“Good God, Megan, what have you done to your lady’s tapestry?” Keith demanded when he finally figured out what she was holding in her hands. He scowled at the Maclaurin woman and shook his head.

Johanna didn’t take her attention away from the hound when she called out to Keith. “Sir, you do honestly believe Megan ate the thing?”


Calum started laughing. Johanna lost her footing and went flying backward. Gabriel caught her. He lifted her out of his way and turned to his pet. Johanna ran around her husband to stand in front of the hound.

“Gabriel, don’t you dare strike your dog.”

She shouted her command so she’d be heard over Calum’s laughter. Gabriel looked like he wanted to shout at her.

“I have no intention of striking him. Get out of my way, woman, and quit wringing your hands. I’m not going to hurt him. Dumfries, quit that damned howling.”

Johanna didn’t move. Gabriel lifted her out of his way, then knelt down on one knee and forced the dog’s mouth open so he could pull the strap free. Dumfries didn’t want to let go. He yelped in protest before he gave in.

Gabriel wouldn’t let her comfort the dog. He stood up, grabbed her by the shoulders, and demanded she kiss him good-bye.

“In front of your men?” she whispered.

He nodded. She started to blush. His mouth captured hers in a long, lingering kiss. She sighed then. She was a bit rattled when he pulled away.

“You look tired, wife. You should rest.”

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Gabriel made the remark on his way to the doors. She chased after him.

“You cannot be serious, m’lord.”

“I’m always serious, m’lady.”

“But I only just got out of bed. Surely you don’t expect me to take a nap now.”

“I do expect you to rest,” he called over his shoulder. “And change your plaid, Johanna. You’re wearing the wrong one.”

“It’s Friday, m’lady.” Calum added the reminder.

She let out a loud, unladylike sigh. Megan waited until the men had left, then hurried over to her mistress. “Do go inside and sit down, Lady Johanna. You don’t want to overdo.”

Johanna felt like screaming. She resisted the urge. “For the love of . . . Megan, do I look ill to you?”

The Maclaurin woman studied her closely before shaking her head. “ ’Tis the truth you look fit to me.”

“Are you going to sit down and rest?” Johanna asked.

“I’ve got work to do,” Megan answered. “I don’t have time to sit.”

“Neither do I,” Johanna muttered. “It’s high time I took an interest in the running of this household. I’ve been entirely too self-consumed. All that’s going to change, however. Starting now.”

Megan had never seen her mistress sound so commanding. “But, m’lady, your husband has ordered you to rest.”

Johanna shook her head. She rattled off the list of chores she wanted to complete by nightfall, gave Megan permission to enlist the help of two more servants, and then announced she was going to speak to Cook about dinner.

“Please fetch my bow and arrows from my chamber,” Johanna requested. She started toward the back of the keep. “If Cook’s in an accommodating mood, we’ll have rabbit stew for dinner. I’m certain I can cajole Auggie into doing a spot of hunting with me. I’ll be back before the nooning hour, Megan.”

“You can’t go hunting, m’lady. Your husband forbade you to leave.”

“No, he didn’t,” Johanna countered. “He merely suggested I rest. He never once mentioned hunting, now did he?”

“But he meant . . .”

“Don’t try to second-guess your laird. And quit your worrying. I promise I’ll be back before I’m missed.”

Megan shook her head. “You won’t get ten paces outside before you’re spotted by Keith . . . or is it Calum responsible for looking out for you today?”

“I’m praying each believes the other has that duty.”

She hurried out the back door, turned left, and crossed the courtyard to the building housing the kitchen. She introduced herself to Cook and added an apology for taking so long to make her acquaintance. Cook’s name was Hilda. She was an older woman with streaks of gray in her red hair. She wore the MacBain plaid. She seemed appreciative of Johanna’s interest in her duties and took her on a tour of the pantry.

“If I’m lucky on my hunt and snare some rabbits, would you be willing to prepare them for our dinner tonight?”

Hilda nodded. “I make a fine rabbit stew,” Hilda boasted. “But I’ll need at least ten, unless they’re plump. Then nine will do.”

“Wish me good hunting then,” Johanna called out. She hurried back to the great hall, took her bow and arrows from Megan, and then left by the back door again.

She took the long way around to the stables. Sean didn’t want to saddle her horse for her. She coaxed him into the duty with a smile and a promise not to leave the meadow. She implied she had Gabriel’s permission. It wasn’t an outright lie, just a little fabrication, but she still felt guilty.

She had another mare made ready for Auggie. It was presumptuous on her part to assume he would agree to ride with her, she supposed, but she didn’t want to waste any time. If Auggie did go with her, she didn’t want to have to go back to the stables. Keith or Calum would surely try to stop her then.

Auggie was lining up his shot in the center of the meadow when Johanna interrupted him.

“I’m not in the mood to go hunting for rabbits.” he announced.

“I was hoping you’d be more agreeable.” Johanna countered. “And while we were looking for our rabbits, I thought you might be inclined to show me exactly where the cave is hidden. I couldn’t find it yesterday.”

Auggie shook his head. “I’ll ride as far as the ridge with you, girl, and point the direction once again, but that’s as much time as I’m willing to take away from my game.”

Auggie climbed up on the horse, took the reins from Johanna, and led the way.

“I’d like your permission to tell my husband about the barrels of liquid gold,” she said.

“It weren’t a secret I was keeping, lass.”

“Would you be willing to share the brew with your laird? He could use it to barter for supplies.”

“The drink belongs to my laird. I owe my life to MacBain, but you wouldn’t be knowing about that. Most of the MacBains pledged their loyalty for good reason. He gave them their pride back. I won’t be denying him anything, least of all Highland brew. Why, I’d even quit my game if he asked me to,” he added with a dramatic nod.

Auggie stopped at the top of the ridge and pointed to the line of trees angling down the north side. He told Johanna to start counting the trees, starting at the base of the hill with the crooked pine and working her way back up. She reached the number twelve when he stopped her.

“That’s the break you’re looking for, between those trees,” he instructed. “You were taking the wider path higher up when you went looking, weren’t you, lass?”

“I was,” she replied. “Will you please reconsider and come along with me?”

Auggie declined her invitation a second time. “Let the younger soldiers trail you, Johanna. And don’t be telling the Maclaurins about the liquid gold. Let our laird decide what he wants to do with the treasure.”

“But the Maclaurins are part of our clan now, Auggie,” she argued.

The old MacBain warrior snorted. “They keep their noses up in the air around us,” he said. “Think they’re so high and mighty, they do. None of them were cast out, you see.”

“I don’t see,” Johanna countered. “I was told they begged my husband to give them aid against the English and . . .”

“That’s true,” Auggie interrupted. “His father was the Laird Maclaurin. ’Course he never acknowledged his bastard son, not even when death was waiting on his last breath. The Maclaurins have conveniently forgotten MacBain’s a bastard. They know he’s got Maclaurin blood in him, I suppose. Still, they don’t have any use for the rest of us.”

Johanna shook her head. “I’ll wager the MacBain soldiers fought by their leader’s side during the battle to save the Maclaurins.”

“You’d win a fair amount then, for it’s true, we did fight with our laird.”

“Have the Maclaurins forgotten that fact?”

She was getting riled over the Maclaurins’ attitude and trying not to let it show. Auggie smiled. “You’re outraged for the MacBains, aren’t you, girl? You’re making yourself one of us.”

The sparkle in Auggie’s handsome eyes made her smile. His praise and his opinion of her were both important. In the short time she’d known him, she’d come to value his friendship . . . and his guidance. Auggie took the time to listen to her. ’Twas the truth no one else did. He never told her to rest either, she thought to herself.

“Now what has you scowling?”

She shook her head. “I was just considering my circumstances,” she remarked.

“Again? You’ll give yourself a pounding headache thinking about your circumstances all the time. Good hunting, Johanna,” he added with a nod. He turned his mount and headed back to his meadow.

Johanna rode in the opposite direction. She’d almost reached the path Auggie had shown her when a whitehaired rabbit came racing into the clearing. She tucked the reins under her left knee, reached for an arrow, secured it in her bow and took aim. The rabbit went down just as another came loping across her path.

Something must have spooked the animals into leaving their hiding places, for in less than twenty minutes, she’d collected eight plump ones and one rather scrawny one. She stopped at the stream, washed her arrows, and put them back in her pouch. The rabbits were tied by a string to the back of her saddle.

Three Maclaurin soldiers caught up with her just as she was heading back for home. They were young warriors and probably still in training, she supposed, because none of them had any scars on his face or arms. Two of the men had blond hair. The third soldier was dark haired with clear green eyes.

“Our laird will be unhappy to know you’re riding alone, m’lady,” said one of the fair-haired soldiers. Johanna pretended she hadn’t heard him. She untied the string from her saddle and handed the rabbits to the soldier.

“Will you please take these back to Cook? She’ll be waiting for them.”

“Certainly, m’lady.”

“What is your name, sir?”

“Niall,” the soldier answered. He motioned to the other blond young man and said, “He’s called Lindsay. Michael’s behind me.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet all of you,” Johanna announced. “Do excuse me now. I’m intent on following this trail.”

“Why?” Michael asked.

“I’m looking for something,” Johanna said, deliberately giving the soldier only a half answer. “I won’t be gone long. ”

“Does our laird know what you’re about?” Michael asked her the question.

“I don’t remember if I mentioned my plan or not,” she blatantly lied.

Niall turned to his companions. “Stay with our mistress while I take her bounty back to the keep.”

Johanna was happy for their escort. She turned her attention back to her task and led the way through the forest. The trail narrowed and then became broken bits with bushes barring her way. Sunlight filtered through the limbs of branches arched above her like a lush canopy. The young soldiers smiled over her whispered praise of the beauty surrounding her.

“We aren’t in church, m’lady,” Michael shouted. “There isn’t any need to lower your voice.”

“Exactly what is it you’re looking for?” Lindsay asked.

“A cave” Johanna answered.

The path split into two directions. Johanna turned her mount to the left, then ordered the soldiers to take the other direction. Neither soldier would leave her side, however.

“Then please mark this spot so that when we backtrack, we’ll remember which direction we haven’t taken yet.”

She untied the ribbon holding her braid together and handed it to Michael. The soldier was in the process of securing the blue strip to one of the low-hanging branches when Johanna’s mare started misbehaving. Rachel’s ears flattened, and she let out a loud snort as she pranced to the side of the path. Johanna tightened her hold on her reins and ordered the mare to behave.

“Something’s frightening her,” she remarked. She glanced back over her shoulder to see what might have startled her mare. Then Michael’s horse caught Rachel’s frenzy and reared up.

“We’d best get back to the clearing,” Lindsay suggested. He was diligently struggling to keep his own horse under control.

Johanna was in agreement with the suggestion. She nudged Rachael with her knees and tried to get the mare to turn.

Rachael suddenly bolted. Johanna only had enough time to duck her head when her horse broke through the bushes. The mare wouldn’t be calmed. Johanna had her hands full trying to control the animal and block the branches at the same time.

She couldn’t imagine what had caused the sudden tantrum. One of the soldiers shouted to her. She couldn’t make out the words, however. Rachael veered to the left and continued on, in a full gallop now. She heard another shout, turned to look back over her shoulder but couldn’t see the soldiers. She turned around again and put her hand in front of her face to block yet another branch. She wasn’t able to push the obstacle aside. Johanna was literally plucked from her saddle. She went flying to the side and ended up underneath a leafy bush. The breath was knocked out of her. She let out a low groan and sat up. Part of the bush sprang away from her leg and slapped her in the face. She muttered an unladylike expletive and stood up. She tried to rub the sting out of her backside.

She kept expecting Lindsay and Michael to come to her assistance. Her mare was nowhere in sight. The forest was quiet now, eerily so, and she assumed the soldiers had taken a different turn. They were probably still chasing after her horse. She would have to wait until they caught up with Rachael and realized their mistress was missing. Then they would surely backtrack to look for her.

Johanna collected her bow and arrows and went over to sit on a low boulder to wait for the soldiers. The musty scent of peat and fresh pine needles filled the air. Johanna waited a long while before deciding she was going to have to walk back to the clearing. She wasn’t quite certain of the direction, for her horse had turned several times during her run.

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