Brodick led the procession up the last steep hill. There were cottages of every shape and size nestled in the side of the mountain, some stark, others adorned with brightly colored doors. As they rode past, men and women poured out of their homes to follow them. They all looked as though they were witnessing a miracle, and several, Gillian noticed, made the sign of the cross and bowed their heads in prayer. Others mopped at their eyes to stem their joyful tears.
The Maitland home was at the top of the crest on a wide, flat plane. The gray stone structure was quite forbidding, as there was a wide black cloth draped over the double doors. The windows were also covered.
Brodick dismounted with Alec in his arm, motioned to Robert to assist Gillian, and then put the boy down. Running to Gillian, Alec latched onto her hand, and started pulling her to the steps.
The crowd silently pressed forward. Brodick clasped Gillian's other hand, giving it a little squeeze when he noticed how uncomfortable she was with the sea of curious strangers gawking at her. He stopped at the entrance, reached up, and ripped the black cloth from the doors. The cheer that followed was earthshaking. He pulled the door open and stepped back so Gillian could enter, but she shook her head and moved close so he could hear her above the shouting.
"Alec's homecoming should be private. I'll be happy to wait here."
He grinned. "I'll be happier to have you inside," he replied as he gently shoved her ahead of him. She decided she would wait by the door until Alec had had a few minutes alone with his parents and no amount of prodding or pushing was going to change her mind.
The stone entry was poorly lit with a single candle flickering light on a low chest next to the staircase leading to the second level. On Gillian's left were three steps leading down to the great hall. A fire blazed on the hearth, and across the rectangular room was a long wooden table. A lady sat at one end sewing by the light of two candles. Her head was bent to her task, and Gillian couldn't see her face, but she was certain she was watching Alec's mother. The woman didn't look up, though surely she had heard the door open. She seemed completely impervious to the noise the crowd was making outside.
Gillian heard Laird Maitland's voice before she saw him.
"Who in God's name is making all that noise?" Iain demanded.
The voice came from the back hallway. Alec's father entered the great hall from the buttery, spotted Brodick, and demanded to know why everyone was shouting.
Alec had started up the steps to his parents' chamber, but when he heard his father's voice, he turned around and ran back down. He raced across the stone floor, jumped down the steps to the great hall, and threw his arms wide.
"Mama… Papa… I'm home."
The shock very nearly did his parents in. For the first time in his life, Iain Maitland was completely undone. As though he'd just run headfirst into a stone wall, he staggered back shaking his head in disbelief. His dark eyes misted. "Alec?" he whispered hoarsely. And then he roared, "Alec!"
Judith Maitland leapt to her feet and let out a joyful cry, her forgotten sewing basket spilling to the floor. Her hand flew to her heart. She took a shaky step toward her son and then fainted dead away. Unfortunately, Brodick was too far from her to catch her before she hit the floor, and her husband was still too shaken to do more than watch her collapse.
Alec almost knocked his father off his feet when he threw himself at his legs. Iain tried to shake himself out of his stupor. Trembling, the mighty warrior dropped to his knees and, with head bowed and eyes closed, wrapped his son in his strong arms.
The little boy put his head down on his father's shoulder and worriedly watched his mother. "Shouldn't you pick Mama up, Papa? "he asked.
Iain stood but couldn't make himself let go of his son, and so he ordered Brodick to do something about his wife.
Brodick slipped his hand under her shoulders and gently lifted her into his arms. Her face was white, and no amount of shaking was going to get her to wake up until she was ready.
"You've given your mother quite a surprise, Alec," Brodick remarked. "She had you dead and buried."
Iain shook his head. "No, she still had hope in her heart."
Judith opened her eyes and found herself in Brodick's arms. "Why are you…"
"Mama, you're awake."
Brodick slowly lowered Judith to the floor but held her about the waist in the event she felt like passing out again. Suddenly overcome by the tide of emotions engulfing her, she began to sob uncontrollably. Iain reached for her and held her while Alec watched and fretted.
"You're not supposed to cry, Mama. I'm not dead. I'm home. Papa, tell her not to cry."
Iain laughed. "She's happy to have you home. Give her a minute and she'll tell you so."
Judith touched Alec's face with her quivering hand. "I prayed that you…"
Brodick slowly backed away. He wanted to give the Maitlands a few minutes alone, and he also wanted to find Gillian. He had thought that she was with him when he'd entered the great hall, but now he realized she'd stayed behind. He found her sitting on a bench near the stairs. Her hands were folded in her lap and her eyes were downcast.
"What are you doing?" he asked, frowning.
"I'm waiting for the Maitlands to finish their reunion. I felt it would be intrusive for me to watch. They should have a few minutes alone."
Brodick sat down next to her and swallowed up all the space the bench allowed. She found herself squeezed up against him. She had likened him to a bear before, and now the image seemed all the more real.
He took hold of her hand and gently pushed up the sleeve of her gown. "You'll need to take this bandage off before you go to bed tonight."
He didn't let go of her hand, and she didn't pull away. "Brodick?"
She stared into his eyes a long minute before she spoke again. "I want to thank you for your help. Without you, Alec would never have made it back to his parents."
He disagreed. "I didn't get him home, Gillian. You did. I merely helped," he added. "But if I hadn't, you still would have found a way."
Iain called out to him, but she gripped his hand to get him to look at her again. "Yes?"
"After you speak to Alec's parents… will you be going home?"
He stood up and pulled her to her feet. They were just inches apart, his head bent down toward her, her face upturned to his, like lovers about to come together. Damn, but he suddenly wanted to kiss her. A long, hot kiss that would lead to another and another and another…
The way he was looking at her sent shivers down her arms. "Will you?" she whispered.
"What are you asking me?" he demanded impatiently.
Startled by the sharpness in his tone, she stepped back, the back of her knees bumping into the bench.
"After you speak to the Maitlands, will you be going home?" She stared down at her hands as she added, "You are a laird, after all. You must have many pressing duties."
"There's much that needs to be done," he agreed.
"Yes," she said, trying to keep her disappointment out of her voice. "I must thank you, Brodick, for all you've done for Alec, and me, but your duty is finished now that he's safely home. I don't know what I would have… done… without you…" She knew she was rambling, but she couldn't seem to make herself stop. "Of course you must go home. I just thought…"
She lifted her shoulders in a delicate shrug. "I thought perhaps you would wish to see your good friend Ramsey Sinclair again."
He nudged her chin up with his thumb. "I'll see him before I leave the Maitlands. He should be here soon."
"What makes you think—"
He didn't let her finish her question. "I sent Dylan to warn him, remember?"
"Ramsey will want to talk to you as soon as possible. He'll come here," he predicted once again.
"But will you go home then?" she asked.
"As I explained, I have many pressing duties."
Frustrated, she cried out, "Can you not give me a simple answer?"
Iain shouted Brodick's name.
"Come along, Gillian. Iain will want to meet you. He's had enough time to get over his surprise."
"And his wife?"
"It's going to take her a good week to get past her shock. I doubt she'll let Alec out of her sight for all that while."
Gillian brushed the dust from her gown. "I look a fright."
"Aye, you do."
She picked up her skirt to go down the stairs, but Brodick stopped her by taking hold of her arm. In a low voice he said, "You asked me if I would give you a straight answer. Now I'm wondering why you can't ask me a straight question."
"What in heaven's name is that supposed to mean? What is it you think I should ask you?"
"What you want to ask," he said.
"You're an exasperating man."
"So I've been told," he said. "I'm impatient too," he added. "But in this instance, I'm willing to wait."
"There she is, Mama. That's Gillian." Alec's shout echoed throughout the hall.
Gillian pulled away from Brodick, smiling as she watched the little boy run toward her. He grabbed her hand and started pulling. "Don't be afraid of Papa. Most ladies are, but maybe you won't be because you're not like most," he said.
She wasn't as confident as Alec assumed she was, for Iain Maitland was an imposing figure. He was a tall, muscular man with penetrating gray eyes. His dark hair was given to curl and seemed to soften the blistering scowl on his face. Had he not been so imposing, she would have thought he was almost as handsome as Brodick.
Judith Maitland's smile helped assuage her husband's frightening manner. She was a beautiful woman, but it was the color of her eyes that captivated. They were the color of violets. She was a little bit of a thing, yet had such a regal bearing about her Gillian felt as though she were in the presence of a queen.
Desperately in need of a bath and clean clothes, Gillian thought she must look like a lowly peasant.
As soon as Brodick made the introductions, Judith rushed forward to clasp Gillian's hand. Her voice trembled when she said, "You found our son and brought him home to us. I don't know how we will ever repay you."
Gillian darted a quick look at Brodick. The Maitlands obviously believed that Alec had been lost, and Lord help her, how was she ever going to explain what really happened?
"Come and sit at the table," Judith urged. "You must be thirsty and hungry from your long journey. Alec told us you came here all the way from England," she remarked as she led Gillian to a chair near the end of the table.
"Yes, I came here from England."
"I, too, am English," Judith told her.
"No, Judith," her husband corrected. "You used to be English."
His wife smiled. "The men here change history when it's convenient."
"You're a Maitland," Iain countered. "And that is all anyone need know. Brodick, pour yourself some wine and sit down. I want to hear every detail of what transpired before I open the doors to family and friends. Alec, come and sit with your father." He added the command with a good deal of affection in his voice.
The little boy ran around the table and pulled a stool close to his father's chair. Gillian noticed Iain's hand shook when he touched his son's shoulder. Alec smiled up at him and sat down, but was promptly lifted back to his feet and reminded to wait until the ladies had taken their seats.
The Maitland commander, Winslow, came striding into the hall then, bowed to his laird and lady, and then announced, "Ramsey Sinclair has just crossed our border and should be here within the hour."
"Has he already heard of our good fortune?" Iain asked.
"I sent Dylan to him," Brodick explained before turning to his brother.
"Gillian, I would like you to meet my brother. Winslow, this is Lady Gillian."
Winslow bowed. "Lady Gillian, you are from England?" he asked, frowning.
"Yes, I am from England. 'Tis the truth I cannot and would not change that fact, sir. Does it displease you?"
Winslow surprised her with a quick smile. "It would depend, milady."
"Depend on what?"
"My brother." Without further explanation he dismissed the topic altogether and turned to Brodick. "You'll see my wife and my boys before you leave? They will be disappointed if you don't."
"Of course I'll see them."
"Bring them here, Winslow," Iain ordered. "We must celebrate tonight. The children will stay up late."
"Winslow, do you happen to know if Ramsey's brother, Michael, rides with the laird?" Gillian asked.
If the soldier thought the inquiry was peculiar, he didn't comment on it. "I don't know, milady, but we will soon find out." He bowed once again and left the hall.
Judith personally saw to the task of fetching a pitcher of water for her guests.
"Papa, where's Graham?" Alec asked.
"Your brother's with your Uncle Patrick, but he'll be home soon. He's going to be very happy to see you."
"'Cause he missed me?" he asked eagerly.
Iain smiled. "We all missed you, Alec."
"Mama missed me the most. She's still shaking something fierce 'cause I surprised her. Look, Papa. She can't even pour the water. Is she gonna cry again?"
Iain laughed. "Probably," he answered. "It's going to take your mother… and me," he added, "time to get over this joyous surprise."
Alec hadn't exaggerated Judith's condition. She had already spilled a good deal of water on the tabletop and thus far hadn't managed to get a single drop into the cup. Her hands were shaking violently and every time she looked at her son, her eyes brimmed with fresh tears.
Iain put his hand on top of his wife's. "Sit down, love," he quietly suggested.
She moved her chair close to her husband, collapsed in the seat, and leaned into his side. Iain poured the water for Gillian, but as she reached for the goblet, she noticed how dirty her hands were and quickly hid them in her lap.
Iain put his arm around his wife and hugged her. His attention, however, was centered on Gillian. "Start at the beginning and tell me how and when you found my son. I want to hear every detail," he ordered. He paused to pat Alec before adding, "It's a miracle a five-year-old could survive the falls."