"You don't really want Christen back, do you?"

Alford tilted his head toward Gillian. "Of course I want her back. I have grand plans for her."

Advertisement

Deliberately trying to incite his wrath to take his attention away from the child, she laughed. "Oh, I know all about your grand plans. You want King John's precious box, and you think Christen has it, don't you? That's what you really want, and you think that if she's forced back here, she'll bring the treasure with her. You want to prove that my father murdered the king's lover and stole the box. Then you think you'll win the prize and Dunhanshire land. Isn't that your grand plan?"

Alford reacted as though she had just thrown boiling oil in his face. Howling in rage, he leapt to his feet. His chair flew backward, crashing into the wall.

"You do remember the box," he bellowed as he rushed around the corner of the table toward her, shoving Hugh out of his path. "And you know where it's hidden."

"Of course I know," she lied.

-- Advertisement --

Another unearthly howl filled the hall as Alford ran to her. "Tell me where it is," he demanded. "Christen does have it, doesn't she? I knew… I knew she had taken it… that crazy Ector told me her father gave it to her. Your sister stole it from me, and you've known… all this time that I've been out of my mind searching… you knew… all this time you knew."

His temper exploded and he slammed his fist into her jaw, knocking her to the floor.

He was beyond reason now. His leather boot slammed into her tender skin. He viciously kicked her again and again, determined to make her scream in agony, to make her sorry that she had dared to keep the truth hidden from him. She had known all this time that the box could destroy her father's name and win Dunhanshire and the King's reward. All these years the bitch had deliberately tormented him.

"I will give the box to the king… and I alone," he railed, panting from exertion. "The reward will be mine… mine… mine."

Reeling from the blow to her face, Gillian was too dazed to fight back. Yet she had enough presence of mind to roll to her side and try to protect her head with her arms. Her back and legs took most of the pounding, but ironically the pain wasn't as terrible as Alford wanted it to be, for in her nearly unconscious state, she barely felt the blows from his booted foot.

She became fully alert when Alec threw himself on top of her. Hysterical, he screamed at the top of his lungs as she pushed him away from Alford. She threw her arms around him, hugging him tight, trying to shield him, and then she grabbed hold of his hand and squeezed, hoping he would understand she wanted him to be silent. Alford's rage was fully directed on her now, and she was terrified that the boy's interference would draw his wrath.

Spittle ran down the sides of Alford's face with each obscenity he shouted as he continued to inflict his punishment. Quickly exhausted, he lost his balance and staggered backward. The sight so amused Hugh, he was overcome with laughter. Edwin didn't want the entertainment to stop and shouted encouragement to spur Alford on. Gillian's ears rang from the deafening noise, and the room swirled around her in a hazy blur, but she desperately tried to focus on the terrified little boy.

"Hush," she whispered. "Hush now."

As though someone had cupped a hand over his mouth to silence him, Alec stopped screaming in mid wail. Only inches away from her face, his eyes wide with fear, he gave her a quick nod to let her know he would be quiet. She was so pleased with him, she forced a weak smile.

"Get hold of yourself, Alford," Hugh shouted between gales of laughter. He brushed the tears away from his cheeks before adding, "She won't be able to go anywhere if you kill her."

Alford stumbled back against the table. "Yes, yes," he panted. "I must control myself."

He wiped the sweat from his brow, shoved the boy away from Gillian, and jerked her to her feet. Blood trickled down the side of her mouth, and he smugly nodded in satisfaction, for he could see the glazed look in her eyes and knew he had caused her considerable pain.

"You dare to make me lose my temper," he muttered. "You have no one to blame but yourself for your pain. I'll allow you two days' time to recover, and then you will leave Dunhanshire and go to that godforsaken land called the Highlands. Your sister hides with the clan MacPherson. Find her," he ordered, "and bring her and the box to me."

He adjusted his tunic as he staggered back to the table, angrily motioning for the servant to pick up his chair. Once he had resumed his seat, he mopped his brow with his sleeve and downed a full goblet of wine.

"If you fail me, Gillian, the man you hold so dear will suffer the consequences. Your uncle will die a slow, agonizing death. I swear to you that I will make him beg me to put him out of his misery. The boy should also be killed," he added almost as an afterthought. "But when you bring Christen and the box to me, I give you my word I will let the child live in spite of my promise to the Highland traitor."

"But what if she can only bring one back and not the other?" Hugh asked.

Edwin had also considered the question. "Which is more important to you, Baron, Christen or the king's box?"

"The box, of course," Alford answered. "But I want both, and if Gillian brings only one, her uncle dies."

Hugh swaggered around the table to face Gillian. The lust she saw in his eyes made her inwardly cringe.

He kept his gaze on her when he spoke to Alford. "You and I have been friends a long time," he reminded the baron. "And I have never asked for anything… until now. Give me Gillian."

Alford was surprised and amused by Hugh's request. "You would take a witch to your bed?"

"She's a lioness, and I would tame her," he boasted, obscenely licking his lips over the fantasy.

"She would cut your throat while you slept," Edwin called out.

Hugh snorted. "With Gillian in my bed, I assure you I wouldn't be sleeping."

He reached out to stroke her, but she shoved his hand away and took a step back. Hugh glanced down at the boy clinging to Gillian. She quickly forced him to look at her again and forget about the child when she said, "You are most foul, Hugh, and such a weakling, I almost pity you."

Shocked by the venom in her voice, he slapped her with the back of his hand.

She retaliated by smiling.

"Leave her be," Alford demanded impatiently when Hugh raised his hand to strike her again.

He leered at her for several seconds, then leaned forward and whispered, "I will have you, bitch." He turned around then and went back to his place at the table. "Give her to me," he nagged Alford. "I can teach her to be obedient."

Alford smiled. "I shall consider your request," he promised.

Edwin wasn't about to be left out. "If you give Gillian to him, then I must have Christen."

"She has already been promised," Alford said.

"You want her for yourself," Edwin accused.

"I don't want her, but I have promised her to another."

"Who did you promise?" Edwin asked.

Hugh laughed. "Does it matter, Edwin? Alford has never kept his word."

"Never," Alford snickered. "But there is always a first time."

Edwin grinned, for he was placated now and foolishly believed he still had a chance of winning Christen's hand. "If she is half as beautiful as Gillian, then I will be well-served."

"How long will you give Gillian to complete her errand?" Hugh asked.

"She must return to me before the celebration of the harvest begins."

"But that is not nearly long enough," Edwin protested. "Why, it will take her a full week, maybe two, just to get to her destination, and if there are any problems along the way or if she cannot find Christen…"

Alford raised his hand for silence. "Your prattle of worries on the bitch's behalf make my head spin. Hold your tongue while I explain the details to my ward. Gillian? Should you think to find sympathetic Highlanders to help you save your dear uncle, know this. A full contingent of my soldiers have surrounded his home, and if so much as one Highland warrior steps foot into the holding, Morgan will be killed. I will hold him ransom until you return. Do I make myself clear?"

"What if she tells Ramsey that his brother didn't drown and that you have him?" Hugh asked.

"She will not tell," Alford replied. "She holds the boy's life with her silence. Enough of your questions," he added. "I wish to talk about more amusing matters now, such as how I will spend the king's reward when I give the box to him. I have already suggested more than once that it was Gillian and Christen's father who stole the box and killed Arianna, and when the King finds out that Christen has had the treasure all this time, he will be convinced."

He motioned to the two sentries at the entrance to come forward. "The dear lady can barely stand up. See how she sways on her feet? Take her and the boy upstairs. Put her in her old room. See how thoughtful I can be, Gillian? I'm going to let you sleep in your own bed."

"And the boy, milord?" one of the soldiers inquired.

"Put him in the room next to hers," he said. "He can listen to her weep during the night."

The soldiers rushed forward to do their lord's bidding. One took hold of Alec's arm and the other reached for Gillian. She jerked away, steadied herself, and slowly, painfully, straightened up. Head erect, she held on to the edge of the table until she gained the strength in her legs, then took careful, measured steps. When she was close to the doors, she swayed and collapsed against the chest.

The soldier pulled her upright and dragged her the rest of the way to the stairs. Gillian folded her arms across her battered ribs and hunched over, and Alec held on to her skirt as they started up the steps. She stumbled twice before her legs gave out on her altogether. Making a tisking sound, the soldier lifted her into his arms and carried her the rest of the way.

The pain in her back became excruciating, and she fainted before they reached her door. The soldier dropped her on the bed and turned to grab hold of the boy, but Alec refused to leave. He bit and scratched and kicked the man who was trying to pry him away from Gillian.

"Leave him be," his friend suggested. "If we keep the two of them in the same room, we'll only have to post a guard in front of one door tonight. The boy can sleep on the floor."

The two men left the chamber then, locking the door behind them. Alec climbed up on the bed next to Gillian and held on to her. Terrified that she would die and leave him all alone, he sobbed uncontrollably.

A long while passed before she finally awakened. The pain pulsating through her body was so intense, tears flooded into her eyes. She waited until the room stopped spinning, then tried to sit up, but the pain was unbearable, and she collapsed against the bedcovers, feeling helpless and defeated.

Alec whispered her name.

"It's all right now. The worst is over, Alec. Please don't cry."

"But you're crying."

"I'll stop," she promised.

"Are you going to die?" he asked worriedly.

"No," she whispered.

"Do you hurt real bad?"

"I'm already feeling much better," she lied. "And at least we're safe now."

"No, we're not," he argued. "Tomorrow is gonna be—"

"Much better," she interrupted. "It's dark in here, isn't it? Why don't you tie the tapestry back from the window so we can have some light."

"The light's almost gone," he told her as he jumped off the bed and ran to the window to do as she had requested.

Golden ribbons of sunlight streamed into the room and, like silken banners, floated in the gentle summer breeze. They danced along the stone floor. She could see particles of dust in the air, could smell the musty scent of mildew in the bedcovers, and wondered how long the room had been closed. Had she been the last to sleep in this bed? It was unlikely. Alford liked to entertain, and he had surely had a multitude of guests at Dunhanshire since she had been banished.

Alec climbed back in bed with her and took hold of her hand. "The sun's going down. You slept an awful long time, and I couldn't get you to wake up. I got scared," he admitted. "And you know what?"

"No, what?"

"It is too gonna get worse 'cause I heard what the baron said. The Highlander's coming here."

"Yes, I heard what he said." She put her hand to her forehead and closed her eyes. She said a quick prayer that God would help her get her strength back—and soon—for time was critical.

"The Highlander will be here tomorrow or the day after." Alec became agitated. "If he sees me, he's gonna know I'm not Michael. Then maybe he'll tell on me."

While she once again struggled to sit up, she addressed his worry. "I'm sure he already knows you're not Michael. That's probably the urgent news he wishes to tell the baron."

He frowned intently, until the freckles on his nose blended together. "Maybe he wants to tell him something else."

"I don't think so."

"I don't want you to leave me."

"I'm not going to leave you," she promised.

"But the baron's gonna send you away."

"Yes," she agreed. "But I'm going to take you with me." He didn't look as if he believed her. She patted his hand and forced a smile. "It doesn't matter to us if the Highlander comes here or not, though in truth I would like to get a good look at him."

"'Cause he's a traitor?"

"Yes."

"And then you can tell my papa and Brodick and even Ramsey what the traitor looks like?"

Alec was looking happy now, and so she quickly agreed. "Yes, that's exactly right. I would tell your father what he looks like."

"And Brodick and even Ramsey too?"

"Yes."

"Then you know what would happen? They'd make him sorry he was a traitor."

"Yes, I'm sure they would."

"How come we don't care if the Highlander comes here or not?"

"We don't care because we're leaving tonight."

His eyes widened in surprise. "In the dark?"

"In the dark. Hopefully the moon will guide us."

His eagerness was almost uncontainable, and he bounced on the bed. "But how are we going to do that? I heard the soldier lock the door when he left, and I think maybe there's a guard outside in the hall. That's how come I'm whispering 'cause I don't want him to hear me."

-- Advertisement --