“No, I have not heard a word. It has been long enough for them to return to me. It is as though they, like my underling, Malcolm, have vanished into thin air.”
Isla knew Malcolm was afraid of Coswold. She had seen the big, ugly man at Coswold’s side and knew that he would kill if that was what her uncle ordered. Isla had heard that Malcolm had struck Lady Gabrielle with his fist. She was only sorry Malcolm hadn’t disfigured Gabrielle. Isla hadn’t any guilt over the pain her lie had caused.
“When did you last see Malcolm?” she asked, trying to sound concerned.
“We were searching the hills to the west of the abbey. One minute he was riding beside me, and the next time I looked, he was gone.”
“What were you searching for, Uncle?”
“Never you mind. Ah, we have finally arrived. You will be as quiet as a mouse if you are in the presence of King John. It is already going on sunset. I doubt I will have my audience with him until tomorrow.”
Coswold was very much mistaken. The king wanted to speak to the baron the minute he arrived. Coswold was not even allowed time to wash the dust from his hands.
Isla followed her uncle to the main hall, but stood just inside the door. She stood so close to the curtains that, had she wanted to, she could have hidden herself behind them without even being noticed.
The hall was three times the size of Coswold’s hall. It boasted two fireplaces, one on each end. The king sat behind a long table covered by a white cloth that was so long the hem touched the floor.
His Highness wore scarlet robes, identical to the color of the wine he spilled on the white cloth when he slammed the goblet down and stood.
John was not a handsome man. He was of average size with a protruding stomach, but to Isla he appeared a towering giant. She believed him to be as powerful as God, for he could destroy an entire country with one command. John had already proven to the world that he did not fear the pope. In fact, he profited from his own excommunication by confiscating church revenues. It was said that King John could steal the purity from a saint.
The dais John stood on made him appear much taller than Coswold, who bowed and then knelt before him. John had just given the baron permission to stand when the doors opened and Baron Percy strutted in. A woman about Isla’s age followed. Dressed in fine clothing, she wore sparkling jewels around her neck and in her hair. She did not look to be related to Percy, but then Isla didn’t look anything like her uncle. Perhaps the woman was a cousin or even, like Isla, a niece.
The woman was far too arrogant, though. She didn’t hide in the shadows but knelt next to Percy and waited until John motioned both of them to stand.
John spoke to Percy first. “I see you have come to your senses and heeded my command,” he said, nodding at the woman standing next to the baron.
“Lady Beatrice, go and make yourself comfortable in your chambers.” Percy clapped his hands, and two servants immediately appeared to show the lady the way.
Once the elegant woman was out of sight, John discarded his manners. “Do you know the trouble you have caused me?”
“I did what you would have wanted me to do,” Percy said.
“Give me your accounting now,” the king commanded, “and I will decide if what you did was right or wrong.”
Percy quickly recounted what had happened at the abbey. “No one was more surprised than I to learn that Lady Gabrielle had acted as a common whore. I knew that you would want to punish her, and I wanted to bring her to you so that you could decide her fate.”
“Now it is your turn, Coswold.”
The baron explained what had happened after Monroe’s murder was discovered, and when he was finished reciting his version of the events, he said, “I did not think you would want to waste your time with a whore. I knew what must be done.”
“And what was that, pray tell?”
“I banished her. In your name, I took everything away from her. She no longer has a king or a country or a family to call her own. She has been cast out into the wilds. I believe her punishment to be worse than a quick execution. Wouldn’t you agree, my lord?”
John rubbed his chin. “I do agree,” he said at last. “I find it difficult to believe that Baron Geoffrey’s beautiful daughter would ruin herself. I will lay siege to Wellingshire and kill her father, for he did not do his duty and protect her innocence. She has no value to me now.”
He picked up his goblet and took a long swallow. Wine dripped into his beard, and he used the back of his arm to wipe his chin.
“Perhaps you, too, Coswold, are now over your infatuation with Gabrielle? Percy has moved on, and I suggest you do the same.”
Coswold turned to Percy. “What do you have to smirk about?”
“I am to marry Lady Beatrice in two months’ time. She brings a handsome dowry to our wedding. Most handsome.”
Isla covered her mouth to stop herself from screaming. No, it couldn’t be true. Percy was to marry her. He had promised.
When Coswold left the hall with King John, Isla didn’t follow. Frozen in the shadows, she stared at Percy, who had remained behind.
Percy had seen Isla cowering by the window and decided to get his talk with her over and done with now. He needed to make certain she wouldn’t cause him any problems. And if he must threaten her, he would. He walked to the dais, reached up, and poured himself a goblet of the king’s wine. He didn’t bother to turn around when he said, “Isla, come out of the shadows so that we may talk.”
Her legs were stiff as sticks as she crossed the hall. “Who is Lady Beatrice?” she demanded.
“She is my future wife. You heard the conversation. I will be married to her soon.”
“But you don’t love her. You love me. You said you did, and you promised to marry me.”
“Lower your voice,” he snapped. He could see she was losing control. “Do you want King John to hear you? You could be locked away in prison for the rest of your miserable days because of what you have done.”
“What I have done?” she screamed.
He slapped her across the face. “I told you to be quiet! And you know good and well what you did. You destroyed Lady Gabrielle’s life with your lies. You were her accuser.”
Isla covered her cheek with her hand, though she was numb to the pain. “You told me what to say, and you promised that if I did exactly what you instructed me to do, you would then marry me.”
“I would never marry you. You repulse me, Isla. You are Coswold’s niece.”
She began to sob. “But you promised…”
She grabbed his sleeve, but he pushed her back. “Get away from me.”
“I lied for you.”
“Yes, you did,” he admitted. “But no one will ever know the truth now, will they?”
“Why? Why did you have me do it? Why did you want to destroy Lady Gabrielle?”
“I knew I couldn’t have her, and I wanted to make sure Coswold couldn’t have her, either. Then do you know what I planned to do? I was going to find her and take her to my home. I’d use her every night. Picture it, Isla. I would touch her, caress her, worship her…”
She tried to hit him, but he laughed as he fended off her attack.
“What a pathetic creature you are…and so gullible. I knew Coswold would come up with a surprise, and he didn’t disappoint me. He arrived with a brand-new writ signed by the king. But I was prepared. I had you. Aye, you were my little surprise if all else failed. And you came forth at my signal just as I had instructed you. If I couldn’t have Gabrielle in marriage, I would get her another way.”
“I will tell everyone what you did,” she threatened. Her devastation had turned to rage.
“Don’t you mean what you did? If you tell anyone you destroyed Lady Gabrielle with your lies, you will be condemned.
“I told you that I might need you to lie so that I could get Finney’s Flat and barter it away for gold, and you and I could live a rich, happy life together. How stupid you are. Did you not think that King John would take the land back? Ah, I can see from your eyes that you had not thought it. But then I didn’t expect you would. You were fool enough to think I could love you. Why not believe everything else I told you?”
“If you want Gabrielle so much, why are you marrying this Beatrice woman?” Isla sobbed.
“She has wealth,” Percy admitted. “She will be very useful to me. And someday I’ll resume my search for Gabrielle. I don’t give up easily. Your uncle should know that.”
“I will tell King John that you made me lie.”
He snorted. “He won’t believe you.”
“Are you so certain I won’t believe her, Percy?”
The baron dropped his goblet, so shocked was he to see His Highness standing in the doorway. “You misunderstand our conversation,” Percy stammered. “What did you hear, and I will explain—”
“Silence!” the king shouted.
He motioned to two guards. “Make certain Baron Percy stays quiet while I speak to this woman.”
Isla was terrified, but her fury at Percy overrode her desire to save herself. Her head was bowed, but out of the corner of her eye she watched the king as he climbed three steps and sat in his royal chair.
“Get to your knees in front of me and tell me about this lie,” he ordered her.
She threw herself to the floor and confessed everything, begging for mercy at the end. John was seething. He called Coswold back into the hall and made Isla repeat her story. Isla couldn’t look at her uncle, so great was her shame and her fear.
“Get her out of my sight,” the king ordered, and as his soldiers were storming toward her, Isla cried out, “Have mercy, please. What is to become of me? Where will I go?”
John motioned to the guards to wait. He eyed Isla coldly. “Did you ever worry what would happen to Lady Gabrielle? Did you wonder where she would go?”
Isla pointed to Percy. “He made me lie.”
She was dragged out of the hall, screaming and crying. When the door closed behind her, John considered his barons.
Neither Coswold nor Percy said a word. They waited to hear what their king would decide. Coswold worried the king would blame him for Isla’s conduct, and Percy worried his lands would be confiscated.
“Surely both of you are aware of the trouble I face these days. The nobles have been released from their oaths to me because of my excommunication. There is unrest and talk of conspiracy. I must be on guard day and night. Now one of my most powerful barons, Geoffrey of Wellingshire, will plot against me because of you, Coswold, in my name banished his daughter. At this moment Geoffrey surely is gathering his forces.”
“Kill him and be done with the worry,” Percy suggested.
“You fool. Geoffrey has many influential friends who will be as outraged as he is. They will join him in fighting me. Would you have me kill them all? And will you and Coswold pay their tax to me?”
“You know we cannot,” Percy said.
“I have enemies who aid Phillip of France. He would have my crown. I don’t need more problems. Where is Lady Gabrielle now? Is she still alive?”
“I believe she is living with a clan high up north. They are a primitive group.”
“Do you know if any man has claimed her for his own?”
“No, but what would it matter? You could force her to come back to England,” Coswold said.
John shook his head. “You have taken my power over her away, you fool. When you announced that she has no country, you also announced that she does not answer to me.”
“But you could still force her—”
John considered the problem for several minutes before coming to a decision. “I must first make peace with Baron Geoffrey before he gathers allies against me. I will send word to him that I have found out the truth about his innocent daughter. Gabrielle will be given Finney’s Flat. If she isn’t married, I will find a suitable husband for her.”
“And if she is?” Coswold asked.
“Then Finney’s Flat will be my wedding gift to her.”
“Laird MacKenna would take her for his wife now that she has been proven innocent,” Coswold said.
The king stood. “I believe you did not have a part in this treachery of lies, Coswold. You will continue to be my humble servant. As for Percy, I think you should have time to consider your transgressions. He motioned to his guards. “Take him away.”
As Percy was being escorted out of the hall, Coswold stepped in front of him. Percy glowered at his enemy.
“This isn’t over,” he hissed.
Coswold smirked. “I think it is.” In a whisper, he added, “And I win.”
C OLM WAS HEADING OUTSIDE TO GIVE ORDERS TO HIS men as Gabrielle was coming down the stairs.
“Good morning,” she called out. “It’s going to be a fine day today, isn’t it?”
He stopped and waited for her to reach him. She was a bonny sight to be sure. Her gown was a royal blue, and though he would have preferred her to wear his colors, she still looked beautiful. Had they already been married, he knew exactly what he would do at this very moment. He would pick her up, carry her back to his bed, and take his time removing her clothes.
There was no way he was going to make it five more months without bedding her, and he decided that as soon as he returned home, he would order the priest to bless their union. When Colm first took her in, Brodick had suggested that Colm delay the marriage, warning that if Gabrielle got pregnant immediately after the wedding, some might believe the babe was from another man. Colm had another solution. He would know the babe was his and kill any man who suggested otherwise.
He thought about telling her now that he would marry her as soon as he returned, then changed his mind. He’d explain while the priest prepared for the ceremony.
“Liam is in charge while I am away, and if you have any problems, go to him. He will know what to do,” he told her.
“May I ask where you are going?” Gabrielle said.
The question puzzled him. He had already made his intentions clear to her. Had she forgotten so soon?
“To war, Gabrielle.”
She nearly fell over. “Now? You’re going to war now?”
“Why do you act so surprised? I told you what I was going to do.”
She grabbed his arm and held tight so that he wouldn’t get away from her until he had properly explained. “You said you were going to kill MacKenna.”
“Ah, so you do remember. Now let go of me so that I may—”