, it was a purely physical reaction, which didn’t make any sense at all. Of the two brothers, Liam was the good-looking one. He was the complete opposite in appearance and temperament from his brother, and yet it was Colm she was attracted to. There had to be something wrong with her, she decided, to prefer such a flawed and rude man.

“Gabrielle, answer me.”

“Should I give you one-word answers like you’ve been giving me? I have been trying to have a decent conversation with you.”

Liam interrupted them. “Colm, did you find out anything about Monroe?”

“There are rumors but nothing of substance yet.”

Liam looked from the priest to Gabrielle as he explained. “Laird Monroe was murdered.”

“We know,” Father Gelroy said. “Lady Gabrielle was supposed to marry the laird.”

“That’s right, she was. I heard about the marriage before I left the Monroe holding, not long before I was ambushed.”

“May I ask why you were there?” Gelroy said.

Liam smiled. “I was meeting someone.”

“Who?” Gelroy prodded.

“Just someone.”

The priest was about to ask another question, but Liam stopped him when he said, “A woman, Father. I was meeting a woman. I won’t give you her name.”

Gelroy blushed. “If only there was a chapel, you could go to confession.”

Liam shrugged. “Did you hear that the Monroes are fighting over who will be the next laird? Braeden believes there will be war among them.”

For the next ten minutes the brothers debated who should take over leadership of the clan.

“Do you think they will ever find out who killed the laird?” Gabrielle asked.

“We won’t rest until we find the culprit,” Liam said.

“We?” Father Gelroy inquired.

“Lairds Buchanan, Sinclair, Maitland, and MacHugh,” he answered. “They have already come together to share information.”

Gabrielle hoped there would be justice for Laird Monroe. “No man should die from a knife in his back,” she said.

“It is a cowardly act,” Colm agreed.

She stared at his hand resting on top of hers. It was twice the size of hers and warm, wonderfully warm. How could a simple touch please her so? Was she so starved for affection that his nearness would evoke such a reaction? He probably wasn’t even aware of what he was doing. Disgusted with herself, she turned away from him and listened to Fathery Gelroy telling about life at the abbey.

At every opportunity, Gelroy would make a comment or two about the benefits of having a chapel for the clan. He gave several examples, thinking he was being subtle.

“A chapel would provide a holy and proper place to hear Liam’s confession and to absolve him of any sins he may have committed with the Monroe woman,” he assured Colm. “And you, Laird,” he continued, “I could hear your confession anytime you wished…even twice a day if necessary.”

Gabrielle burst into laughter. “Father, I think perhaps you should just ask our laird to build you a chapel.”

“Our laird?” Liam asked.

She lifted her shoulders and looked at Colm. “It would seem that you are Father Gelroy’s laird now…and mine as well. Is that not so?”

His expression was inscrutable when he answered. “It is so.”

Liam frowned. “Am I missing something here? Why is it so?” he asked. “And are you thinking about building the priest a church?”

“Perhaps,” he allowed.

“There are souls in need of saving here,” Gelroy said with a pointed look at Liam.

“Building a church will save our souls?” Colm asked, grinning.

“It would be a step in the right direction. Your clan would have to be encouraged to go inside, get down on their knees, and pray God’s forgiveness for their past sins.” Wagging his finger at Liam, he added, “And mean it…with a sincere heart. After what happened to you, I would think you would want to be in God’s good graces.”

In the blink of an eye the conversation turned serious. “Colm, Father has not been able to tell me how I got from Finney’s Flat to the abbey.”

“You could have walked,” Gelroy suggested.

“No, I could not.”

Gelroy sighed. “I have already explained that I cannot tell you.”

“But you know, don’t you?” Colm asked.

“Have you found the men who hurt Liam?” Gabrielle asked in a rush.

“You would know if I had.”

“But you won’t give up searching, will you?” she asked.

“No, I won’t.”

“You’ve still to answer my question, Father,” Liam said. “You do know how I got to the abbey, don’t you? Were you perchance near Finney’s Flat when I was there?”

“You cannot think this dear priest had anything to do with—”

Colm squeezed her hand. “No, we don’t think he was involved. It’s our hope that he might have seen the men who tried to kill Liam.”

“I was at the abbey before Liam came to us,” Gelroy said.

“I know you’re holding something back, and I want to know what it is,” Colm demanded.

Gabrielle’s mind raced. She had hoped to have a private moment with Colm to tell him that she was the one who shot Liam’s attacker and that her guards had carried him to Arbane Abbey, but now he was forcing the issue.

“I must tell you—” she began.

He shot her a daunting look that stopped her from continuing. “I’m talking to the priest, Gabrielle. It’s time for the truth.”

Father Gelroy seemed to shrink in his chair, recoiling from the laird’s anger.

“Well, Father, what is it? Are you going to tell us, or do we have to resort to more forceful measures?” Liam asked.

Gabrielle bolted to her feet, upsetting her chair in her haste.

“I cannot believe you would ask Father Gelroy to tell you what he cannot.”

“Cannot? Or will not?” Liam asked.

“Cannot,” she snapped, glaring at him. “I will not allow you to bully Father Gelroy. He’s a man of the cloth. He has explained more than once that he cannot tell you. Leave him alone, or you will have to answer to me.”



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