Gideon wasn't amused. "They come to you with hat in hand, begging, but then they have the audacity to put conditions on you at the same time. They are outrageous."

"What say you, Anthony?" he asked Gideon's second in command.

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"I'm against this union," the yellow-haired soldier muttered. "Any man who would willingly give up his name disgusts me."

"I feel the same," Faudron interjected, his hawk-like face red with anger. "Brisbane and Otis are despicable."

"Nay, they're simply cunning old men who want the best for their clan. I've known for some time now that they were going to come to me, and I've had time to contemplate the matter. Tell me, Gideon, are you in favor of such a union?"

"I know you are," he replied. "Your heart is too soft, Laird. It's a troubling flaw, that. I see the problems involved in such a union."

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"So do I," Ramsey said. "But Otis is right; they have much to offer in return. More important is their cry for help, Gideon. Can you turn your back on them?"

His commander shook his head. "Nay, the Boswells would slaughter them. However, I'm most concerned about Proster and the other dissenters."

"They've had time to come to terms with this union," Ramsey reminded him. "You heard what Otis said. They first voted four months ago. Besides, we'll keep a close eye on them."

"Your mind's made up, isn't it?"

"Yes, I'll welcome them into our clan."

"There'll be problems with our soldiers…" Ramsey slapped Gideon's shoulder. "Then we'll deal with them," he said. "Don't look so bleak. Let's put the matter aside for now and join the festivities. Iain and Judith Maitland have been here since yesterday afternoon and I've still not spoken to them. Let's hunt them down."

"There is one more pressing matter you must attend to first." he said.

Ramsey dismissed Anthony and Faudron and then said to Gideon, "I can see from your grin the matter isn't serious."

"To your faithful soldier, Dunstan Forbes, the matter is very serious. You might as well sit down, Laird, for Dunstan has requested permission to marry Bridgid KirkConnell."

Ramsey was suddenly weary. "How many does this make now?"

Gideon laughed. "Including me, I count seven proposals in all, but Douglas swears there have been eight."

Ramsey sat down and stretched his long legs out in front of him. "Does Bridgid know about this latest suitor?"

"Not yet," he answered. "But I have taken the liberty of sending for her. She's waiting outside, and you will at last meet the thorn in your side." After making the comment, he burst into laughter.

Ramsey shook his head. "Do you know, Gideon, all this time I believed that when I challenged you tor the position of laird, I beat you fairly."

Gideon instantly sobered. "But you did beat me fairly."

"Are you certain you didn't let me win just so you wouldn't have to deal with Bridgid KirkConnell?"

Gideon laughed again. "Perhaps," he said. "I'll admit I like being in her presence, for she's a beautiful woman and a true delight to observe. She has a spirit few other women possess. She's quite… passionate… but alas, she's also as stubborn as a Buchanan. I'm glad now she turned me down, for I have no wish to marry such a difficult woman."

"How is it that I have had to deny three proposals on this woman's behalf while I have been laird but I have yet to meet her?"

"She sent her refusals from her uncle's home in Carnwath. I specifically remember telling you that I had given her permission to help her aunt with the new bairn. They, too, are here at the festival."

"If you told me, I've forgotten," he said. "I do remember her rejections though. She always sent back the same message."

"I've a feeling she'll say those very words today and Dunstan will join the rapidly growing ranks of the brokenhearted."

"My father is to blame for this nuisance duty I'm now saddled with because he was the one who gave his promise to Bridgid's father that she could choose her husband. It's unthinkable to me that she alone will decide her future."

"You don't have a choice in the matter," Gideon said. "You must honor your father's word. Bridgid's father was a noble warrior, and he was on his deathbed when he forged this promise. I wonder if he knew how stubborn his daughter was going to be."

Ramsey stood and then suggested Gideon call Bridgid inside. "And stop grinning," he ordered. "This is an important matter to Dunstan, and we shall treat it as such. Who knows? She may say yes to his proposal."

"Aye, and it might rain pigs this afternoon," Gideon drawled as he folded back the flap of the tent. He hesitated, turned back to his laird, and in a soft voice asked, "Have you ever had your head turned by a lady?"

The question exasperated Ramsey. "No, I haven't."

"Then I'd brace myself if I were you. I swear your head's going to spin."

A moment later, Gideon's prediction almost came true, as Bridgid KirkConnell walked into the tent and literally knocked the wind out of her laird. She was an astonishingly pretty young lady, with fair skin, sparkling eyes, and sinfully curly, long honey-colored hair that floated beyond her shoulders. Her gentle curves were in all the right places, and Ramsey was surprised that there had been only eight proposals.

She made a curtsy, smiled ever so sweetly up at him, and said, "Good day to you, Laird Ramsey."

He bowed. "So we meet at last, Bridgid KirkConnell. I've had to break the hearts of several suitors on your behalf without benefit of knowing why those good men were so anxious to wed such an obstinate woman. Now I understand the reason my soldiers are so persistent."

Her smile vanished. "But we have met before."

He shook his head. "I assure you that if I had met you, I would not have forgotten."

"But it's true, we did meet," she insisted. "And I remember our encounter as though it had taken place just yesterday. You had come home for your cousin's wedding. While my parents were attending the celebration, I decided to go swimming in the lake beyond the glen. You fished me out."

He clasped his hands behind his back and tried to concentrate on what she was telling him. Gideon hadn't exaggerated. She was an extraordinary woman.

"And why did I fish you out?"

"I was drowning."

"Didn't you know how to swim, lass?" Gideon asked.

"Much to my surprise, I didn't."

She smiled again, and Ramsey's heartbeat began to race. He was stunned by his own reaction to the woman, for he couldn't seem to get past the fact that she was so damned pretty. It wasn't like him to behave like this—he wasn't a boy and he had certainly been in the presence of comely women before. It was her smile, he decided then. It was really quite infectious.

He wondered if Gideon was experiencing a similar response to the lass, and just as soon as he could find the discipline to stop gawking at her, he'd look at his commander.

"If you didn't know how to swim, why did you go in the lake?" Gideon asked, trying to make sense out of such an illogical act.

She shrugged. "Swimming didn't look difficult, and I was sure I could figure it out, but alas, I was mistaken."

"You were a bold lass," Gideon commented.

"Nay, I was stupid."

"You were young," Ramsey offered.

"You must have turned your parents' hair white," Gideon said.

"I was accused of doing just that on several occasions," she replied before turning her attention to Ramsey again. "I understand why you don't remember. I've changed in my appearance and it has been a long while. I'm grown up now, but I'm not obstinate, Laird. Truly I'm not."

"You should have married by now," Ramsey said. "And it would seem to me that you are being difficult. All of the men who have proposed marriage are fine and worthy soldiers."

"Yes, I'm certain they are good men," she agreed.

Ramsey took a step toward her. She took a step back, for she knew what was coming and wanted to be close to the opening of the tent so she could make a quick exit.

Ramsey noticed her glancing over her shoulder and thought she might be judging the distance to freedom. He maintained his serious demeanor, but it was difficult. Her panic made him want to laugh. Was marriage that repulsive to her?

"Now another soldier has stepped forward to ask for your hand in marriage," he said. "His name is Dunstan. Do you know him?"

She shook her head. "No, I don't."

"He's a good man, Bridgid, and he would certainly treat you well."

"Why? "she asked.

"Why what?" he countered.

"Why does he want to marry me? Did he give you a reason?"

Since Ramsey hadn't spoken to Dunstan personally, he turned to Gideon. "Did he give you a reason?"

The commander nodded. "He wants you."

Ramsey could tell from the hesitation in Gideon's voice that he wasn't telling her the full story. "Give her his exact words," he ordered.

Gideon's face colored. "Surely the lass doesn't wish to hear every word, Laird."

"I think she does," Ramsey countered. "And Dunstan expects us to speak for him."

The commander scowled to cover his embarrassment. "Very well then. Bridgid KirkConnell, Dunstan swears his love for you. He treasures your beauty and worships the very ground you… float upon… As God is my witness, those were his very words."

Ramsey smiled, but Bridgid wasn't the least bit amused. Insulted by the declaration, she tried to hide her feelings, knowing that her laird wouldn't understand. How could he? He was a man and, therefore, couldn't possibly know what was in her heart.

"How can this be?" she asked. "I have not even met this man, yet he declares his love for me?"

"Dunstan is a good man," Gideon told her. "And I believe he means what he says."

"He's clearly infatuated with you," Ramsey added. "Would you like time to consider his proposal? Perhaps if you were to sit down with him and discuss this matter—"

"No," she blurted out. "I don't want to sit down with him, and I don't need time to consider his proposal. I would like to give my answer now. Would you please tell Dunstan that I thank him for his proposal, but…"

"But what?" Gideon asked.

"I won't have him".

Those were the identical words she had used to deny eight other men.

"Why not?" Ramsey demanded, his irritation obvious.

"I don't love him."

"What does love have to do with a marriage proposal? You could learn to love this man."

"I will love the man I marry or I won't marry at all." After making her vehement statement, she took another step back.

"How do I reason with such an absurd belief?" Ramsey asked Gideon.

"I don't know," he replied. "Where could she have gotten such notions?"

Their rudeness in openly discussing her as though she weren't even there angered and frustrated her, but she tried to control her temper because Ramsey was her laird and she should respect his position.

"You won't change your mind about Dunstan?" Ramsey asked.

She shook her head. "I won't have him," she repeated.

"Ah, Bridgid, you are a stubborn lass to be sure."

Being criticized a third time stung her pride, and she found it impossible to keep silent any longer.

"I have been in your presence less than ten minutes, but in that short while you have called me obstinate, difficult, and stubborn. If you are through insulting me, I would like to join my aunt and uncle."

Ramsey was astonished by her burst of anger. She was the first woman ever to speak to him in such a tone. Her behavior bordered on insolence, yet he couldn't fault her because he had said those very words to her, and they were insulting.

"You will not speak to your laird with such disrespect," Gideon commanded. "Your father would turn in his grave if he could hear you now."

She lowered her head, but Ramsey saw the tears in her eyes. "Let's leave her father out of this," he said.

"But, Laird, at the very least she should apologize."

"Why? I insulted her, though not deliberately, and for that I apologize."

Her head snapped up. "You apologize to me?"

"Yes."

Her smile was radiant. "Then I must tell you I'm sorry for being so contrary." She bowed, then turned and ran outside.

Gideon frowned after her. "She's a difficult woman," he remarked. "I pity the man who does marry her, for he will have a fine battle on his hands."

Ramsey laughed. "But what an invigorating battle it would be."

Gideon was surprised by the comment. "And would you be interested in pursuing a—"

A shout stopped his question and he turned to the entrance just as a young soldier came running inside the tent. He was Emmet MacPherson's son, Alan, and he looked as though he had just seen the ghost of his father.

"Laird, come quickly. There's been a terrible accident… terrible… at the falls," he stammered, panting for breath. "Your brother… oh, God, your little brother…"

Ramsey was already running outside when Alan's next words hit him.

"Michael's dead."

Chapter Two

England, in the reign of King John

He was hanging by a thread. In his desperation to hide from his enemy, the little boy had wrapped the old discarded rope he'd found in the corner of the stables around and around the jagged boulder, then tied a tight triple knot the way his Uncle Ennis had taught him to do, and quickly, before he became plagued with second thoughts, slithered over the lip of the canyon on his belly with the rope twined around his left arm. Too late, he remembered he should have looped the rope around his waist and used his feet to brace himself the way he'd seen the seasoned warriors do when they worked their way down Huntley Cliffs to their favored fishing spot.

The boy was in too much of a hurry to climb back up and start all over again. The rocks were as sharp as needles against his tender skin, and his chest and stomach were soon scraped raw and bleeding. He was sure that he would end up with scars, which would make him a real warrior, and while he thought that was a very good thing for a boy of his age to accomplish, he wished it didn't have to hurt so much.

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