Her distress alarmed the soldier, and he didn't know what to do. He wanted to lie to her, to tell her, yes, he must have been wrong, but he knew that eventually she'd have to accept the truth, and so he braced himself for her reaction, prayed she wouldn't faint on him, and then blurted out, "As God is my witness, I heard them correctly. Everyone knows… but you," he stammered. "They are going to England, and you are being taken to the
Buchanan holding. Your husband was concerned about your injury, and he wanted you to have one day's rest before riding such a distance. It was very thoughtful of him, wasn't it, milady?"
She didn't answer him. She turned and started to walk away, then stopped. "Thank you, Proster, for explaining."
"Milady, if you still don't believe me, talk to Graeme and Lochlan. They'll confirm what I've just told you."
"I don't need to talk to them. I believe you. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'd like to go back to the cottage."
"With your permission, I'll walk with you," he offered. "You don't look well," he added. "Is your leg paining you?"
"No, it isn't," she answered. Her voice was flat.
She didn't say another word until they'd returned to the cottage. Proster had just bowed to her and turned to leave when she called him back. "Do you know where Kevin and Annie Drummond live?"
"All the soldiers know the Drummonds. When someone gets hurt, he goes to her for help. If he doesn't die on the way, she heals him. Most times, anyway," he added. "Why do you ask?"
"I was just curious," she lied. "In a little while, I would like to return to my sister's home. Would you please accompany me?"
Honored that the Buchanan's woman would choose him to escort her, he squared his shoulders. "I would be happy to ride with you, but didn't you just come from your sister's?"
"Yes, but I forgot to give her the presents I brought from England, and she's most anxious to have them. When I'm ready to leave, I'll send for you."
"As you wish," he said.
She closed the door softly, walked to the bed, and sat down, and then buried her face in her hands and wept.
She moved with an urgency born out of desperation. Tearing the Buchanan plaid from her body, she threw it on the bed and reached for her English gown. She had already packed a small bag, filled it with the necessities she would need on her journey.
Bridgid interrupted her. Gillian heard her call out, opened the door a crack, and told her friend she wasn't feeling well. She tried to shut the door then, but Bridgid wouldn't let her. She pushed it open and rushed inside.
"If you're ill, I'll help you. Why are you dressed in those clothes? Your husband won't like it. You should be wearing the Buchanan colors."
With her back to her friend Gillian tossed her brush into the bag and then tied it closed. When she turned around, Bridgid saw her face and knew something was terribly wrong. "What is it?" she demanded. "Tell me and I'll help you any way that I can."
"Yes, I just heard, but not until tomorrow. Your husband's soldiers won't be here until then. Is that what's upsetting you? Don't you want to go to your new home?" she asked, trying desperately to understand.
"I'm going home to England."
"What? You cannot be serious…"
"And I'm never wearing the Buchanan plaid again. Never," she cried out. "Brodick betrayed me, and I will never, ever forgive him." The truth of it overwhelmed her, and she sat down on the bed before her legs gave out. "He gave me his word that he and Iain and Ramsey would wait…"
Bridgid sat beside her. "They've all gone to England."
"Yes," she answered. "Proster told me this morning that they had left. Brodick promised me that he would take me with him. I made him give me his word before I would tell him the names of the barons who helped Gideon take Alec Maitland."
"What was their reason for taking the laird's son?"
"They didn't mean to take him. They thought they'd kidnapped Ramsey's brother."
Bridgid's mind was racing with questions. "Start at the beginning and tell me what happened. Then maybe I can figure out a way to help you."
"You can't help me," she whispered. "Oh, God, I don't know how I'll be able to protect my uncle now. I'm so scared and I…" Her voice broke on a sob.
Bridgid patted her arm and pleaded with her to explain.
And so Gillian told her everything, beginning with the night her father was murdered. By the time she was finished, she realized how hopeless her situation was.
"If you don't return to England with the box or your sister, how will you save your uncle?" Bridgid asked.
"It doesn't matter now. As soon as the lairds attack, Alford will order Morgan's death."
"What makes you think your uncle is still alive? You told me that Baron Alford has never kept his word."
"Alford knows I won't give him the treasure until I see my uncle is safe."
Bridgid in her agitation began to pace about the cottage. "But you don't have the box."
"I know I don't have it," she lamented. "I had hoped that my sister would know where it was…"
"But she didn't know," Bridgid said. "Tell me again who was in the chamber with your father the night he gave Christen the treasure."
"I already told you that there were four soldiers with my father," she explained once again. "And the reeve, Ector, but he was only in the chamber for a moment. Christen told me he gave Father a message and then left."
Bridgid mulled the puzzle over in her mind, shook her head, and then asked, "The soldiers assigned to protect you were both killed?"
"Yes, they were."
"You're absolutely certain? Did you see them die?"
"If I did, I don't remember. I was very young," she reminded her friend. "But Liese told me they died protecting me. She was certain."
"But your sister isn't certain what happened to the soldiers who took her north. She's only guessing that they returned to your father's estate. Isn't that true?"
Bridgid interrupted her before she could finish. "Then couldn't one of them have taken the treasure?"
"No," she said. "They were loyal and honorable men, and my father trusted them implicitly."
"Perhaps his trust was misplaced," she offered. "It has to be one of them, or the reeve, but you just said that Ector was only in the chamber for a very short while."
"Oh, it couldn't have been Ector. He was daft."
"He was crazed?"
"Yes," she answered impatiently. She stood up then and went to the door.
"Where are you going?"
"I asked Proster to accompany me to my sister's home, and I'm going to go get him."
"But you told me that Christen doesn't wish to see you again."
"Yes, that's true, but—"
"Then why are you going back?"
With a sigh she said, "I'm not really going to my sister's. Proster knows where the Drummonds live, and once we're on our way to Christen's, I'm going to insist that he take me on to Annie's instead."
"But why?" she persisted.
"Because Kevin and Annie know the way to the Len holding, and I know the way home from there."
Bridgid was stunned. "My God, you really are going back to England. You told me you were, but I didn't believe you."
"Yes, I am." When Bridgid ran to her, she hugged her farewell. "I want you to know how much your friendship has meant to me. I'm going to miss you."
"But I'll see you again, won't I?"
"No. I'm not coming back."
"What about Brodick? You love him."
"He doesn't love me. He used me, Bridgid, to get what he wanted. I meant so little to him that he couldn't…"
It was too painful to talk about. Straightening away from her friend, she said, "I must get going."
"Wait," Bridgid demanded when Gillian reached for the latch. "I'll go hunt Proster down while you change your clothes."
"I'm never wearing the Buchanan colors again."
"Be reasonable. Everyone will know you're up to something if you go outside wearing those clothes. You've got to change."
Gillian realized her friend was right, they would notice. "I wasn't thinking… I was so angry, and I… Yes, I'll change my clothes while you go get Proster."
"It may take me a while to find him, but you stay here. Promise me you'll wait inside."
"I'll wait. Remember," she warned, "Proster thinks I'm going to see Christen."
"I know," Bridgid said as she opened the door. She stepped out onto the stoop, then turned to pull the door closed. Still puzzling over the disappearance of the treasure, her mind raced with possibilities. "Could I ask you one more question?"
"What is it?"
"You said that Ector was crazed. Were you exaggerating because he was a little peculiar, or did you really mean it? Was he truly crazed?"
"Oh, yes, he was," she answered in a rush. "Now, please hurry, Bridgid. I must get going as soon as possible."
"But I was just wondering…"
"Now what?" she asked.
"Why would your father put a crazed man in charge of collecting the rents? That doesn't make any sense at all."
"Ector wasn't crazy then. Liese told me it was cowardice that broke his mind. After the siege he was never the same. I know Ector was mean-tempered, cruel, and terribly greedy. Now, please go and get Proster."
Bridgid finally closed the door. Gillian removed her gown and was reaching for the plaid when she suddenly froze and let out a loud gasp.
"My God, of course."
Bridgid was gone a long time, and when she returned to the cottage, Gillian was frantic with worry.
"What took you so long?" she demanded as soon as her friend came inside.
"I had to do a few things first," she said. "Proster's here, and he isn't alone. He's letting Ker and Alan ride along. They're acting like they're escorting a princess. You should have heard them carrying on. They're honored that you asked a MacPherson."
"They're young is what they are," she countered.
"I've been thinking about your plans," she said then. "I don't think you should ride to the Drummonds because their home could be out of your way. Take a direct route to the Len holding. I'm sure Proster knows the way."
"How can you be sure?"
"All the soldiers know the territory boundaries and where they can ride and where they can't. Their lives depend upon such knowledge."
"But I don't know how I can convince the soldier to take me there. I was going to tell him I needed Annie's treatment for my leg."
"Then do that," she advised. "But when we're on our way, then we'll tell Proster we must go to the Len holding."
"We? Bridgid, you cannot mean—"
"I'm going to England with you. I've already packed my things and rolled them in a plaid so the soldiers won't be suspicious. It's tied behind the saddle of my mare. That's what took me so long."
Bridgid's voice was calm, but her hands were fisted at her sides and she had a determined glint in her eyes. When Gillian began to shake her head, Bridgid hurried to convince her that her mind was made up and that nothing her friend would say could change her decision.
"There isn't anything for me here, and I won't stay and watch Ramsey marry Meggan. It would hurt too much. No, I can't stay. I won't. For God's sake, my own mother doesn't even want me around, and that's the truth of it. I don't know where else I could go. Please, Gillian. Let me come with you. I've always been curious about England, and you told me that your Uncle Morgan had Highland blood. I'm sure he'll let me stay with him for a little while… until I decide what to do."
"I can't take you with me. You could get hurt and I wouldn't be able to protect you from him."
"Yes," she answered. "You don't understand what he's like. He's a monster."
"How do you plan to protect yourself? You were ordered to return with your sister and the treasure, but you're going back without either. If anyone should be afraid, it's you."
"I don't have a choice," she argued. "I have to go back home, and you have to stay here."
"I'm begging you, Gillian. I accept the danger, and I take full responsibility for anything that might happen to me. Please reconsider. I have a plan in mind."
"I couldn't live with myself if you were hurt."
"Then let me ride with you as far as the Len holding. I can help you persuade Proster. I know I can."
"And you'll come back here with them?"
"Yes," Bridgid promised and immediately felt a wave of guilt for lying to her dear friend. She did have a sound plan and her mind was made up, and with or without Gillian's permission or approval, she was going to help her.
"We… that is, you… could run into Brodick and the others."
"No, I don't think I will. They'll surely go to my Uncle Morgan's home first, and it's in the northwest of England, a remote area to be sure, and I'm heading east to Dunhanshire."
"Where is this Baron Alford's estate?"
"Due south from my uncle's home. God willing, by the time they reach Dunhanshire, the ransom will be paid and it will be over."
"What will be over?"
Gillian shook her head. She wasn't going to explain. Bridgid suddenly felt chilled to the bone. "Shall we go then?"
Straightening her shoulders, Gillian nodded. As she walked through the doorway, she whispered, "God be with us."
It was a desperate race against time. She knew she would reach Dunhanshire well before the fall festival, but her fear was that Brodick and Iain and Ramsey would get there before her. And God help them then. As angry as she was at her husband for deceiving her and as determined as she was never to return to the Highlands, she was still terrified for his safety. He had broken her heart, but she couldn't stop loving him. If he and the others tried to breach Alford's fortress, there would be a war and they would all die.