A width of Colm’s plaid was thrown over his bare chest. In this light and in this small chamber he seemed so much taller and more muscular. She noticed everything about him. His hair was wet, and there were still drops of water on his chest indicating he had gone to the lake to wash, as did many of the other clansmen. The color of his eyes…the firm line of his jaw…his wide shoulders…

She wanted this man.

She stepped toward him. “Know you how handsome you are?” she whispered softly.

His reply was raspy. “I do not think about such things. When you know me better…”

She took another step toward him, eyes locked on his. He couldn’t remember what he was saying. She brought the light scent of flowers with her as she moved closer, and all he could think of was touching her. She aroused him as no other woman could.

“I know you, Colm.”

With her fingertips she traced the scar that began at the tip of his shoulder and followed it down his arm. “Your body tells your history.”

He did not move as she slowly circled him, touching, caressing. “You are a warrior,” she whispered as her fingers brushed across his shoulders. His muscles flexed and his skin felt warm to her touch. “You are a protector.”

She gently stroked the side of his neck, and when she was again standing in front of him and just a breath away, she whispered again, “I know you.”

Colm’s eyes did not leave hers as he slowly removed her gown. Her cheeks became flushed, but she didn’t shy away from him or shield her body. He pulled her into his arms and kissed her fiercely. Her body was so wonderfully soft, her skin silky and warm. His lips gently brushed across hers and then he wanted more. He made love to her with his kisses until passion engulfed him.

He carried her to the bed. She wasn’t given time to pull the covers over herself. He quickly removed his plaid and covered her with his body. She gasped when his bare skin pressed intimately against hers.

Colm wanted to know every inch of her. He lingered over her mouth, then kissed the side of her neck, inhaled the sweet scent. He felt her heart beating under his, and when he kissed the base of her neck, she trembled. He lowered his head to caress her br**sts and kiss the valley between. His hands slid down her back, the curve of her spine.

Gabrielle loved the feel of him against her. She wrapped her arms around his neck as their kisses grew more demanding.

With each touch, Colm’s need increased. His fingers slipped between her thighs. He felt her tense in reaction, but he would not be denied. She began to move restlessly against him.

The way he was stroking her was driving Gabrielle wild. He made her want more. He wouldn’t let her deny him as he moved lower and lower to kiss every part of her. The sweet torment soon became unbearable. Her nails raked his shoulders as she demanded release.

Her wild response made Colm burn to have her, and his own restraint vanished. He roughly pushed her legs apart and, kneeling between her thighs, he thrust inside her.

She cried out in pain and arched against him, but he soothed her with sweet words and touches. The pain was soon forgotten, and as he moved inside her, slowly at first, her h*ps pushed against his, and she moaned with pleasure. His thrusts became more powerful, less controlled. And suddenly she felt a rush of ecstasy. She screamed his name as she cl**axed, and she squeezed him tight as he found his own release and poured his seed into her.

For long moments neither of them moved, their harsh breathing the only sound. Gabrielle thought her heart would explode. Loving Colm was the most terrifyingly wonderful experience she had ever had.

She knew she had pleased him. Though he didn’t give her the words, his touch was enough. When at last he found the strength, he rolled to his side and gathered her into his arms. He kissed the top of her head and lay back. She rested her cheek on his shoulder and put her hand over his heart.

She loved this man.

CHAPTER FORTY-SEVEN

G ABRIELLE HAD NOT KNOWN SUCH EXQUISITE PLEASURE was possible.

Content to stay in his arms, her hand still rested on his chest over his heart as she stared across the room at the dying embers. She thought he was asleep and tried to pull the covers up, but Colm tightened his hold on her. She snuggled closer, sighed, and closed her eyes.

“Colm?”

He yawned. “Yes?”

“Why did you hit Liam? Do you remember hitting him?”

“I remember. He couldn’t walk any farther, and he would have felt disgraced if he were carried.”

“Knocking your poor brother senseless was an act of kindness then.”

“You could think so.”

Her mind floated from one thought to another. She was quiet for several minutes and then asked, “Did you love Joan when you were betrothed to her?”

“No.”

He obviously didn’t feel any further explanation was necessary.

Another minute passed and then she whispered, “More salt is coming. I forgot to tell you, but you will have enough to fill your storeroom when the last trunks are brought.”

“It is a good gift,” he said. “Salt has more value than gold here.”

She jumped to another question almost immediately. “Those two men who were caught sneaking into the abbey to kill Liam…were they also sent by MacKenna?”

“Yes. Evidently they were new recruits. MacKenna appears to have hired every degenerate character he came across.”

“I am not sorry my guards killed them.”

He smiled in the darkness. She sounded fierce. “Go to sleep, Gabrielle. You need your rest.”

“Will you tell me what happened to the men who beat Liam?”

“No.”

“Just one last question, if you please. My mother’s statue of St. Biel will be moved from the courtyard at Wellingshire and brought here. It’s a tradition. Will you mind? It’s quite large.”

“I will not mind unless you plan to put a statue in our bed. Now sleep.”

“Shouldn’t I kiss you good night?” she teased.

“Do you realize how you tempt me? You are tender now. You should sleep.”

Even as he was telling her what she should do, he was rolling her onto her back and kissing the side of her neck. He was not gentle with her this second time. Already discovering what she liked, his lovemaking was less restrained. She wrapped her legs around him as he drove deep inside her. He groaned, and when he began to move his hips, she cried out in blissful rapture. She found fulfillment first and his release followed. It was even better this second time.

Exhausted and sated, she closed her eyes. Colm lifted up on his elbows and looked down at her. “Now you will sleep,” he commanded. He rolled onto his side and pulled her up against him so that her back was pressed against his chest.

She was of a mind to obey.

CHAPTER FORTY-EIGHT

E VER SINCE THE REVELATIONS AT NEWELL CASTLE, COSWOLD’S life had been miserable.

The baron was sick and tired of pretending humility with the king, but he knew he was on shaky ground. John was still furious that Coswold and the others had believed Isla, that lying bitch. When Coswold dared to point out that it was Percy who had duped Isla into telling the lies about Lady Gabrielle, the king reminded him that Isla was Coswold’s own niece, and he was therefore responsible for her actions. Besides, John had already taken his displeasure out on Percy. The scoundrel had been stripped of his title and his small estate and was sent to a dungeon where he could ponder his transgressions. And just to make sure that Isla learned her lesson as well, the king thought it appropriate that she accompany Percy. Perhaps the two of them would think better of conspiring against the king’s wishes if they were forced to spend all their time together.

Coswold knew it was imperative to get John to forgive him. The king had a terrible temper and would assuredly blame Coswold for any trouble that might follow. He did everything in his power to please the king. Coswold followed John wherever he went and was at his beck and call day and night. He would have rolled over like a dog if he’d been told to. As a result of these exhausting efforts, John was softening his attitude. He liked having a confidant he could regale with stories about the barons’ wives he had slept with.

As humiliating as it was to grovel, Coswold’s newfound closeness to the king certainly had its benefits. He was present when a messenger arrived to give the king the good news. The rumor had been verified: Lady Gabrielle had been found. She had been taken in by the MacHugh clan and was living among the Highlanders in their mountain stronghold. John was elated. Now he could set about making amends with the lady and perhaps head off some of the animosity from Baron Geoffrey and the other barons.

Before John dispatched his envoy to the MacHugh holding to make his announcement to Gabrielle, he called the man to him to give specific instructions. Coswold stood by and listened. The king informed Coswold that he had chosen this particular herald because he had a flawless memory and could repeat any message to the exact word. After expressing his admiration for the king’s good judgment, Coswold reminded him that he had just returned from that part of the Highlands. Perhaps he could offer some advice.

“The way to the MacHugh clan is dangerous. The Highlanders are sometimes hostile to outsiders,” Coswold said. “May I suggest that your herald stop at Arbane Abbey and get an escort to accompany him the rest of the way? The monks will be accommodating if there is a reward.”

He saw that the king was angered at this suggestion and Coswold hastily added, “And I, to show my goodwill, shall be happy to supply whatever you feel is needed.”

“You will supply me with double your tax, Coswold, and then I will be appeased,” the king said. “Give the monks whatever you want. I don’t care about them, but I do want my herald to have safe passage.”

Coswold filled a cart with a dozen casks of the finest wine he could buy and sent it to the abbey ahead of the envoy. He then requested that the king allow him to return to his home to get an accounting of the crop that had just been harvested. The king gave his approval.

As quickly as possible, Coswold gathered his men and headed to Arbane Abbey. Having selected only well-trained soldiers to accompany him, he was surrounded by a small but capable army. He wasn’t about to take any chances. Men frequently disappeared in the wilds of the Highlands and were never seen again. Coswold was still waiting to hear from the men he had sent to verify Gabrielle’s whereabouts. He had suspicions that they had stolen the trunks for themselves and hadn’t gone to the MacHugh holding at all.

THE MONKS of Arbane Abbey had just settled in for their evening prayers when a loud pounding noise at the front gate interrupted them. The abbot hurriedly genuflected in the chapel and rushed across the courtyard to the gate, irritated by the inconvenience.

It was too soon for the monks who had traveled to the MacHugh holding to be returning. Their journey home would take longer than usual because of the bishop. He had been visiting the abbey when the envoy from England arrived, and hearing about the message that was being delivered to Lady Gabrielle, the bishop had insisted on accompanying the group, explaining that he seldom had the opportunity to be present when good news arrived from the English king. The monks were to take an alternate route home to deposit the bishop at his residence, which added an additional two hours to their journey. It was impossible for them to have traveled so swiftly that they would have arrived already.

The abbot slid the bolt back and opened the gate a crack. Seeing who it was, he swung the gate wide. “What brings you back to Arbane Abbey?” he asked in surprise.

Baron Coswold walked past the abbot and entered the courtyard, followed by one of his subordinates, Cyril. He turned to him and gave orders that his troops were to make camp outside the monastery walls. Only then did Coswold address the perplexed abbot. “I come on behalf of King John,” he announced.

“For what purpose?” the abbot asked.

Coswold had his explanation ready. “The king has sent one of his heralds as an envoy to deliver a message to the MacHugh holding. I have received word from travelers that there is great turmoil in the Highlands,” he lied, “and fearing for the envoy’s life, and knowing how important his mission is to the king, I have taken it upon myself to gather my army to assure the king’s envoy safe passage.”

Coswold did not realize the truth of his statement about turmoil, for he had yet to hear of MacKenna’s demise.

The abbot showed the baron into the hall. “I am certain the envoy will return safely, Baron, but you are welcome to wait here and see for yourself. I will have the cook bring you food and drink. If there is anything else I can do to make you comfortable, I am your humble servant.”

The abbot hurried off to make arrangements for the unexpected guest.

When the travel-weary group returned to the abbey after nightfall, Coswold was waiting to greet them.

The envoy was surprised to see the baron. “Did the king send you here with further instructions for me?” he asked.

“No,” Coswold answered. He pulled a chair from the table and offered it to the envoy. “The king relies on you and knows as I do how important your duties are. Your safety is important to him…and since there is nothing I care about more than the king’s contentment, I felt it my obligation to see to your well-being.”

With an ingratiating smile, he pointed to the chair. “Sit with me and we will drink some wine and eat some cheese, and you can tell me all about your adventure. Are the MacHughs as savage and ill-tempered as I have heard? And what of Lady Gabrielle? Is she as beautiful as I remember?”

The envoy was flattered by the baron’s attention and eager to share his experience. After a second goblet of wine, he was completely relaxed and the words flowed freely.

“Do you want me to tell you word for word what each said?”

“No, no, not at all,” Coswold said. “Save your report for the king. I’m only interested to know what those people are like.”

“I will not be giving the king each word I heard. He only wants to know if Lady Gabrielle accepted his forgiveness and his offer of Finney’s Flat.”

He took a gulp of wine while Coswold waited impatiently.

“Now to answer your question, it is true. Lady MacHugh is a beauty,” he said. “She seems content as well. Her new clan was happy to hear that Finney’s Flat now belongs to their laird. They are—”

Coswold interrupted. “Lady MacHugh? You mean to say Lady Gabrielle?”

“She is Lady MacHugh now, for she is married to Laird MacHugh. I must tell you, I was quaking in my boots when he turned his gaze on me. He is a fierce warrior.”



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