She hadn’t had any close friends in England because her husband wouldn’t have allowed it. Everything was different in the Highlands, she reminded herself. The clan wasn’t going to vanish or move away.

After three months of solitude, she had to admit that, though her life was peaceful, it was also lonely and boring. She wanted to fit in. Just as important, she wanted to help rebuild what her first husband had destroyed. Gabriel was too busy with the reorganization to worry about her problems. She wasn’t about to complain to her husband anyway. The problem was hers to solve.


Once Johanna named the dilemma, she set about solving it. She no longer wanted to separate herself from the clan and tried to join in whenever possible. She was shy by nature, almost painfully so, but she still forced herself to call a greeting whenever she spotted one of the women hurrying by. The MacBains always responded with a smile or a kind word; most of the Maclaurins pretended they hadn’t heard her. There were some exceptions, of course. Leila and Megan, the two Maclaurin women who’d assisted with her bath on her wedding night, seemed to like her, but the others refused her every offer of friendship.

She was confused by their attitude. She didn’t know what she could do to change their minds about her. On Tuesday, when Keith was assigned the duty of looking out for her. she put the question to him.

“I would like your opinion. Keith, on a matter worrying me. I can’t seem to find a way to gain acceptance from the Maclaurin women. Do you have a suggestion to offer?”

Keith scratched his jaw while he listened to her. He could tell she was upset by his clan’s behavior toward her, yet hesitated to explain the reason because he knew he would hurt her feelings. After several days spent protecting her, his own attitude had softened. She was still somewhat timid, but she certainly wasn’t a coward as some of the Maclaurin women believed.

Johanna noticed his hesitation. She thought he didn’t want to talk about the problem because they were within hearing distance of some of his clansmen.

“Will you walk with me up the hill?”

“Certainly, m’lady.”

Neither one said another word until they were well away from the courtyard. Keith finally broke the silence. “The Highlanders have long memories. Lady Johanna. If a warrior goes to his death without avenging some slight, he still dies in peace because he knows that someday his son or grandson will right the wrong. The feuds are never forgotten, the sins never forgiven.”

She didn’t have the faintest idea what he was talking about. He looked terribly earnest though. “And not forgetting is important, Keith?”

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“Aye, m’lady.”

He acted as though he’d finished his explanation. She shook her head in frustration. “I still don’t understand what it is you’re trying to tell me. Please try again.”

“Very well,” the soldier responded. “The Maclaurins haven’t forgotten what your first husband’s men did here.”

“And they blame me, is that it?”

“Some of them do blame you,” he admitted. “You needn’t worry about retaliation,” he hastily added. “Revenge is a man’s game. The Highlanders leave the women and children alone. There is also the fact that your husband would kill anyone who dared to touch you.”

“I’m not concerned about my safety,” she replied. “I can take care of myself. I can’t fight memories though. I can’t change what happened here. You needn’t look so bleak, Keith. I believe I’ve won a few of the women over. I heard one of them call me courageous. She wouldn’t have given me that high praise if she disliked me.”

“The praise isn’t praise at all,” Keith announced, anger lacing his brogue. “I cannot allow you to believe it is.”

“Now what are you trying to tell me?” she asked in frustration.

Getting a straight answer out of the Maclaurin soldier was proving to be a difficult task. Johanna held onto her patience while she waited for him to sort out in his mind whatever was worrying him.

Keith let out a loud sigh. “They call Auggie clever.”

She nodded. “Auggie is very clever,” she agreed.

He shook his head. “They believe he’s daft.”

“Then why in heaven’s name do they call him clever?”

“Because he isn’t.”

The expression on her face told him she still hadn’t caught on. “They call your husband merciful.”

“Their laird would be pleased to hear such praise.”

“Nay, m’lady, he would not be pleased.”

And still she didn’t understand. Keith believed it would be a cruel disservice to let her remain ignorant. “Your husband would be furious if he thought the Maclaurins truly believed he was a merciful man. The women, you see, gave the name that least fits. It’s a foolish game they play. They actually believe their laird is ruthless. ’Tis the reason they admire him,” he added with a nod. “A leader doesn’t wish to be known as merciful or kind-hearted. He would see it as a weakness.”

She slowly straightened her spine. She was starting to grasp the meaning behind the women’s game.

“And so, if what you say is true, then they consider Auggie to be . . .”


She finally understood. Keith saw the tears gather in her eyes before she turned away from him. “Then I’m not courageous in their minds. I’m a coward. Now I understand. Thank you for taking the time to explain, Keith. I know it was difficult for you.”

“M’lady, please give me the name of the woman you heard call you . . .”

“I will not,” she said as she shook her head. She couldn’t look at the soldier. She felt embarrassed . . . and ashamed. “Will you excuse me please? I believe I’ll go back inside now.”

She didn’t wait to gain his permission but turned and hurried down the hill. She suddenly stopped and turned back to the soldier. “I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t mention this conversation to my husband. He doesn’t need to be concerned about such unimportant matters as foolish games some women play.”

“I will not mention it,” Keith agreed. He was a little relieved she didn’t want him to repeat the conversation to his laird, for he knew there would be hell to pay if the MacBain found out about the insult. The fact that the cruel behavior came from the Maclaurin women infuriated the soldier. As their leader, he felt the heavy burden of conflicting duties. He had pledged his loyalty to the MacBain, of course, and would give his life to keep his laird safe. That pledge spilled over to his wife. He would do whatever was demanded of him to protect Lady Johanna from harm.

Yet, he was also leader over his own clan members and, as such, felt that the Maclaurin problems should be solved by Maclaurins, not the MacBains. Telling his laird about the women’s cruelty toward Lady Johanna made him feel traitorous. Keith knew it was Glynis and her cohorts causing all the mischief. He decided to take the time to have a firm talk with the women. He would order them to show their mistress the respect her position dictated.

Johanna went up to her bedroom and stayed there the rest of the afternoon. She alternated between anger and self-pity. She was certainly suffering from hurt feelings because of the women’s cruelty, but that wasn’t the true reason she wept. Nay, what really bothered Johanna was the possibility they were right. Was she really a coward?

She didn’t have any answers. She wanted to hide in her chamber, but she forced herself to go down to dinner. Gabriel would be home from his hunt, and Keith would be there as well, and she didn’t want either one of them to guess she was having any difficulties.

The hall was crowded with soldiers. Most were already seated at the two long tables adjacent to each other on the right side of the room. The scent of new wood and fresh pine-scented rushes on the floor mingled with the hearty aromas of the food being carried into the hall on giant trenchers made from two-day-old black bread.

No one stood when she entered the hall. That oversight bothered her. She didn’t believe the men were being deliberately rude, however. Several waved when they spotted her. The soldiers simply didn’t realize they were supposed to stand when a lady walked into the room.

She wondered what would make these two groups of proud, good men really feel like one clan. They worked so hard to keep separate. When one of the Maclaurin soldiers told a jest, only the other Maclaurin soldiers laughed. None of the MacBains even smiled.

They sat at separate tables, too. Gabriel was seated at the head of one table, and every other stool, except for the one on his right reserved for her, was taken up with a MacBain soldier. The Maclaurins all sat together at the other table.

Tonight, Gabriel barely acknowledged her. He held a parchment scroll in his hands and was frowning while he read the message it contained.

Johanna didn’t interrupt her husband. His men weren’t as thoughtful.

“What does the Gillevrey want?” Calum asked his laird.

“M’lady, he’s laird of the clan south of us,” Keith explained in a shout from the other table. “The message came from him,” he added. He turned his attention to his laird then. “What does the old man want?”

Gabriel finished reading the message and then rolled the scroll back. “The message is for Johanna.”

Her eyes widened in surprise. “For me?” she asked as she reached for the scroll.

“You can read?” Gabriel asked.

“I can,” she answered. “I insisted upon learning.”

“Why?” her husband asked.

She shrugged. “Because it was forbidden,” she whispered. She didn’t tell him that Raulf had taunted her over and over again, saying she was too ignorant to learn anything of value and that she had felt compelled to prove him wrong. It had been a silent defiance on her part, for Raulf never knew she had conquered the difficult task of reading and writing. Her teacher had been too frightened of Raulf to tell him.

Gabriel wouldn’t let Johanna have the scroll. His frown was fierce when he asked, “Do you know a baron by the name of Randolph Goode?”

Her hand froze in midair. In the space of a heartbeat, the color left her face. She felt faint and took a quick breath to try to calm herself.

“Johanna?” he prodded when she didn’t immediately answer him.

“I know him.”

“The message comes from Goode,” Gabriel said. “Gillevrey won’t let him cross his border unless I give permission for him to come here. Who is this man and what does he want?”

Johanna could barely hide her agitation. She wanted more than anything to get up and run but refused to give in to the cowardly urge.

“I don’t wish to speak to him.”

Gabriel leaned back in his chair. He could see her fear and feel her panic. Her reaction to the news didn’t sit well with him. Didn’t she realize she was safe? Damn it all, he wasn’t about to let anything happen to her.

He let out a sigh. She obviously didn’t know, he realized. In time she would learn that he and his men would protect her from harm. She’d learn to trust him, too, and then messages from England wouldn’t make her fearful at all.

Gabriel knew he was being arrogant. He didn’t care. Right now he wanted most of all to soothe his wife. He didn’t like seeing her frightened. He had one other motive as well. He wanted to get to the truth.

“Has this baron offended you in some way?”


“Who is he, Johanna?”

“I won’t speak to him,” she said again. Her voice shook with emotion.

“I want to know . . .”

He stopped his question when she shook her head at him. He reached over and captured her chin with his hand to force her to stop denying him.

“Listen to me,” he commanded. “You don’t have to see him or speak to him.”

He gave her his promise in a low, fervent voice.

She looked wary now, and uncertain. “Do you mean it? You won’t let him come here?”

“I mean it.”

She visibly relaxed. “Thank you.”

Gabriel let go of her and leaned back in his chair again. “Now answer my question,” he ordered again. “Who in thunder is Baron Goode?”

Every soldier in the hall was silent now, watching and listening. It was obvious to all of them their mistress was frightened. They were curious to find out why.

“Baron Goode is a powerful man in England,” she whispered. “Some say he’s as powerful as King John.”

Gabriel waited for her to continue. Long minutes passed before he realized she wasn’t going to tell him more.

“Is he a favored baron with the king?” he asked.

“No,” Johanna answered. “He hates John. There are many other barons who share Goode’s opinion of their overlord. They’ve joined together, and some say Goode is their leader.”

“You speak of insurrection, Johanna.”

She shook her head and turned her gaze to her lap. “It’s a quiet rebellion, m’lord. England is in turmoil now, and there are many barons who believe Arthur should have been named king. He was John’s nephew. His father, Geoffrey, was John’s older brother. He died a few months before the birth of his son.”

Calum had tried to follow the explanation. He frowned in confusion now. “M’lady, do you mean to tell us that when King Richard died, Geoffrey should have become king?”

“Geoffrey was older than John,” she replied. “He was next in line, for Richard didn’t have sons, you see. But Geoffrey had already died. Some believe his son should have been the rightful heir. They even rallied behind Arthur and his cause.”

“So the barons fight over the question of the crown?”

Gabriel made the statement. Johanna nodded. “The barons prod their king whenever they’re given the opportunity. John’s made many enemies over the last several years. Nicholas believes one day there will be a full rebellion. Goode and the others are looking for a sound reason to rid the land of John now. They don’t want to wait. John has proven to be a terrible king,” she added in a whisper. “He has no conscience, not even toward the members of his own family. Do you know he turned against his own father and joined with France’s king during the trouble? Henry died of a broken heart, for he had always believed that of all his children, John was most loyal to him.”

“How did you learn all this?” Calum asked.

“From my brother, Nicholas.”

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