"You needed a bath. You were rank."
"Brodick's gonna think you're pretty, but you know what?"
"He won't tell you so. Do you want him to think you're pretty?"
"Not particularly," she answered, her mind clearly on more important matters. "We can't wait any longer, Alec. We're going to have to go on alone. Finish your food, and then we'll leave."
"But if you don't want Brodick to think you're pretty, how come you put on your pretty green clothes?"
She sighed. Alec asked the most outrageous questions. Inconsequential matters seemed to be extremely important to him, and he wouldn't let up until she gave him what he considered an adequate answer.
"I put on these clothes because my other gown was dirty."
He took another bite of bread while he thought about her answer, and then said, "You know what?"
She held on to her patience. "No, what?"
"You're gonna be afraid of Brodick."
"Why do you say that?"
"'Cause ladies are always afraid of him."
"Well, I won't be afraid," she insisted. "Stop talking now and finish your food."
A knock sounded on the door, and Gillian stood up just as Waldo, the older Hathaway, rushed inside.
"We've got trouble, milady," he blurted out. "The MacDonald soldier… the one I gave the message to…"
He frantically nodded. "He must have told the other MacDonalds you Were here, because there's over thirty of them coming across the meadow below. They're all wearing the same colors as Henley, but I didn't see him among the soldiers."
"I don't understand," she replied. "I didn't tell Henley about Alec. Why would his clan come here?"
"I'm thinking they're here to claim you, milady."
She was startled by the suggestion and shook her head. "But they can't claim me."
Waldo looked bleak and weary. "They do things different in these parts," he told her. "If they want something, they take it."
She grabbed Alec's hand and pulled him to his feet. "We're leaving now. Waldo, get your brother and meet us at the horses. Hurry."
"But, milady," Waldo protested. "There's more to the telling. There's another clan on the opposite side of the meadow riding hard toward the MacDonalds. I don't know for certain who they are, but I'm thinking they must be the Buchanans you sent for. There's nine of them."
"If it's Brodick and his soldiers, then they're pitifully outnumbered."
"Nay, milady, it's the MacDonalds I pity. I ain't never seen the like of these warriors. They're ferocious looking, and I could see by the way the MacDonalds were backing away, they fear them. If there's blood shed this day, I don't think it's going to be a Buchanan doing the bleeding. Are you certain you want to put yourself and the boy in the hands of such savages?"
She didn't know what to think, and she was in such a panic inside, her heart felt as if it might stop. "I hope it is Brodick and his men," she whispered.
Alec was struggling to get away from her so he could go outside and watch the fight, but she tightened her hold on him and wouldn't let go.
"Waldo, you and Henry should leave now before they get here. I thank you for all you've done for Alec and me. Hurry now, before you're seen."
Waldo shook his head. "My brother and I will not leave until we are assured you will fare well, milady. We'll stand guard at the door. The soldiers will have to kill us before they can get to you."
She couldn't dissuade him from what he considered a noble undertaking. As soon as he went back outside, she turned to Alec.
"Tell me what Brodick looks like," she demanded.
"He looks like Brodick," he answered.
"But what exactly does he look like?"
He shrugged. "He's big," he whispered. Then he smiled because he'd thought of something else he could add. "And old."
He nodded. "Terrible old," he explained.
She didn't believe him. "What color is his hair?"
"You re sure?"
He nodded. "And you know what?"
Her heart had sunk to her stomach. "No, what?"
"He doesn't hear too good."
She had to sit down. "Why didn't you tell me Brodick was an old man before I sent the message that I was his bride? The shock could have sent him to his grave." She jumped back up and pulled Alec along. "We're leaving."
"But what about the Buchanans?"
"It's apparent the other clan in the meadow isn't Brodick's. Waldo would have told me if any of the warriors had been old."
"I want to go look. I can tell you if it's the Buchanans."
Waldo opened the door and shouted, "The MacDonalds have taken off, milady, and the other clan is coming this way."
Gillian grabbed Alec by the shoulders and forced him to look at her. "I want you to hide behind that stone font until I find out who these men are. I don't want you to say a word, Alec. Promise me… please."
"Promise me," she demanded.
"Can I come out if it's Brodick?"
"Not until I've talked to him and gained his promise that he'll help both of us."
"All right," he said. "I promise I'll be quiet."
She was so pleased to get his cooperation she kissed him on his cheek. He immediately wiped it away with the back of his hand and squirmed when she hugged him.
"You're always kissing me," he complained with a wide grin that told her he really didn't mind. "Just like my mama."
"Go hide," she said as she led him to the back of the church.
He took hold of her left arm, and she grimaced in reaction. The injury from the knife wounds still hadn't healed, and from the way it was throbbing, she knew it was infected.
Alec had seen her flinch. "You need my mama's medicine," he whispered. "Then you'd feel better."
"I'm sure I would," she replied. "Now, Alec, not one word," she cautioned. "No matter what happens, you stay put and don't make a sound. May I have the dagger Brodick gave you?"
"But it's mine."
"I know it's yours. I would just like to borrow it," she assured him.
He handed the dagger to her, but as she turned to walk away, he whispered, "It's awful dark here."
"I'm here with you, so there isn't any need to be afraid."
"I hear them coming."
"I do too," she whispered back.
"Gillian, are you scared?"
"Yes. Now, be quiet."
She rushed down the center aisle and stood in front of the altar to wait. A moment later she heard Waldo shouting the order to halt. The command was obviously ignored because a second later the door flew open, and there in the center of the arch stood the most intimidating warrior she had ever seen. He was a towering figure with long, flaxen hair and deeply tanned skin. Barely covered, he wore only a muted plaid that didn't quite reach the tops of his knees. A wide strip of the cloth angled over his massive and scarred chest and draped down over his left shoulder. A dirk protruded from one of his deerskin boots, but he didn't carry a sword.
The man hadn't even stepped inside the church yet, but she was already quaking in her shoes. The sheer size of him blocked out most of the sun, though streaks of golden light shone all around him, making him appear almost ethereal. She gripped the dagger behind her back, and after slipping it into the sleeve of her gown, she slowly brought her hands forward and folded them in an attempt to fool him into believing she was thoroughly composed.
The warrior stood immobile for several seconds, his gaze searching for any threat that might be lurking in the corners, and when he was convinced she was all alone, he ducked under the doorframe, stepped inside, and slammed the door shut behind him.
Brodick strode down the aisle, shaking the rafters of the little church with each hard step as specks of dust rained down from the ceiling. Gillian valiantly held her ground.
Blessedly, when he was just a couple of feet away, he stopped, then clasped his hands behind his back and insolently studied her, his gaze moving from the top of her head to her feet and then back again. He took his sweet time, and after he had finished his rude inspection, he kept his eyes locked on hers and waited for her to speak.
She had planned for this moment and had rehearsed exactly what she would say to him. She would begin by introducing herself because that was the polite thing to do, and then she would ask him his name. He would tell her he was Brodick, but she wouldn't believe him until he had proven his identity by answering several questions she had cleverly come up with, a test, actually, to determine that she could trust him.
Aye, she was going to be clever with her questioning, and just as soon as she could calm down, she would begin. The way he was looking at her was unnerving, and she was having difficulty coming up with a single thought.
He quickly grew impatient. "Are you the woman claiming to be my bride?"
The anger in his voice heated her face. She felt herself blush with mortification. "Yes, I am."
He was surprised by her honesty. "Why?"
"I don't usually…"
"Usually what?" he asked, wondering why she was so nervous. His stance was relaxed, his hands were clasped behind his back, and he had given Dylan his sword before coming into the church. Surely she realized he wasn't going to do her any harm.
"I don't usually lie," she explained, thrilled that she could remember what she was talking about. Staring at his chin helped, for his eyes were too intense. "You aren't old." She blurted out the thought and then smiled. "I was told you were very old," she whispered, "… with white hair."
And then she laughed, convincing Brodick she was out of her mind.
"I believe I should start all over. My name is Lady Gillian, and I really am sorry I lied, but claiming to be your bride was the only way I could think of to get you to travel such a long distance."
He shrugged. "The distance wasn't great."
"It wasn't?" she asked in surprise. "Then, pray tell, why did it take you so long to get here? We've been waiting in this church for a very long time."
"We?" he asked quietly.
"Yes, we," she replied. "The Hathaway brothers… the two guards outside the door… and I have been waiting all that time."
"Why were you so certain I'd show up at all?"
"Curiosity," she answered. "And I was right, wasn't I? That's why you came."
A hint of a smile softened his expression. "Yes," he agreed. "I wanted to meet the woman who dared such audacity."
"You are Brodick… I mean to say, you are Laird Buchanan, aren't you?"
Her face lit up with relief. Damn, but she was pretty. The messenger hadn't lied about her appeal, Brodick thought. If anything, Henley had understated her beauty.
"I was going to test you to make certain you really were Brodick, but one look at you convinces me. I was told, you see, that your glare could part a tree trunk, and from the way you're scowling at me, I do believe you could do it. You're quite intimidating, but you know that, don't you?"
He didn't show any reaction to her remarks. "What is it you want from me?"
"I want… no, I need," she qualified, "your help. I have a very valuable treasure with me and I need assistance getting it home."
"Aren't there any Englishmen who could come to your aid?"
"It's complicated, Laird."
"Start at the beginning," he suggested, surprised by his own willingness to extend this meeting. Her voice appealed to him; it was soft, lyrical, yet husky and sensual, as sensual as the woman herself. Brodick was conditioned to keeping his thoughts hidden, and for that reason he was certain she didn't have any idea of the effect she was having on him. Her wonderful scent was a clear distraction. It was very feminine and smelled faintly of flowers, which he found both alluring and arousing. He had to fight the urge to move closer to her.
"This should explain everything you need to know," she said as she slowly removed the dagger and sheath from her sleeve and held it up for him to see.
He reacted with lightning speed. Before she could even guess his intent, he'd snatched the dagger out of her hand, grabbed hold of her injured arm, and jerked her forcefully toward him. Towering over her, he demanded, "Where did you get this?"
"I will explain," she cried out. "But please let go of me. You're hurting me."
The tears in her eyes confirmed her words. Brodick immediately let go of her and stepped back. "Now explain," he demanded again.
"I borrowed the dagger," she said, and then she turned and called out, "Alec, you may come out now."
Brodick had never been so close to losing his composure. When the Maitland boy came running toward him, he felt his knees buckle and his heart lodge in his throat. He was too stunned to say a word, and then Alec threw himself into his arms. Brodick's hands shook as he lifted him up and clasped him to his chest.
The little boy wrapped his arms around his protector's neck and hugged him. "I knew you would come. I told Gillian you would help us."
"You are well, Alec?" he asked, his voice trembling with emotion. He turned to Gillian questioning her with his eyes, but she was watching Alec with a soft, motherly smile on her face.
"Answer him, Alec," she instructed.
The child leaned back in Brodick's arms and nodded. "I'm very well, Uncle. The lady, she took good care of me. She gave me her food to eat and went hungry when there wasn't enough for both of us, and you know what? She wouldn't let nobody hurt me, not even when the man wanted to."
Brodick stared at Gillian while Alec chattered away, but nodded when the little boy had finished his explanation.
"You will tell me exactly what happened," he told Gillian. It wasn't a question but a statement of fact.
"Yes," she agreed. "I'll tell you everything."