Had he shown her a glimmer of sympathy, she would have broken down and sobbed like a baby, but when she looked at him for help and saw his calm, dispassionate expression, she was able to regain her control.
Realizing she was pressing against Dylan, she forced herself to sit forward in the chair. But she couldn't stop squeezing Brodick's hand, though God knows she tried. Just when she was certain she couldn't take another second of the torture, it began to ease.
"The worst is over, lass," Annie whispered in a voice that sounded as though she, too, wanted to have a good cry. "Now I'm going to put some soothing salve on your skin and wrap it up tight in a nice bandage. Is the pain easing yet?"
Gillian tried, but she found it impossible to speak just yet, and so she stiffly nodded. She stared beyond Brodick's shoulder, focusing on a splinter of wood in the far wall, and prayed she wouldn't pass out.
Annie worked quickly, and within minutes Gillian's arm was covered in a thick white ointment and then wrapped from elbow to wrist. It was awkward work, for Gillian still refused to let go of Brodick's hand. Now that the pain was bearable, she realized he was rubbing her palm with his thumb. His countenance hadn't changed, but the little caress had a powerful effect. She felt as though he had taken her into his arms and was holding her.
After Annie tied the ends of the bandage at her wrist, Gillian took one last calming breath and finally pulled her hand away from Brodick's.
"There, it's done," Annie whispered. "You'll be as fit as ever tomorrow. Please try not to get the injury wet for a couple of days."
Gillian nodded again. Her voice was hoarse when she thanked the woman for her help.
"If you'll excuse me for a moment," she began as she slowly stood up. Dylan took hold of her elbow and helped her. She sagged against him, slowly righted herself, and then inclined her head to Annie before she left the cottage. The soldiers bowed as she passed them.
Gillian was certain they watched her from the doorway, and so she didn't give in to the urge to run to the cover of the trees. Alec was skipping barefoot in the stream while Robert stood guard. Fortunately, the child didn't notice her when she hurried in the opposite direction or hear her when the first sob escaped.
Liam frowned with concern as he watched her leave, then turned back to Annie. "Is there any of that mother's fire left?"
"Aye, a few drops," she answered.
Liam went to the table, pulled out his dirk, and made a small cut above his wrist. All of his friends knew what he was going to do, and none of them was the least bit surprised, for Liam was known as the doubting Thomas of the group and also the most curious.
Wanting to know exactly what the liquid felt like against a raw cut, he put his arm out over the cloth Annie had left on the table and ordered, "Pour some of the liquid on this nick. I would know how it feels."
If Annie thought the request was insane, she was smart enough not to remark on it. She felt as though she were in a cave with a family of bears. The men were the most ferocious warriors in the Highlands. Easily insulted and quick to react, they made frightening enemies. Yet at the same time, they were the best of allies. Annie counted herself fortunate to be related to the Buchanans, because that meant she and her husband would never by preyed upon by other more civilized clans.
She stepped forward to do as he ordered. "Your cut is paltry compared to milady's," she remarked. "So the sting won't be near as bad."
After making the comment, she tipped the pan and let the liquid pour into the cut. Liam didn't react. His curiosity assuaged, he nodded to Annie and then turned and strode outside. Brodick and the others followed. Surrounding him, they patiently waited for him to give his report. Aaron smiled when Liam finally spoke because his voice sounded very like the croak of a drowning frog.
"It hurt like a son of a bitch," he whispered. "I don't know how the lass stood it."
Robert joined them, carrying Alec like a sack of wheat over his shoulder. The child squealed with delight until he noticed that Gillian wasn't there. A look of stark terror crossed his face as he scrambled to the ground and screamed Gillian's name at the top of his lungs. Robert clapped his hand over the boy's mouth to quiet him.
"She's just beyond the trees, Alec. She'll be right back. Calm yourself."
Tears poured down the child's face as he ran to his uncle. Brodick picked him up and roughly patted his back. "I forgot how very young you are, lad," he said gruffly. "Gillian didn't leave you."
Ashamed that he had panicked, Alec hid his face in the crook of Brodick's neck. "I thought maybe she did," he admitted.
"Since you've known her, has she ever left you?"
"No… but sometimes… I get scared," he whispered. "I didn't used to, but now I do."
"It's all right," Brodick said, and with a sigh he added, "You're safe now. I'm not going to let anything happen to you."
"That's what Gillian said," he remembered. "She's not gonna let anyone hurt me, not ever." He lifted his head and stared into Brodick's eyes. "You got to take care of her too 'cause she's just a puny lady."
Brodick laughed. "I haven't noticed anything puny about her."
"But she is. She cries sometimes when she thinks I'm sleeping. I told her she needed you. I don't want nobody to hurt her any more."
"I'm not going to let anyone hurt her," he assured the child. "Now stop worrying and go with Robert to fetch his horse. We'll leave as soon as Gillian returns from her walk."
Gillian didn't return to the clearing for another ten minutes, and it was evident from her red eyes that she'd been crying. Brodick waited by his stallion while she said her thank-you to Annie, and when she hurried over to him, he lifted her up into the saddle, then swung up behind, her. She was so exhausted from her ordeal, she collapsed against him.
Brodick was suddenly overwhelmed with the need to protect and comfort her. He tried to be gentle as he settled her on his lap, then wrapped his arm around her and held her close. Within minutes she was sound asleep. He nudged his mount forward and gently settled Gillian in the crook of his arm, her long curls brushing his thigh. She had the most angelic face, and with the back of his hand he brushed her cheek tenderly. He finally gave in to the desire that had been plaguing him since the moment he'd laid eyes on her. He leaned down and kissed her soft lips, smiling when she wrinkled her nose and sighed.
His mind kept telling him to be reasonable. She was English, and God only knew, he couldn't abide anyone or anything English. He had learned his lesson well on his one foray into that hateful country when he was young and foolish. He'd wanted to find a bride as fitting as Iain Maitland's wife, Judith, but the quest had been futile, for Iain had found the only treasure England had to offer.
Or so Brodick had believed until he met Gillian. Now he wasn't so certain.
"You're a courageous lass," he whispered. And with a nod, he added, "I'll give you that."
But no more.
Alec's needs came first. As impatient as Brodick was to get some answers, he decided to wait until after the boy had been fed to question Gillian. It was late, well past sunset, and the moon shone brightly. The woman and the child were tired. They made camp at the base of Carnith Ridge in a narrow, secluded tract of land buffered on three sides by towering pines. The clearing eased down to the grassy bank of Beech Lake, a clear, stone-bottomed basin filled with speckled trout.
Aaron placed a plaid on the ground near the small campfire Liam had built after noticing Gillian was shivering. She thanked him with a smile that caused the soldier to blush like a little boy.
Gillian sat with her legs tucked under her on the edge of the woolen cloth while Alec sprawled like a lazy Roman statesman beside her. Brodick thought his angel looked as though she had just been to battle. Her complexion was gray; her lips were pinched, and her eyes were bright with fever, yet she didn't utter a word of complaint. She didn't want any of the food Robert offered, but she made certain that Alec filled his seemingly hollow stomach. He wanted to gulp his food down and would have done just that if she hadn't given him only small portions at a time. In a whisper, she kept reminding him to eat slowly so he wouldn't get sick again and she showed amazing endurance by listening to his nonstop chatter without losing her patience.
The little boy was in good cheer until she suggested he bathe. He scrambled to his feet and ran to his uncle shouting, "I don't need a bath."
Gillian was the only one who wasn't surprised by the child's outburst. "You'll feel better after," she promised.
Alec vehemently shook his head. "No, I won't," he shouted. "You can't make me."
"Alec, you will not speak to the lady in such a tone," Brodick ordered. "And stop hiding behind me. A Maitland doesn't cower."
From the boy's puzzled expression Brodick surmised he didn't know what the word "cower" meant, but he must have guessed it wasn't good because he immediately stepped out to stand next to his uncle. His shoulder pressed against Brodick's thigh.
"I don't want to have a bath," he muttered.
He pointed to Gillian. "She'll make me use her soap, and then I'll…"
"You'll what?" Brodick prodded.
"I'll smell like a girl."
"I doubt that, Alec."
"I went to considerable trouble borrowing this soap," she called out.
"You stole it."
"No, Alec, I borrowed it," she corrected before glancing at Brodick. "The soap has rose petals in it, and Alec seems to think that because I use it…"
The child finished her explanation for her. "It makes me smell like a girl," he insisted as he took a step back and warily watched her out of the corner of his eye.
Robert came up behind Alec, hooked his arm around him, and carried him to the lake. Liam asked her for the soap and then followed.
Gillian heard Robert promise Alec that although they would surely smell like roses after they had bathed, the sweet scent would in no way turn them into females.
Alec was laughing a minute later, and the crisis, it seemed, was over. She decided to stand up and stretch her legs and had made it to her knees when Aaron and Stephen rushed forward to offer their assistance. Without asking, they each grabbed an elbow and pulled her up.
"Thank you, gentlemen."
"You may call me Stephen," the dark skinned soldier said.
"I doubt you have all our names straight in your mind," Aaron remarked.
"I know most of you. Robert took Alec to the lake, Liam went with him, and I know you're Aaron, but I don't know the other names yet."
"My name's Fingal," a redheaded soldier announced as he pressed forward.
"I'm Ossian," another called out as he, too, moved close. He was tall and so thick through the shoulders his neck disappeared.
Gillian suddenly felt as though she were enclosed by a six-foot male wall. The men were all staring down at her as if they considered her an oddity that had dropped from the sky to land at their feet. Had they never encountered a woman from England before? And why were they acting so peculiar now? She'd been in their company a full day, and that was surely time enough for them to get past their curiosity.
She stepped to the left so she could see between two soldiers and spotted Brodick leaning against a tree with his arms folded across his chest. He, too, was watching her, but unlike his soldiers, he wasn't smiling. She tilted her head ever so slightly toward the men pressing into her, fully expecting Brodick to catch her subtle hint and order his soldiers to give her breathing room. He didn't seem inclined to come to her assistance, however.
"You didn't eat much supper, milady," Ossian said. "Are you feeling poorly?"
"I'm feeling quite well, thank you," she replied.
"You don't have to be brave in front of us," Stephen commented.
"But you see, sir…"
"Please call me Stephen." Before she could agree, he added, "I meant what I said. You don't have to be brave in front of us."
Yet another soldier joined the wall. He was going to be the easiest to remember, because he had a scar that crossed the left side of his face and the most handsome brown eyes.
"My name's Keith," he reminded her. "And you may always speak freely in front of us. We're your laird's guard."
"But he isn't my laird."
Dylan joined the conversation in time to hear her comment. He noticed none of the men contradicted her, but they were all grinning like idiots.
"Milady, Annie Drummond gave Liam a pouch of medicine powder. You're to take half tonight, mixed with water, and the rest tomorrow night."
Liam had returned from the lake and thrust a cup of liquid into her hand. "I tasted it, milady," he said. "It's bitter, so you might want to gulp it down quick. It smells vile too."
She studied his blue eyes for several seconds and then asked suspiciously, "Are you thinking to drug me to sleep, Liam?"
He laughed. "Nay, milady, we learned our lesson with Kevin Drummond. The potion will help rid you of your fever."
She decided to believe him and drank the liquid as quickly as she could. The urge to gag was overpowering, but taking deep, gasping breaths helped. Blanching, she said, "The cure is worse than the illness."
"Does your arm hurt?" Stephen asked.
"No," she answered. "If you'll excuse me, gentlemen, I would like to sit on that boulder next to your laird so that I may speak to him."
Fingal and Ossian moved out of her way so she could get past them, while Keith grabbed the plaid from the ground and hurried ahead to put the woolen cloth on the flat surface of the rock for her to sit on.
She thanked him for his consideration as she took her seat.
"Is there anything else we may do for you, milady?" Fingal asked.
"No, thank you," she replied. "You have all been very kind and gracious to me," she added.
"You need not thank us for doing our duty, milady," Ossian told her.
"Please call me Gillian."
He appeared scandalized by her suggestion. "I cannot, milady."
"No, he cannot," Brodick announced as he walked over to stand in front of her. "Leave us now," he ordered quietly. ,
One by one the soldiers bowed to Gillian before heading to the lake. She watched them until they disappeared from view, all the while gathering her thoughts because she knew the time had come for her to give a detailed explanation of what had transpired. Lord, reliving the past was exhausting to even think about.