"Yes you do. Your dagger."
"No, it's not mine," Alford shouted.
John slowly began to walk around the table. "No? Your crest is on the handle."
"Someone… stole my dagger… Gillian's father must have…"
John's voice lashed out like a whip. "Her father wasn't in court, but you were, Alford. You killed her."
"No, I didn't…"
John pounded the tabletop with his fist. "If you want to live, you will tell me the truth."
"If I want to live…"
"I won't kill you as long as you tell me the truth," John promised. "I want to know exactly what happened, but first you will admit it to me. You killed her, didn't you?"
"She was going to betray you," he stammered. "She wouldn't listen to my… counsel… and she was determined to come between you and your advisers. I sought only to protect my king. She had gone mad with power because she knew… yes, she knew she could control you."
"I want to know exactly what happened," the king demanded, his voice shaking with fury.
"I went to her chamber to reason with her, and she mocked me, my lord. Aye, she did. Your squire carried in the box and put it on the table. It was open and your dagger was inside. The squire didn't see me, and after he left, Arianna took your dagger and cut a lock of her hair. She put the dagger and the hair in the box—"
"And you continued to reason with her?" John demanded.
"Yes, but she wouldn't listen. She swore she wouldn't let anyone get in her way. She attacked me, and I had to defend myself."
"And so you cut her throat."
"It was an accident. I'll admit I panicked. Your squire had returned and was pounding on the door, and without thinking, I threw my dagger in the box and closed it. I was going to tell you. Yes, yes, I was," Alford cried out.
"And because you had a key to the chamber, your escape was so simple, wasn't it? You locked the door and took the box to your chamber. Is that right, Alford?"
"And then you consoled me when I found her body—good friend that you are."
"I was going to confess, but you were so distraught, I decided to wait."
"No, you decided to blame the Baron of Dunhanshire."
"Yes," Alford admitted, trying to sound contrite. "Gillian's father had come to my estate to discuss the common land we shared. He saw the box when he came into the hall unannounced but pretended he hadn't, and the second my back was turned, he stole it. He was going to keep it for himself," he ended.
"You didn't believe that," John muttered. "You knew he would bring it to me, didn't you, Alford? And so you lay siege to Dunhanshire and killed him to silence him."
"I had to kill Arianna," Alford repeated. "She would have destroyed you."
"Me?" the king shouted. He couldn't continue the game any longer. He stood behind Alford now and raised Iain's sword. "The Devil take you," he screamed as he thrust the blade through Alford's back.
The baron rigidly arched up and then slowly fell forward. John stepped back, his chest heaving with rage. The room was deathly quiet as John picked up the box and walked toward the door.
"Your son has been avenged," he told Iain Maitland as he motioned to his soldiers to follow him.
Hugh, who had been cowering behind the soldiers, called out to him. "My king, Edwin and I had no part in Alford's treachery."
John ignored his baron. As he was striding past the three lairds, he said, "They're all yours."
The door closed as Iain and Ramsey and Brodick slowly advanced.
Ramsey and Brodick weren't easily embarrassed or intimidated, but by the time Baron Morgan Chapman finished giving them a piece of his mind and a thorough tongue-lashing, the lairds were clearly mortified.
And men enough to admit it. Although they both wanted to argue with the crusty old man, they didn't dare because they had been taught to respect their elders, but Morgan was making it difficult for them with his wild accusations.
It seemed to take him forever to get to the heart of the matter. He stood facing the lairds with his arms folded and acted like a father who was chastising his boys. It was damned humiliating, but Ramsey and Brodick suffered through it.
"I've lived a peaceful life, but in the past two days I've heard enough wailing and carrying on by two very angry young ladies to last me a lifetime. You had the gall to dump them in my lap and send them home with me, and I swear to you my ears were ringing by the time we arrived. But did it end there?"
Ramsey made the mistake of guessing it didn't and shook his head, gaining him a scowl and a blasphemy from the cantankerous baron.
"Nay," he ranted. "The sweet lasses had only just got started. I thought about taking to my bed, but I knew they'd follow me." Nodding to Brodick, he declared, "You've broken my Gillian's heart, and she wants never to see you again."
"Then she can keep her eyes closed, but I assure you she's going home with me."
"You married in haste."
"I knew what I wanted, and I took it."
"It? We're talking about my niece, aren't we?"
"Yes, sir, we are."
"She says you gave her your word, and then you broke it."
"She believes you used her."
"Hell, man, you could at least explain why."
"You know why," Brodick countered. "I couldn't allow her to be in such danger. If anyone should be angry, it is I, for she recklessly followed me."
Morgan threaded his fingers through his white hair. "She doesn't believe you love her, and she insists she's going to live here with me."
Before Brodick could respond, the baron turned his hot temper on Ramsey. "Bridgid has also decided she wishes to stay with me. She insists she likes the English, God help me."
"She's going home with me," Ramsey announced.
Ramsey was surprised by the question. "Because she's a Sinclair."
"That isn't a sufficient reason. She says you keep trying to marry her off to get rid of her. She also says her mother tossed her out. Is that true?"
Ramsey sighed. "Yes, it's true."
"And aren't you doing the same thing?"
"No, I'm not," Ramsey insisted. "Bridgid told me she's in love, but she refuses to tell me who the man is."
Thoroughly exasperated, Morgan shook his head. "Did she tell you he was a stupid man?"
"As a matter of fact she did," he replied.
The baron's head dropped down, and he peered at Ramsey through his bushy eyebrows for a long, silent minute. Then he sighed. "Were you born yesterday, son? Who in God's name do you think she loves? Think hard and I'm sure it will come to you."
It wasn't what he said as much as how he said it that sparked the epiphany. The light dawned, and with it came a slow, easy smile.
Morgan nodded with relief. "So you finally figured it out, did you? And high time, if you ask me," he muttered. "If I have to suffer through another long-winded description of your charms, I swear I won't be able to keep my food in my belly. Are you going to forget this nonsense about marrying a lass named Meggan to keep peace with your clans?"
"She told you about Meggan?" Ramsey couldn't stop smiling.
"Son, I don't believe there's anything she hasn't told me about you. Have you stopped being stupid then and come to your senses?"
Ramsey didn't take insult. "It seems I have," he agreed.
"She's a handful," he warned.
"Yes, sir, she is."
The baron straightened up. "Now then, I want both of you to listen carefully, because I'm going to give you my conditions."
"Your conditions, sir?" Brodick asked. He nudged Ramsey to get him to stop grinning like an idiot and pay attention. "I could use some help here," he muttered.
"My conditions," Morgan repeated. "Do you think I want to be saddled with two lovesick women?"
"Then let us take them," Brodick reasoned.
The suggestion earned him another glare. "I can see from the look in your eyes that you love Gillian. You might want to tell her so, son, and soon, because she's gotten it into her head that you don't care about her at all."
"She's my wife. Of course I care about her."
The baron snorted. "She's spirited."
"Yes, she is."
"And stubborn. I don't know where she comes by that flaw, but she is."
"You won't be able to crush her spirit."
"I don't want to, sir."
"Good, because if there's any crushing to be done, she'll be doing it. I don't have to tell you to treat her well because knowing my Gillian, she'll make sure that you do. She's a strong woman, but she's got tender feelings."
"Sir, you mentioned conditions?" Ramsey reminded him.
"Yes, I did," he replied. "I love my niece," he declared. "And I've taken a fancy to Bridgid as well. I won't have her thinking I'm tossing her out. I am," he hastily added, "but I won't have her thinking it. The way I see it…"
"Yes?" Ramsey asked when the baron hesitated.
"You've got to… encourage… them to leave. I won't have you threatening them," he added. "You broke their hearts; now you mend them."
After giving them the impossible command, Morgan left the hall to personally fetch the ladies. Ramsey and Brodick paced while they waited.
"The baron reminds me of someone, but I can't quite put my finger on who it is," Ramsey remarked.
"I swear my own father never talked to me the way Gillian's uncle just did."
"Your father died before you were old enough to know him."
"It was humiliating, damn it. He sure as certain wasn't what I expected. The way Gillian talked about him, I pictured a mild-mannered gentleman. She thinks he's… gentle. Is the woman blind? How in God's name can she love such a crotchety old…"
Ramsey's head snapped up, and he suddenly burst into laughter, breaking Brodick's train of thought. "It's you."
"Morgan… he reminds me of you. My God, Gillian married a man just like her uncle. Look at the baron and you'll see yourself in twenty years."
"Are you suggesting I'm going to become a belligerent, foul-tempered old man?"
"Hell, you're already belligerent and foul-tempered. No wonder she fell in love with you," he drawled.
"I'm not in the mood to fight."
Ramsey slumped onto a chair laughing, then abruptly grew serious again.
"I cannot believe Bridgid thinks she's going to stay here."
"I expected my wife to welcome me with open arms, and she hasn't even come downstairs. If I have to drag her home, I will," Brodick said.
"You wished to see me, Laird?"
At the sound of Bridgid's voice, both Ramsey and Brodick turned. "Where's my wife?" Brodick demanded.
"Upstairs," she answered. "She should be down shortly."
"Could you give us some privacy?" Ramsey asked. "I was speaking to Brodick, not you, Bridgid. Come back here."
With a sigh she turned around and walked to Ramsey as Brodick left the room. He leaned against the table, folded his arms across his chest, and smiled at her. She didn't smile back. She bowed her head so she wouldn't be distracted by his adorable dimples.
She was acting shy and timid, and he wondered what game she was playing now because he knew Bridgid didn't have a timid bone in her beautiful body.
"Baron Morgan said you wanted to speak to me."
"Yes," he answered. "I have something important to say to you, but first, I want you to tell me how you managed it."
"Managed what, Laird?"
"Bridgid, look at me."
"Yes, Laird," she said, bracing herself. She looked up, and still her heart raced, and she got that familiar tingling feeling in her stomach. If he ever kissed her, she'd probably faint, she thought, and that ludicrous image made her calm down just a little.
"Have I said something amusing?"
"Yes… I mean, no, of course you haven't."
"Then why are you smiling?"
She lifted her shoulders. "Would you like me to stop?"
"For God's sakes, Bridgid," he said. "Pay attention."
"I am paying attention."
"I want to know how you managed to get all the way to England without being stopped or killed."
She thought about the question a long minute before answering. "I used trickery and deceit."
"I want a better explanation."
"All right," she agreed. "I tricked Proster into believing Gillian needed to see Annie Drummond, and when we were on our way, I told him the truth. I hope you don't blame him or Ker or Alan. Gillian and I refused to go back."
"And because they're so young, they didn't know they should have dragged you back home no matter how much you argued with them."
"They shouldn't be punished."
"I have no intention of punishing them. They stayed by your side and did their best to protect you, and for that they'll be rewarded. You didn't make their duty easy."
"I hope you won't blame Gillian either," she implored. "She kept trying to get us to go home, but we wouldn't listen to her."
"Why did you sneak away from the soldiers and follow her inside Dunhanshire?"
"I thought I could help by pretending to be her sister, but as it turned out, I became a hindrance. Laird, may I ask you something?"
"What is it?"
"What happened to all of the soldiers and the servants at Alford's estate? Uncle Morgan's servants returned here, but what about the others?"
"I imagine they're back at the holding by now, waiting to serve a new baron. We don't kill the innocent."
"And the soldiers?"
"They weren't innocent."
He refused to elaborate and Bridgid didn't think she needed to know the gruesome particulars anyway. "Will you be going home soon?" she asked then.