Neither stranger betrayed his shock and tried to comfort her with his smile as she walked to them. She wanted to curtsey to show her respect, but when she stopped and tried, her knee wouldn’t bend well enough and she almost fell. Both men quickly reached out their hands to catch her, but it was Kevin she grabbed hold of, and a second later, she regained her balance.
Kevin was impressed with her attempt and smiled. She was going to be a respectful mistress and a wife he could be proud of in front of his friends. “Will you wait for me over there by Clymer?” She nodded and when she turned her back, Kevin saw the distress in the eyes of his friends. “I must know who did this,” he said in Gaelic.
Both men nodded, mounted their horses, and then led their guards out of the courtyard and across the bridge. Once the lairds were gone, Kevin realized there wasn’t much of interest for Anna to see in the courtyard, so they started up the path to the cottages. She was stiff, but the more she walked, the easier she moved. Most of the women planted flowers near their cottages and he’d never actually noticed before, but she did. Again, he didn’t touch her, but before she leaned down to examine a flower, she reached for his hand. That too pleased him. The sooner she got over her fear of him, the better.
Being able to touch him took her breath away, but she hid it well. His hand was so strong and big, it nearly swallowed hers up. She spent more time examining that flower than she had at any other time in her life. Then she finally stood back up and let go.
He watched her, held her hand each time she leaned down, and also watched his followers. If they stared at her too long, he frowned until they turned away. He also checked to be sure the sun wasn’t burning her back and she was sufficiently covered in the front. In a few days, her back would be healed enough to wear better clothing and he would be glad.
She seemed to be enjoying the walk. She also seemed to be getting tired, and didn’t want to let go of his hand, even after she stood back up. So he turned her around and headed back to the Keep. “Would you like me to carry you?” The swelling had gone down around her bad eye and when she looked up, the sunlight brought out the brilliant blue of her eyes. He was amazed.
“I would not hear of it. I will never get my strength back if I cower now.”
“And you need your strength to help Rachel?”
She gave him a suspicious look and turned away.
“Harold told me they moved her.” He noticed her surprise and quickly continued, “Do not blame him. Anna, I cannot help if you do not tell me.”
She stopped and looked into his eyes again. “If I could give you this burden, I would. ‘Tis complicated and I must have time to remember and sort it all out.”
“Let us help you save Rachel. My lads have slipped in and out of places undetected for years. Once we know where she is …”
“But then my mother would die.”
He didn’t mean to, but he reeled back. “Your…”
“I am certain that is why they have been separated. I cannot choose between my mother and my sister…though my mother would insist I choose my sister.”
“And your father?” Anna continued walking and didn’t answer. She was right, he realized, it was complicated. Yet, why refuse to discuss her father? Wasn’t he in danger too? If not, he must have something to do with it. He might even have beaten her himself, and Kevin found the thought disgusting.
What could possibly make a man harm his own daughter…unless he had to beat her to make her agree to marry him? No, that wasn’t it, the beating was far too extreme. However, the man wanted something and Kevin was suddenly furious with himself. He should have been more suspicious when Baron Stoneham offered his daughter. Now he knew his first assessment was right: he thought only of having sons and selfishly neglected to ask exactly what the man wanted in return.
Then again, he could be wrong. He had to know for sure, so he pretended not to understand. “Who will kill your mother?” Again, she didn’t answer and he hadn’t expected her to. What was Anna supposed to do to save the lives of her mother and sister? If Harold was right, she’d already taken a beating to save them. Yet, Thomas believed whoever beat her meant for her to die. What could a man gain by sending him a dead woman? Kevin could make no sense out of any of it.
When they reached the steps of the Keep, he stopped. “Anna, I will not force you to tell me. But know this, Thomas or I will always be nearby should your burden become too great.”
She wanted to tell him and wondered why she hesitated. She couldn’t remember her father saying not to tell him. Kevin was being very kind. Even so, her mother said her father was kind in the beginning too. For all she knew, she’d stepped out of the pot and into the fire. She didn’t trust him, needed more time to think and something greatly bothered her -- why does a man marry a woman he has not seen? Is it for land, for power, to repay a debt…what?
Perhaps she should ask him. “What is a laird precisely?”
“All people must have a leader who can command order. Without it, the clan would be in chaos.”
“How much land do you have?”
“Do you wish for more?”
He smiled, leaned against the wall and folded his arms. “We have ample water, trees, meadows and plenty of animals to hunt. Some of our numbers outside the wall raise sheep and cattle. Behind the cottages, our women tend gardens and grow vegetables. We do not need more land.”
“What do you need?”
“I have everything I want.”
This was getting her nowhere.
She rested all afternoon and felt able to take her evening meal with Katie and Kevin downstairs. Kevin was careful to choose a chair for her without a back, and then sat a little closer than he normally would have, just in case she started to fall. When she noticed, she put her hands on her hips. “You are worse than the women.”
He chuckled and Katie was so amused, she nearly choked on her wine.
One of the serving women set a goblet of wine on the table for her and Anna took a sip, but the inside of her cheek stung and she grimaced. Katie and Kevin looked as though they hadn’t noticed, but she knew they had. Now she understood why they hadn’t offered her any wine to help her sleep the night before. She disagreed. A little pain in her mouth was well worth easing the pain in her face and back. She gathered her courage, took a longer drink, and swallowed. Then she took another drink. Some of the wine dribbled down her chin and she quickly dabbed it away with a cloth.
“Does it hurt to talk still?” Katie asked.
Katie reached across the table and took hold of Anna’s hand. “Peace and quiet, is what we have had in this home for far too long. I believe your company is just what the place needs.” She released Anna’s hand and put a spoon in it. “Tell me, what do you like to do most?”
“I am not handy with sewing. In fact, I am not handy with most things. I do love to ride, however.”
Kevin finished a mouth full of food and smiled. “As long as ‘tis safe and you are healed, you may go riding every day, if you wish.”
“How will I know if it is safe?”
“The lads will not lower the drawbridge if it is not.”
“I see,” said Anna.
“Your guard will accompany you.”
“I do not require a guard.”
“Aye, but you do. I will not have you hurt again.”
She sighed. She knew she should eat something, but the wine pleased her a lot more. She put the spoon down and took yet another drink. Then she realized her goblet was nearly empty. “Might I have more?”