“What’s got her so riled, I wonder?”
Johanna didn’t know who asked that question. It came from the MacBain table. She turned her gaze to those men and answered.
“Megan said something the other day that took me by surprise,” she said. “I’ve mulled it over in my mind, and I still don’t understand why she would make such a comment.”
“What did I say?” Megan asked. She hurried over to stand on the opposite side of the Maclaurin table so she could face her mistress.
“You told me Cook would be happy to do anything I asked because she was a MacBain and knew better than to complain. I wondered what you meant, of course, but now I think I understand. You actually believe Hilda should be thankful she’s allowed to live here. Isn’t that right?”
Megan nodded. “ ’Tis the truth she should be thankful.”
The Maclaurin soldiers all nodded in unison.
Johanna shook her head at them. “I believe you’ve all got it backward,” she said. “The Maclaurins don’t have any claim to this keep or this land, and that, gentlemen, is also fact. My husband happens to be a MacBain. Have you forgotten that?”
“His father was laird over the Maclaurins,” Keith interjected.
“He’s still a MacBain,” she pointed out again. “He’s been very accommodating. He’s more patient than I am,” she added with a nod. “Regardless, I believe the MacBains have graciously allowed all of you Maclaurins to stay on. I really hate to bring this prickly topic up now, but I’ve received important news, you see, and I really must get my household in order. It would sadden me to see you leave, but if the rules are too difficult for you to follow, and if you can’t get along with the MacBains, then I don’t believe there’s much choice.”
“But the MacBains are the outsiders,” Lindsay stammered out.
“Aye, they are,” Keith agreed.
“They were,” Johanna said. “They aren’t now. Do you see?”
No one did see. Johanna wondered if they were just being incredibly stubborn or just plain ignorant. She decided to try to make them understand one last time.
Gabriel wouldn’t let her. He pulled her back and took a step forward.
“I’m laird here,” he reminded the soldiers. “I decide who stays and who goes.”
Keith immediately nodded agreement. “Are we allowed to speak freely?”
“You are,” Gabriel replied.
“Every one of us has pledged our loyalty to you,” he began. “But we aren’t particularly loyal to your followers. We’re weary of war and want to rebuild before we go into battle again. Yet one of the MacBains has instigated war with the MacInnes clan and now refuses to come forward and admit his transgression. Such behavior is cowardly.”
Calum jumped to his feet. “You dare call us cowards?”
Dear God, what had she started? Johanna was feeling sick again. She was certainly sorry she’d said anything. Two of the Maclaurins stood up. A fight was brewing all right, and it was all her doing. Gabriel didn’t seem inclined to put a stop to it either. He looked completely unaffected by the threatening atmosphere, almost bored in fact.
A confrontation was finally taking place, and Gabriel was damned happy about it. He would let each warrior vent his anger, then explain what was going to happen. Those who didn’t wish to go along with his decisions could leave.
Unfortunately Johanna looked upset over what was happening. Her face was stark white now, and she was gripping her hands together. Gabriel decided to take the argument outside. He was just about to give that command when his wife stepped forward.
“Calum, Keith didn’t call you a coward,” she cried out. She turned her gaze to the Maclaurin soldier then. “You don’t understand, sir, for you had already left on your errand to speak to Clare MacKay’s father,” she rushed out. “You see, my husband asked each one of his followers if he had . . . involved himself with Clare, and each man denied any knowledge of the woman.”
“But did each man tell the truth?” Keith challenged.
“I’ll ask you a question in answer,” she countered. “If Laird MacInnes blamed a Maclaurin and every one of you gave your laird your denial, would you expect him to believe you?”
Keith was clever enough to know where she was going with the question. He reluctantly nodded.
“My husband and I both have complete faith in his followers. If the men say they didn’t touch Clare MacKay, then they didn’t. I don’t understand you, sir. How can you take the word of a mean-hearted MacInnes over one of your own?”
No one had a quick answer to that question. Johanna shook her head again. She was feeling terribly ill now. Her face felt as though it was on fire, yet her arms were covered with goosebumps. She wanted to lean against her husband, but held back, for she didn’t want him to know she wasn’t feeling well. She didn’t want to upset him. She also didn’t want to spend the next year in bed; and knowing Gabriel’s obsession with rest, she was certain that’s what would happen.
Johanna decided to go up to her chamber and wash her face. Surely cold water would help revive her.
“I would appreciate it if everyone of you would consider what I’ve just explained,” she requested. “I can’t have bickering in my home. If you’ll excuse me now. I’ll go up to my chamber.”
She turned to leave. Then she stopped and turned around again. “When a lady leaves the room, the men stand.”
“Here we go again,” a Maclaurin whispered loud enough for her to hear.
“Well?” she demanded.
The men stood. She smiled, satisfied. Then she turned to leave. The room suddenly started spinning. She didn’t have anything to hold onto until everything settled back where it was supposed to be.
“You did call me a coward, Keith,” Calum muttered.
“If you want to believe I did, then do so, Calum,” Keith replied.
“What was the important news m’lady said she just received?”
“Gabriel?” Johanna’s voice was weak, but he still heard her.
He turned around. “Yes?”
He caught her before she hit the floor. Everyone started shouting at the same time. Father MacKechnie thought he might faint when he saw how ill his mistress looked.
“Clear the table,” he shouted. “We’ll put her there.”
Niall and Lindsay swept their arms across the linen cloth. Trenchers and food went flying. Megan pulled the linen cloth off.
“Someone fetch a healer for God’s sake,” Niall bellowed. “M’lady needs help.”
“She’s our healer,” Calum snapped.
“What made her swoon?”
“I’m thinking we did,” Lindsay decided. “We got her all riled up. It was too much for her.”
Gabriel was the only one who didn’t seem overly concerned about his wife. Her face did look pale to him, but he didn’t think she was really sick.
He’d noticed how upset she became when the men started shouting at each other. She had an aversion to fighting, he knew, and he therefore concluded her faint was just a clever ploy to turn the men’s attention away from their argument.
She’d gone a little overboard, of course, and he’d tell her just that when they were alone.
“It’s all our fault, all right, making her throw bowls to get our attention,” Niall said. “She wants us to have some manners. I can’t figure out why, but I’m thinking we’d best be more cooperative.”
“Aye,” another Maclaurin named Michael agreed. “We can’t have her swooning all the time. Laird MacBain might not be close enough to catch her next time.”
“Move back, men,” Father MacKechnie ordered. “Give the lass some room to breathe.”
“She is breathing, isn’t she?”
“Aye, Calum, she’s breathing,” the priest answered. “Your concern for your mistress is praiseworthy.”
“She’s our mistress today,” Lindsay commented. “She’s wearing our plaid.”
“Today’s Saturday,” Keith interjected. “She’s wearing the wrong plaid.”
“She can’t seem to get it right, can she?” Calum asked.
“Why are you hesitating, MacBain? Put the lass on the table,” Father MacKechnie said. “Men, get out of your laird’s way.”
The men immediately moved back. As soon as Gabriel placed his wife on the table, they all moved forward again. At least twenty faces loomed over her. Everyone was frowning with concern for Johanna.
Gabriel felt like smiling. The soldiers had their differences, of course, but they were united now in their worry about their mistress. Johanna was neither a Maclaurin nor a MacBain by birth. She was English. If the men could give her their loyalty, they could damned well learn to get along with each other.
“Why won’t she open her eyes?” Niall asked.
“She doesn’t appear to be finished with her faint just yet,” the priest replied.
“Are you going to give her the last rites, Father?”
“I don’t believe that’s necessary.”
“Shouldn’t we do something?” Calum asked the question and added a frown in his laird’s direction. It was apparent he expected Gabriel to fix whatever was ailing his wife.
Gabriel shook his head. “She’ll wake up in a minute or two.”
“We shouldn’t have upset her,” Michael said.
“Why did she suddenly get a bee up her . . . arm?” Lindsay quickly substituted the last word for the one he was going to use when he caught the priest’s frown.
“It was our manners that set her off,” Bryan reminded the group.
“But why now, I’m wondering,” Lindsay blurted out. “M’lady didn’t seem to mind what we were doing until tonight.”
“Her mother’s coming for a visitation.”
Their laird gave them the announcement. There was a collective and drawn-out “Ah” over the revelation.
“No wonder she’s wanting us to have some manners,” Michael said with a nod.
“Poor lass,” Keith whispered. “She must be worried we’ll shame her in front of her mother.”
“Makes sense to me,” Calum agreed.
“We’d best get some manners then,” Lindsay suggested. He let out a sigh. “She did kill Pet, after all.”
“And three more,” Keith reminded the soldier. Gabriel was beginning to wonder how long Johanna was going to drag out her swoon when she suddenly opened her eyes.
She almost let out a scream but stopped herself in time, letting out a loud gasp instead. She stared up at all the soldiers staring down at her while she struggled to get over her startle.
It took her a minute or two to realize she was stretched out on top of the dinner table. She couldn’t imagine how she’d gotten there.
“Why am I on the table?”
“It was closer than your bed, m’lady,” Calum answered.
“You swooned,” Keith added in case she’d forgotten.
“Why didn’t you tell us your mother was coming for a visitation?” Niall asked.
Johanna tried to sit up before answering the question. Father MacKechnie put his hand on her shoulder to hold her down. “You’d best stay right where you are, lass. Your husband will be happy to carry you up to bed. Are you feeling better now?”
“Yes, thank you,” she answered. “I really fainted? I’ve never, ever fainted before. I can’t imagine why . . .”
Lindsay decided to give her his explanation before she asked for it. “It was our manners that set you off, m’lady.”
The soldier nodded. “She should stay in bed a week at least,” Keith recommended.
“I can’t go to bed,” Johanna argued.
No one paid any attention to her protest. “I’m saying she should stay in bed two weeks,” Calum announced. “It’s the only way to be certain she’ll regain her strength. She’s puny if you’ll remember,” he advised.
The men nodded. Johanna was outraged. “I’m not puny,” she announced in a near shout. “Father, do let me up. I can’t go to bed. I have to take my turn sitting with Clare MacKay.”
“I’ll be happy to sit with her,” Megan offered. “It doesn’t seem fair letting only MacBain women tend to her. You don’t want the Maclaurin women bickering over the slight, do you now, m’lady?”
“Megan, now isn’t the time to bring up that concern,” Keith muttered.
“The MacBain women were the only ones who offered to help with Clare,” Johanna explained.
“But I’m offering now,” Megan insisted.
“Then I thank you and will certainly appreciate your help.”
Megan smiled. She was obviously satisfied with her mistress’s gratitude.
Johanna put the matter aside and turned her attention to her husband. She’d been deliberately avoiding looking at him, for she knew he’d be frowning and surely getting ready to pounce on her with his I-told-you-you-were-weak reminder. She mentally braced herself and turned her gaze. Gabriel was easy to find in the crowd as he towered over his soldiers. He stood to the left of the table, behind Calum.
Her husband was smiling, which fairly stunned Johanna. She was certain he’d be furious or worried at the very least. She should have been relieved over his obviously cheerful mood, but she wasn’t. She had fainted after all, and Gabriel had proven to be quite a worrier about her well-being in the past. Yet he looked . . . happy now. Did he find her faint amusing?
She gave Gabriel a disgruntled look, and he winked back, which confused her.
“When is your mother coming here?” Keith asked her then.
She didn’t take her gaze off her husband when she gave the Maclaurin soldier her answer. “In two or three months,” she guessed. She smiled up at Father MacKechnie then and gently removed his hand from her shoulder so she could sit up.
Calum tried to lift her into his arms. Keith tried to assist her from the other side of the table. Johanna was suddenly being pulled every which way.
Gabriel finally intervened. He pushed Calum out of his way and took his wife into his arms.
“Rest your head on my shoulder,” he commanded.
She wasn’t quick enough, so he shoved her head there.