She was certain Alford had split his ranks and sequestered soldiers at his estate and at her Uncle Morgan's holding. He had boasted he had more than eight hundred fighting men at his beck and call, and though Gillian doubted any of them were actually loyal or beholden to the baron, she knew they feared him. Alford controlled his troops with tyranny, using torture as his method to make examples of the men who dared to deny him.

Her blood ran cold thinking about Alford's sadistic lessons, and all she could concentrate on was finding a way to protect the man she loved.


She was a full day's ride away from Dunhanshire when she was forced to stop. Exhaustion had taken its toll, and she was actually light-headed from lack of food and sleep.

Proster, Ker, Alan, and Bridgid were still at her side. She'd tried several times to get them to go home, but none of them would listen to her. Bridgid kept insisting that she had a plan, but she refused to tell Gillian what it was, and no matter how much Gillian argued and begged her to go back, she stubbornly resisted. The young soldiers were almost as maddening. Proster explained over and over again that, since she wouldn't return to the Sinclair holding with him, he and his friends were determined to stay by her and do their best to protect her.

It was getting dark when Bridgid suggested that they stop for the night. Gillian spotted a thatched roof in the distance and insisted on gaining permission to cross the farmland before they rested. Ignoring Proster's vehement protest, she dismounted at the door.

A family of five resided in the tiny house. The father, an older man with skin so weathered his face looked like a dried riverbed, was at first suspicious of their motives, for he had seen the Highlanders put their hands to their swords, but as soon as Gillian introduced herself and formally requested to spend the night on their land, his demeanor softened.

He bowed to his waist. "My name's Randall and the woman hiding behind me is Sarah. The land ain't mine, but you know that already, don't you? And yet you still ask my permission. I till the land for me liege lord, Baron Hardington, and I know he ain't gonna mind if you rest on his grass. I knew your father, milady. He was a grand man, and I'm honored to be of assistance to you. You and your friends are welcome to share our supper with us. Come inside and warm yourself by the fire while my boys see to your horses."

Although they had little to share, they insisted that Gillian and Bridgid and the soldiers join them. Bridgid was unusually quiet during the meal. She sat beside Gillian, the two of them squeezed in between two of Randall's strapping boys.

When they were leaving, Sarah gave them blankets from her bed. "It chills at night," she explained. "Just leave them be in the field when you leave tomorrow and Randall will fetch them."

"Is there anything more we can do for you?" Randall asked.

Gillian took the man aside and spoke to him in a low whisper. "There is something I need that would help immensely, but I must be certain that if you give me your word, you'll see it through, no matter what. Lives are at stake, Randall, so if you cannot do this errand, you be honest and tell me so now. I don't mean to insult you, but the importance—"

-- Advertisement --

"If I can do it, I will," he promised. "Tell me what you need, and then I'll decide."

"You must take a message for me," she whispered. "Say these words exactly. 'Lady Gillian has found Arianna's treasure.'"

Randall repeated the words twice, then nodded. "Now tell me who I am to give this message to, milady."

Leaning close, she whispered the name in his ear. Randall's knees weakened.

"You're… certain of this?"

"Yes, I'm certain."

The old man made the sign of the cross. "But they're heathens, milady… all of them."

"What I ask of you will require courage. Will you take my message?"

Randall slowly nodded. "I'll leave at dawn."

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Dunhanshire was swarming with soldiers. It was a black, moonless night, but the holding was as bright as the king's palace, for torches blazed orange red along the top of the parapets and the walkways, and from the distance the fires looked like the eyes of demons staring out at them.

The five stood clustered together, well hidden in the dense forest beyond the meadow, all silent as they listened to the clanking sound of the drawbridge being lowered and then watched yet another troop of soldiers riding into the holding.

"They go into the bowels of hell," Ker whispered. "I can feel the evil here."

"Why are there so many soldiers?" Proster asked. "The baron must be preparing for battle. I swear I've counted over a hundred men since we've been watching."

"He must have heard that our soldiers are coming," Alan speculated.

Gillian shook her head. "Alford always surrounds himself with a league of soldiers to protect him. He wants to make certain no one can sneak up on him and take him by surprise."

"He fears death, doesn't he?" Bridgid said. "He knows he'll burn in hell for his sins. Is he an old man?"

"No," Gillian answered. "When I was a child, I thought he was, but he was a very young man then. Because of his friendship with John, Alford was given power, and it has been his lifelong quest to gain more. Dunhanshire used to be a joyful place," she added. "But Alford and his greed changed all of that. He killed my father and destroyed my family."

"God willing, our soldiers will come thundering down the hills tomorrow and attack," Proster said.

"I pray to God they stay away until this is finished," Gillian countered.

"Do you think your uncle is inside Dunhanshire?" Bridgid asked.

"I don't know," she answered. "But I'll find out tomorrow. We'll rest here tonight." She untied the strap holding her blanket to the horse's back and then spread the woolen square under one of the large oak trees. Bridgid followed her and sat down beside her.

"This is as far as we go together," Gillian said. "I have to do the rest alone."

"You know that Proster isn't going to let you go into Dunhanshire alone."

"You've got to help me make him understand," she whispered. "I'll be safe as long as Alford thinks I have what he wants, but if Proster goes with me, I promise you he'll use him against me. He must stay here with you and Ker and Alan."

Proster dropped down on one knee beside Gillian. "We've been talking," he said with a nod toward his friends. "And we've decided that you should wait here until your husband arrives. Then you can go inside."

"Our minds are made up, milady," Ker interjected.

"I'll wait until the middle of the day," she said. "The baron doesn't awaken until then, but I won't wait any longer."

"Either you wait for your husband or I go with you," Proster argued.

"We will put off this discussion until tomorrow. Now we should rest." She closed her eyes to discourage the soldier from continuing to argue with her.

Bridgid fell asleep almost immediately, but Gillian dozed off and on through the night. The soldiers slept at her feet with their swords clasped in their hands.

None of them heard her leave.

By the time she crossed the meadow she was surrounded by Alford's soldiers and escorted inside the holding. She was then taken to the great hall and told to wait until Alford's senior officer arrived.

A young servant girl who obviously didn't know that the baron wouldn't have wanted her to see to Gillian's comfort carried in a tray of food and set it on the table. Two soldiers stood guard at the entrance watching Gillian's every move. For a long while she paced in front of the hearth, and when she grew weary, she sat at the table and forced herself to swallow bites of the cold meat and bread on the trencher. Gillian had little appetite, but she knew she'd need nourishment to strengthen her for the confrontation with Alford.

The soldier in charge finally came inside. He was a brute of a man with a broad, bulging forehead and small dark eyes as flat and lifeless as marbles.

"Baron Alford doesn't like to be disturbed while he's sleeping. He and his companions, Baron Edwin and Baron Hugh, were up quite late last night."

"I have nothing to say to Alford until I see my Uncle Morgan. Is he here?"

"No," he answered sourly. "But you are in luck. Last week the baron ordered soldiers to bring him here from his estate."

"Then my uncle was allowed to stay in his own home?" she asked.

"Since you've been gone, your uncle has been moved twice, he replied.

"Why is it taking the soldiers so long to bring him here? If they left last week…"

"The soldiers were also sent to Baron Alford's home to fetch his favorite cloak. They should be here any time now."

Gillian was taken upstairs and locked in the same chamber she and Alec had escaped from weeks before. Snickering, the soldier told her the passage had been sealed.

The wait continued until late afternoon. She spent a good deal of time praying and worrying about Brodick and the others. Please God, keep them safe and keep them away from this place until it's finished and Alford can't hurt them.

The brute unlatched the door and told her the baron was waiting to see her. "The rest of your family has arrived," he announced.

She wanted to ask him if her uncle was well, but she knew he wouldn't tell her anything more, and so she hurried downstairs to see for herself.

Edwin was waiting. She didn't give him a second glance as she hurried past him into the hall. Alford and Hugh were seated at the table side by side. They had obviously had too much to drink the night before, for Hugh's complexion was gray and his hands shook when he reached for his goblet. Red liquid sloshed over the rim onto the table as he greedily drank the wine like a man dying of thirst.

Alford rubbed his forehead to rid himself of the pounding headache.

"Where is my uncle?" she demanded.

"He'll be here soon," he answered. "Tell me, Gillian. Did you fail or succeed in your quest?"

"I won't tell you anything until I see my Uncle Morgan."

"Then perhaps your sister will. Bring her in, Edwin," he called out, then grimaced in pain and put his hand to his forehead again.

Because Alford was watching her closely, Gillian tried to hide her surprise and confusion. Bring her sister in? What in Gods name was he talking about?

"Ah, there she is now," Alford crooned.

Gillian whirled around and nearly fell over as Bridgid sauntered into the hall. Dear God, what was she doing? The soldiers must have found their hiding place, Gillian decided then, and if that were true, what had happened to Proster and Ker and Alan?

She took a panicky breath. Bridgid smiled at her and then asked loud enough to be overheard, "Which one of the pigs is Alford?"

Alford lunged forward, bracing his hands on the table to support himself. "You will guard your tongue," he shouted, "or I'll have it cut out."

Bridgid didn't seem the least impressed by the threat. "You'll die trying," she shouted back.

Gillian grabbed her hand to get her to be silent. Inciting the beast in his cave was dangerous and foolish.

"Where is my uncle, Alford?"

He waved away her question. Then Hugh drew his attention with his comment. "I'm not disappointed in the way Christen turned out. She still has her yellow hair."

Edwin joined his friends at the table and snapped his fingers to alert the servants to bring food and more wine. "They don't look like sisters."

Alford studied the two women. "They didn't look like sisters when they were young. Christen was always the pretty one, and Gillian was the mouse."

"She isn't a mouse now," Hugh chortled. Reaching under the table he began to rub himself. "I want her, Alford."

Alford ignored the demand. "What clan did you live with?" he asked.

"The MacPhersons," Bridgid answered.

"And what name did those heathens give you, or have you always been called Christen?"

Gillian's heart started pounding, because she couldn't remember if she had told Bridgid the name Christen was given by the Highlanders.

"I'm called Kate," Bridgid answered. "I much prefer it to Christen."

"She has the same sour disposition as Gillian," Hugh remarked. "They're sisters, all right."

"Yes," Alford drawled, but the furtive look in his eyes said he still wasn't completely convinced. Impatient, he stood up and came around the table. "Do you have my treasure with you, Christen?" His beady eyes darted back and forth between the women as he waited for her answer.

He was so vile he made her skin crawl. She boldly faced him and summoned forth her most defiant look. "I thought the treasure belonged to your king."

"My king?"

Bridgid quickly recovered from her blunder. Forcing a shrug of indifference, she said, "I'm a MacPherson now, and I have lived in the Highlands for many years and have become loyal to the king of Scotland. I don't consider England my home."

"What about your Uncle Morgan? Do you consider yourself loyal to him?"

"I don't remember him," she said. "I'm merely helping my sister."

His eyes were piercing as he studied her. "I plan to see that the king gets the box back," Alford snapped. "Do you have it with you?"

Edwin came rushing forward to join his friend. Scratching his triple chins, he remarked, "Surely she was searched before she was brought in."

"Search her again," Hugh called out, snickering. "Take her to one of the chambers and give her a thorough examination, Edwin. Start with the neck and work your way down."

Gillian intruded before the situation got completely out of hand. "My sister doesn't have the box, and she doesn't know where it is."

Alford slapped Edwin's hand as he was reaching for Bridgid.

"You can have her later," he promised. Sidling close to Gillian, he asked, "Do you have the treasure?"


"You may take Christen upstairs now, Edwin. Do what you want with her. Hugh, would you like to join them?"

With a hoot of laughter, Hugh drained his goblet and shoved his stool back as he stood. "I believe I will join them," he called out.

Alford was watching Gillian closely as he made his suggestion. She didn't show any reaction, but when Edwin lunged for Bridgid, she moved with amazing speed and shoved him back.

-- Advertisement --