Next to the combatants, Stephen had made the same observation. He stepped back and spoke to Braeden. A few minutes later, Colm stopped the match. New opponents moved forward to take their places on the field.
“Lucien, come here,” Colm commanded.
The guard ran to him. “Yes, Laird?”
“Stephen has suggested that you didn’t put your full strength in your fight. Is that true?”
Colm expected to hear an excuse and was surprised by his honesty. “Give me your reason.”
“He is my elder by many years. I didn’t want to embarrass him.”
“That is the most ridiculous reason I’ve yet to hear. Am I to assume that if an old man were to attack Gabrielle, you would be considerate of his age as you try to protect her?”
“No, I would kill him if he tried to harm my princess, no matter what his age.”
“You insult my clansmen when you do not give your best. Tomorrow I will see that you do.”
Colm gave the command, and the swords and shields were put aside. There would be hand-to-hand combat now. Groups of experienced warriors took the field. Each man’s goal was to pin the other to the ground. Cunning as well as raw strength were required, and several times during the challenges Colm intervened to show the combatants their mistakes.
Christien joined Stephen to watch. “They don’t fight like us.”
Colm heard his remark and called to him. “Show me the difference.”
“I’m sorry, Laird, but I must decline.” He sounded disheartened when he added, “I cannot fight you.”
Astounded by the guard’s refusal, Colm asked, “Why is it you think you have a choice?”
Stephen stepped forward to explain. “Now that you are betrothed to marry our princess Gabrielle, none of her guard can fight you.”
Christien nodded. “We must protect you now just as we protect our princess.”
Braeden took offense. “The laird’s warriors protect him.”
Stephen nodded. “Yes, and we protect the man who will marry Princess Gabrielle.”
Christien glanced up at the crest of the hill where Gabrielle was sitting. “Besides, she would not like to see us sparring with you. She is beginning to have affection for you.”
Colm looked up and saw Gabrielle watching. She was beginning to care for him? Not likely. The guard was wrong. A woman who cared about a man didn’t run him in circles and ignore his every command.
He pushed his thoughts aside. “If you cannot fight me, Christien, then you will fight someone else.”
He motioned to one of his clansmen. A thick-necked warrior immediately stepped forward.
“Ewen, tell Christien how old you are.”
Colm repeated the command. Ewen, though puzzled by the odd order, quickly obeyed. He and Christien were only months apart in age.
“I trust Ewen isn’t too old for you to fight,” Colm said sardonically.
The two men went to opposite sides of the field. Braeden gave the signal, and Ewen, head down, charged. Christien met him in the center, and before the MacHugh soldier could get in a punch, Christien spun on one foot and used the flat of his other foot to slam him to the ground.
Christien waited several seconds to see if Ewen was going to get up. When he didn’t, the guard walked over to him and offered him his hand. Ewen pushed his hand aside, stood, and shook his head to clear it. He charged again. And again. It was painful to watch, and irritating as hell for Colm. After Ewen had been knocked to the ground for a fourth time, Colm strode onto the field, hauled the battered man to his feet with one hand, and gave him a good shove.
“Four times Christen has flattened you the very same way. Haven’t you figured out that you need to come up with another way to attack?”
Ewen frowned. “I knew he was going to kick me with his foot again, but I thought I could be quicker.”
Colm shoved him again. “Obviously you were not quicker, were you?”
“No, I wasn’t.”
“Why didn’t you try to block the attack?”
Colm showed him how it could be done, but Ewen was a slow learner, and twice more Christien knocked him down using the same method.
Three other soldiers met Ewen’s fate. Then the more experienced clansmen challenged Christien. The second man not only blocked his attack, but he landed a good punch to the guard’s middle. Christien fell to the ground. The next time Christien changed his maneuver and felled this worthier opponent.
Colm ordered Christien to try both techniques on him so that he could show his soldiers how to block the attack and gain the advantage. The laird was much quicker than Christien. The third time Colm sent the guard flying backward, Christien landed on his stomach, rolled over, and sat up. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. He wiped it away, looked up at Colm, and began to laugh.
“Again, Laird?” he asked as in one motion he gained his feet.
“This isn’t a game, Christien,” he snapped. “Tomorrow you will help train the younger soldiers.” He pointed a finger at him and added, “Before then, I suggest you rid yourself of your arrogance. In battle, these men won’t get second chances. It’s your duty to teach them how to survive. When they’re ready, Braeden and I will teach them how to win.”
A FTER THE TRAINING SESSION, COLM WENT TO THE LAKE and washed the sweat from his body, then headed toward the great hall. He was walking past the stables just as Gabrielle led her horse out of a stall. The steed was already saddled.
He stopped outside the gate and watched her. She brushed a loose strand of hair from her face as she closed the gate behind Rogue.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Colm asked.
Startled, Gabrielle glanced in his direction. “Good day to you, Colm.”
If she was trying to get him to waste his time on pleasantries, she was in for a disappointment.
“I asked you a question.”
“I’m going riding. Rogue needs to stretch his legs.”
“And where exactly are you planning to ride?”
“Here and there.”
“Across Finney’s Flat perchance?”
It seemed he could read her mind. “Yes. I thought I would pay Laird Buchanan a visit. I would like to meet his wife. I am related to her, if you’ll remember.”
“No, you don’t remember?”
“No, you’re not to leave this holding. You can ride in the hills here, but you will not leave the mountain.” Clasping his hands behind his back, he said, “I will have your word.”
She bowed her head. “As you say.”
Colm turned away from the stables and started toward the courtyard, then stopped. He turned and looked at his betrothed. She stood next to the horse, holding Rogue’s reins and waiting for Colm to walk away. He knew exactly what she was doing. Once he was out of sight, she would head to Finney’s Flat.
“Oh no, Gabrielle. You’re not pulling that on me again.”
He walked back to her. “Don’t play the innocent with me. I know that ‘as you say’ means that you’re going to do whatever you damn well want to do. You will now give me your promise. You will say ‘I give you my word,’ and you will mean it.”
Gabrielle was not about to let him intimidate her. He wasn’t the only one who had something to be cross about. She took a bold step toward him.
“You were supposed to set aside a moment of your time this morning, for I have something important to tell you, but when I came downstairs, you were gone. Did you wait at all?”
He stepped in her direction.
“I couldn’t spend half my morning waiting for you to wake up. Get up earlier, and I’ll listen to what you have to say.”
Stubbornly, she moved forward. “You are an aggravating man.”
“And you have yet to give me your promise.”
“I promise,” she said with a hint of defiance.
They were now so close she felt his warm breath. “I want your promise to set aside some time tonight,” she said. “I must speak to you in private.”
“Tell me now.”
“This isn’t private.”
He put his hands on her shoulders and pulled her toward him. “I don’t know how I will ever get along with such a stubborn woman.”
His mouth brushed hers when she whispered, “I don’t either.”
He meant to give her only a brief kiss, but once his mouth covered hers, his intentions changed. Her lips were so soft and warm. At his insistence, she opened her mouth for him, and the kiss deepened as he wrapped his arms around her and pressed her tightly against him.
For Gabrielle, the world ceased to exist. There was only Colm’s magical touch. She returned his kiss with a passion she hadn’t known she possessed.
He came to his senses before she did and abruptly ended the kiss. He took a deep shuddering breath. She was so dazed she didn’t realize she was clinging to him until he gently pulled away.
Colm had to put some distance between them before he gave in to temptation and kissed her again. He knew exactly where that would lead, and he wasn’t about to dishonor Gabrielle and take her to his bed before their marriage, but she wasn’t making it easy for him to walk away. No woman had ever affected him so deeply.
He grabbed her horse’s reins, pulling Rogue closer to lift Gabrielle onto the saddle. With a slap on the horse’s hindquarters, Colm sent her on her way.
C OSWOLD’S SEARCH FOR GABRIELLE BEGAN THE MOMENT she was banished. He spent several days canvassing the area around the abbey, but she was nowhere to be found.
His spies told him that Percy was also in pursuit, but it wasn’t long before he gave up. No surprise there, Coswold thought. Percy was, and always would be, a quitter. He had, no doubt, returned to King John to whine about how unjustly he’d been treated.
Coswold was not that easily discouraged. Thinking that Gabrielle had no alternative but to go home, he headed south, speeding in the direction her servants had taken. He intercepted their caravan near the English border where they had made camp for the night. After hours of threats and bullying, Coswold was finally convinced they knew nothing. He allowed the frightened band of travelers to continue on their journey, but not before he confiscated Gabrielle’s trunks, claiming that they should be held at Arbane Abbey until such time that Gabrielle would come to fetch them.
Frustrated but not deterred, he returned to the Highlands. Gabrielle was hiding somewhere in this uncivilized, godforsaken land, and Baron Coswold would find her.
In the week that followed, he spent most of his time watching and listening. The rumors were many, and with each scrap of information Coswold became more convinced that Gabrielle had remained in the Highlands.
One rumor persisted. Coswold heard thirdhand that Gabrielle had been taken in by the MacHugh clan, but he was unsure how to make certain the information was correct. The Highlanders were a close-knit group, and Coswold knew that if he sent out inquiries on her whereabouts, word would reach Laird MacHugh in no time at all, and the laird would hide Gabrielle away where no one could find her. The risk was too great. The baron had spent a good deal of time coming up with a plan to lure Gabrielle into the open.
He was ready for his next step: verifying that Gabrielle was indeed with the MacHughs. For this, he called on Laird MacKenna. The laird knew men who would not be recognized in this part of the Highlands and who would do anything for money. Once MacKenna’s men were gathered in front of him, Coswold explained what he wanted done.
“The plan is simple,” he told the men. “You will carry Gabrielle’s things to the MacHugh holding. You will insist on seeing Gabrielle before handing them over. Explain that you must be certain she receives them.”
“But what if they won’t let us see her?” one of the men asked.
“Tell them the order came from the abbot. That her trunks had been returned to the abbey and that he had been holding them in safekeeping until he knew where she was.”
“What do we do when we’ve seen her?”
“You do nothing,” Coswold stressed. “Leave her things with her, return to me, and receive your payment.”
“Payment of gold and women?”
“What if she ain’t there?” another asked.
“Then you will bring her things back to me.”
“Will we still get paid in coin and women?”
Coswold assured them that they would, and sent them on their way. He didn’t anticipate any problems. His plan was flawless.
Nothing could go wrong.
T WO MORE DAYS PASSED WITHOUT THE PROMISED MEETING, and Gabrielle still hadn’t had an opportunity to speak to Colm in private. No matter how early she got up in the morning, he was already gone. And when he came in late at night, he took his meals alone, then disappeared.
She was beginning to think he never went to bed, but he didn’t look as if he lacked sleep—unless she considered his mood an indicator. In the brief encounters they’d had in passing, he’d either ignored her or had grumbled about something she had done to displease him.
She had convinced herself that he was deliberately avoiding her, but then Maurna changed her mind. The housekeeper was in a chatty mood as she swept the hall on that third morning.
“The laird has not had a minute’s peace since Liam was taken,” she said, shaking her head. “He says he won’t rest until he finds the men responsible. He’s led men out every day looking for anyone who knows something.” Maurna moved a stool aside as she continued. “And then word came three days ago that thieves had stolen cattle from Seamus MacAlister’s valley, so the laird and his men have been out searching for those culprits as well. He didn’t find them until yesterday…and if those worries aren’t enough, he arrived home last night to find a war brewing between Heckert, the smith, and Edwin, the butcher. Those two are always at odds about something…”
She chattered on and on about various incidents involving the laird, and Gabrielle listened patiently. She was tremendously relieved to discover that she was not the reason he was absent, but she was also anxious to find a time to talk to him. Gabrielle was becoming desperate to unburden her conscience.
She felt so alone. There was no one she could confide in or share her problems with. Most nights she would have supper with Liam, and spend the evening playing a table game. His favorite was Fox and Geese, and he would rush to get the board and pegs the minute the trenchers had been cleared away. Gabrielle enjoyed his company, but their conversation never turned to serious matters. She couldn’t tell him about her role in his rescue. Colm was the laird, the man who had taken her in, the man who would marry her. She should first tell him her startling news.