“It’s cold,” he told Tom when he could get his breath.
“Lady Gabrielle, could I try—” Tom began.
She knew where he was heading. “No, you may not try the water. Both of you, come with me.”
Lily wrapped her shawl around Ethan. “You’ll be sneezing tonight,” she predicted.
Gabrielle’s teeth chattered. “Snow isn’t as cold as that water,” she said.
Lily nodded. “The boys’ aunt lives just two cottages away from mine. I will see them home. You should go change your clothes before you start sneezing.”
Fortunately, neither Colm nor Liam were inside the castle, and she was able to get to her room without being noticed. Unfortunately, little Ethan and Tom told everyone they saw about Lady MacHugh jumping into the water. By the time Gabrielle had changed her clothes and warmed herself by the fire, the entire clan knew she’d gone swimming in the lake.
Willa and Maurna pounded on her door. “Are you wanting more blankets, milady?”
“I’m fine,” she assured them. “But I do want directions to the twins’ home. I would like to talk to their aunt.”
Willa showed her the way. When the door was answered, Gabrielle understood why the boys were allowed to run wild. The aunt was quite elderly and looked in need of a yearlong nap.
Gabrielle was invited inside. Ethan was looking no worse for wear. Both he and Tom sat at the table eating what appeared to be the same vile paste Willa was always trying to get Gabrielle to eat. The boys seemed to like it, though.
“They’ll be staying inside until tomorrow,” the aunt promised. “Ethan, remember your manners. Thank Lady MacHugh for saving you from death. Apologize to her for her trouble.”
The apology was given and accepted. The aunt ushered Gabrielle outside and closed the door so the boys wouldn’t hear.
“I’m sorry, milady. Ethan and Tom are good boys. I’ve had them since their parents died. It hasn’t been easy. I’ve tried my best, and everyone in the clan has helped out, but they need more than I can give them.”
Gabrielle took the old woman’s hand in hers. “I’ll speak to the laird,” she promised. “I’m sure he’ll think of something.”
On her return to the castle, Gabrielle felt pangs of guilt. After her complaints to Colm about taking on too much responsibility and never delegating, here she was giving him yet another problem to solve.
She was waiting at the table when Colm and Liam walked into the great hall. From Colm’s frown and Liam’s grin, she assumed they had already heard about the incident at the lake.
“Did you enjoy your swim?” Liam asked.
She wasn’t in the mood for merriment. Glaring at Colm, she said, “Did you forget to ban them from the lake?”
“I thought I had,” he said. “Are you all right?”
His concern calmed her down. “That boy nearly drowned. Something has to be done.” She went to him and kissed his cheek. “You will take them in hand? They will not live to be six if you don’t.”
Willa carried supper to the table. Gabrielle had already eaten, but she sat by Colm while he and Liam ate.
“Do you know that after I fished Ethan out, Tom wanted to take a turn?”
Liam choked on the drink of water he had just taken. Gabrielle waited until he stopped coughing and then asked him how old he thought the aunt was.
“I don’t mean to be unkind, but she looked to be at least eighty,” she said.
“Actually, she’s about your age,” Liam said. “That’s what three years with those boys will do.”
She scowled at him. “That’s not amusing.”
Gabrielle turned back to Colm. “She loves those boys, but they’re too much for her. They have too many people telling them what to do, and so they don’t listen to anyone.”
Colm nodded. “I’ll talk to the woman.”
Gabrielle was content knowing he would do what was necessary.
Two days later Gabrielle walked into the great hall carrying a basket of herbs and saw Ethan and Tom running up the stairs. Maurna, standing on the bottom step, watched with apprehension.
“Where are they going?” Gabrielle asked.
“To your chamber,” Maurna answered.
Somewhat alarmed, Gabrielle was cautious to ask, “And why is that?”
“All of your things have been moved to the laird’s chamber. The boys will be living here.”
Maurna turned toward Gabrielle with a smile that showed she was resigned but also a little frantic.
“What about their aunt?” Gabrielle said.
“She will stay in her cottage. She is quite happy about this and said it is best for the boys. They will see her often.”
Gabrielle was about to ask how the boys felt about their new living arrangements, but she heard squeals of laughter from upstairs. She had her answer.
I T WAS A GLORIOUS DAY. COLM HAD SURPRISED GABRIELLE AND taken her riding. They made their way to the spot overlooking the beautiful glen and slowed their horses to an easy walk.
Colm had never before left his duties to spend idle time with her, and Gabrielle was deeply suspicious of his motives.
“I have no other motive, Gabrielle,” he told her. “I knew you wanted to ride Rogue, and so I decided to accommodate you.”
“Faust would usually ride with me…” Her eyes widened in surprise. “You are being thoughtful!”
“Do you want to spend our time talking about why we are riding together, or would you prefer to actually ride?”
It was lovely having her husband all to herself, but the time slipped away too quickly.
He talked to her about Ethan and Tom. “They will be given chores that they can handle, and they may play when the chores are completed.”
“Who will give them these chores and see that they are completed?”
He nudged his horse close so that he was beside her. Reaching over, he pulled her to him. “The mistress of my home.”
He kissed her before she could argue. When he lifted his head, he said, “You did suggest that I delegate.”
“It’s time that we get back,” he said.
He’d sounded reluctant, she thought, and that pleased her. Perhaps he liked spending time alone with her as much as she did with him.
They were nearing the drawbridge when a soldier intercepted them.
“Laird, there is a messenger who says he comes from your wife’s father.”
“My father?” Gabrielle cried out.
Colm reached over and grabbed her reins so that she couldn’t go racing off without him.
“Where is this messenger?”
“At the base of our mountain. The guards know not to let him come farther without first gaining your permission.”
“Have him stay there. I will go to him to hear this message.”
“Aye, Laird,” he replied.
“Gabrielle, you will wait inside.”
“I would prefer to go with you, husband.”
“You will go inside.”
She was through being diplomatic. “Perhaps I should explain a different way. I’m going with you. Before you deny me again, I will mention that I know my father’s servants, and I could tell you if this messenger is from Wellingshire or not. Besides,” she rushed on before he could interrupt, “I will still be on your land. You’ve let me ride to the overlook with my guards many times.”
It was a sound argument, and he decided to change his mind.
She stayed behind him and slowed when she reached the sharp turn in the trail just above the dividing line between Finney’s Flat and the mountain.
“Colm, what if he brings bad news?”
“Then we will hear it together.”
She didn’t have time to fret over that possibility, for once she had rounded the tight bend in the trail, she could see the messenger.
“It’s Nigel!” she exclaimed. “He is one of my father’s most loyal servants, and I have known him for years.”
Gabrielle nudged Rogue to go faster as she called out a greeting to her father’s steward. Nigel didn’t wait for her to dismount, immediately handing her the scroll in his hands. She knew the missive to be genuine because it bore her father’s seal. She was so excited she could barely contain herself as she read it.
“My father comes to see me…see us,” she corrected, “and will be here by the end of the week. This is wonderful news, and I thank you, Nigel, for bringing it to me.”
She looked up at Colm. “He will wish to refresh himself. May I offer him your hospitality?”
“You may.” He motioned to one of his guards. “Take him to the kitchens.”
As soon as Nigel was out of sight, she opened the message and read it to Colm.
“Daughter, I shall arrive at your new home by week’s end to see for myself that you are safe and well cared for. I have been told that you are married and that you are content. I shall judge for myself once I have met your husband and looked into your eyes.
“When I was told what you had endured at the abbey, I was enraged. I frantically searched for you. Word came from Laird Buchanan that you were safe and protected. My relief was great, Daughter, but my rage remained. I called up my vassals to prepare for war. Other barons joined me. The king has tried to make right the wrong Coswold and Percy have done, but I will not rest until both have paid for their sins.”
There were tears of joy in Gabrielle’s eyes when she looked at Colm. “My father is coming. This is happy news.”
Colm lifted her onto Rogue’s back. “If it makes you smile like that, then yes, it is happy news.”
He handed her the reins and swung onto his mount.
“Oh, wait,” Gabrielle said, unrolling the scroll again. “There’s more to read.” She studied the paper.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I will see you soon,” she read. “And please take my daughter to visit her dearest cousin at the Buchanans with all possible haste.”
She didn’t turn back to see his reaction as she rode away from him.
Colm followed, his laugh echoing across the valley.
ON MONDAY Braeden rode with Gabrielle to the bottom of the mountain to see if her father had started across Finney’s Flat.
“Didn’t the messenger give you the news just yesterday?” he asked.
“Yes, he did, Braeden.”
“And didn’t your father say he would be here at the end of the week?”
“Yes, he did, but my father often misjudges the time it takes to travel. He could be riding very fast,” she explained.
Braeden could see her excitement. He didn’t want to disillusion her with practicality, and so he said nothing more about the matter as they made the trip down the mountain.
Tuesday morning Colm left to attend a meeting. Laird Ramsey Sinclair had called on all the lairds to gather at his holding to discuss the recent events in the Highlands. There had been much unrest among the clans since the murder of Laird Monroe and the hostility provoked by Laird MacKenna. The Monroes were now undergoing a power struggle between two of the laird’s nephews, and the MacKennas were left with no leader at all. Before things got out of hand, the lairds would meet at this summit and decide on a common course of action.
Colm could not say how long he would be away, but he assured Gabrielle that he would return in plenty of time to meet her father.
“Why must I always have an escort to look at the flats?” she asked. “I’m staying on our land. I’m perfectly safe.”
“You’ll be perfectly safe with an escort.”
Tuesday afternoon she nagged Michael into riding with her. She came back two hours later.
Wednesday she coerced James. She returned in one hour.
Thursday Philip escorted her. It was raining, and she didn’t get back for three hours.
Friday Michael rode with her again.
She didn’t come back at all.
GABRIELLE HAD VANISHED. It happened at the sharp turn near the base of the mountain. Michael was riding ahead of her, and for no more than fifteen or twenty seconds Gabrielle was alone. But that was all the time they needed.
Michael thought she was right behind him. He could hear Rogue’s hooves clipping over the stones. He knew his mistress had slowed the horse as was her habit just before she reached the turn. On one side was a drop with loose rocks. Rogue could lose his footing if he stepped too close. On the other was a cliff. Thorny scrub trees grew from it at perpendicular angles, like crooked tentacles reaching over the path. The thicket was so dense it muffled sound.
Gabrielle and the guard had been chatting amicably.
“I think the laird is going to widen this trail,” he told her, “so you won’t have to worry about your horse slipping.”
Expecting a reply, he casually glanced over his shoulder. Rogue was still behind him, but Gabrielle was gone. He shouted to her and leaped from his mount. “Lady MacHugh?”
No answer. Thinking she had fallen, he shouted again as he ran back to the turn. “Are you hurt? Lady MacHugh, where are you?”
And still there was no answer. Michael bellowed to the sentry on the far ridge. “Did you see her? Our mistress…”
The soldier couldn’t hear him, but the two sentries patrolling on the hill behind him did hear and sounded the alarm. The shouting spooked Rogue, and the skittish animal turned and bolted up the hill.
Frantic, Michael slid down the drop a ways to see if his mistress had taken a tumble. She wasn’t there. Climbing back up, he then used his sword to hack some of the brush away, clinging to the hope that his mistress had somehow gotten stuck in the thorns and would soon be calling to him for help.
“She’s not here. She’s not here,” he screamed, panic making his voice crack.
Within minutes the area was swarming with MacHugh soldiers, all searching for Gabrielle. Liam and Braeden, expert trackers, each took a section of the trail to look for footprints.
Michael had trampled most of the trail and cut through a great deal of the brush, so there was little evidence of where and how someone had gotten to Gabrielle. Liam walked farther down the slope where the trail leveled. He veered off the beaten path to the left where the ground was more dirt than rock. He walked a good distance. When he looked back, he could no longer see the trail.
“Braeden!” he bellowed.
Braeden, who had been searching the other side of the drop, came running.
“I’d say at least fifteen men,” Liam estimated. He looked down at the soft ground that had been trampled by footprints and horseprints.