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In love with a woman he had only seen once and could not find, the Highlander, Kevin MacGreagor was growing older and needed a wife to give him sons. No other woman pleased him, not even the daughters of other lairds, so he finally settled for Anna sight unseen. But when his men went to meet her guard, she was all alone and badly beaten. Who could have done such a thing and why?
Laird Kevin MacGreagor couldn’t seem to take his eyes off the woman in the glen below. A Highlander and a giant of a man with blond curls and blue-gray eyes, he stood beside his horse on a wooded hillside, with his legs apart and his hands clasped behind his back. A soft blue dominated the color of his kilt, a length of matching cloth over one shoulder covered half his white shirt, and his leather shoes were laced up to his knees.
She was magnificent. Her long, black hair hung down to her waist and her soft golden skirt caught on the grass as she walked, released and then caught again. She wore a purple tunic with a woven leather belt and a medallion that hung low on one hip. On her shoulder, she carried a bow and a leather sheath filled with arrows.
He heard it before he saw the huge black stallion breaking through the trees at a trot, but her back was turned and she didn’t seem to notice. The stallion was headed straight for her and Kevin had only just opened his mouth to shout a warning when the stallion slowed to a walk. Gently, the horse nudged her back. The woman grinned, but didn’t turn around and kept right on walking. Determined, the black followed and nudged her again. This time, she laughed and shook her head. Her laughter was wonderful and Kevin wanted to hear it again.
He wasn’t at all prepared for what happened next. The stallion turned, raced around, got in front and headed straight for her. Kevin held his breath, but the horse didn’t slow and when she held out her hand, the stallion lowered his head as if to charge her. Just as it shot past, the woman grabbed the horse’s mane and with ease and grace, swung up onto its bare back. Then she leaned down and hugged the horse’s neck until the stallion slowed to a trot and stopped.
Kevin couldn’t hear what she was saying, but it was obvious she was urging the horse on. She lightly kicked his sides, but the horse didn’t move. Instead, it pawed the ground and shook its head. The woman roared with laughter and Kevin couldn’t help but laugh with her. He’d never seen anything like it.
As the horse began to move again, she carefully got to her knees and then to her feet. She balanced herself perfectly, held both of her arms straight out, and as the stallion brought her close to Kevin’s end of the glen, she closed her eyes and lifted her chin into the wind.
She was indeed the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, and he believed nothing she did could astound him now. He was wrong. When the horse began to bring her near again, she reached for an arrow, loaded her bow, and before he could react, her arrow flew between his legs. He didn’t flinch. Instead, he raised an eyebrow and glared at her.
She shouted a word he didn’t understand, sat down, and in an instant, the horse and the woman sped into the trees on the opposite side of the meadow. He quickly mounted and followed, but after a full hour of searching, he had to admit he’d lost her. Disappointed, he turned his horse north and headed home.
It was unwise, he knew, to go off alone the way he did. The capture and ransom of a laird put his entire clan at risk. Yet on this day, he commanded his guard to stay behind, and allow him the freedom he had not enjoyed since he suddenly became laird. Soon, his six-man guard surrounded him and he was not surprised. He might have been annoyed, but each man had taken a pledge to protect him and they were only honoring their word. Besides, he was consumed with thoughts of the woman, and he had neglected his responsibilities at home long enough. The ride through the dense forest that offered good hunting and ample timber, took less than a day, and when the path became a road wide enough for carts, he could finally see his village in the distance.
On each side of the road, farmers working the land or tending livestock, paused to wave and watch their laird. He acknowledged each with a nod and a smile.
The village was not unlike many others, save for one thing -- it was surrounded by a high wall and a moat that added extra layers of protection against enemies. Just outside the moat, a pleasant meadow offered a place for the warriors to practice their skills and for older children to play. A path leading in the opposite direction led to a warm-water loch fit for bathing.
At last, Kevin and his men rode over the wide, wooden bridge into the substantial courtyard, dismounted and handed their reins to boys waiting to take the horses to the stables. From the courtyard, several tree-lined paths led to cottages, and then met at a communal garden in the back. Logs along the paths and near the garden offered the villagers a place to sit, talk and rest.
Kevin was laird over a clan of no less than six hundred, all of whom seemed happy to have him back. Yet it was his sister, Katie, he most wanted to see. She stood on the wooden landing outside the two-story, stone and mortar keep he shared with her and her smile was radiant as always.
At the age of 19, an illness plagued the land taking nearly half the Highlanders, his parents and all but one of his five siblings. Kevin suffered the high fever too and recovered to find himself the clan’s new laird. He expected to be laird one day, but not so soon, and he hardly knew what to do in the beginning. Still, he did as his father and grandfather before him had done -- he spoke the edict, “Any lad who harms a lass or a child shall be put to death.” It was a good law and he was willing to carry it out.
By most accounts, it was a pleasant life. Yet for Kevin, being laird was a heavy burden he sometimes resented. If it wasn’t two followers who couldn’t get along, it was a land dispute or a threatened clan war. Most other clans saw the advantage of calling him friend and few were brave enough to cross him. Still, there were lairds who coveted the life the MacGreagors had and war was always a major concern.
Kevin was a strong, but fair-minded man who was not as strict with his followers as some Lairds. Everyone was allowed to call him Kevin and none were required to bow or curtsey. Yet in the presence of other clans, his people showed their respect by doing just that, which pleased him very much.
In the days that followed, Laird MacGreagor still could not get the woman on the horse off his mind. He was determined she would be his someday; all he had to do was find her. However, rumors of a coming battle left him with little time to search for her. He should have known better, but of an evening, he confided in his best friends, Thomas and Clymer. In a world where gossip was the favorite form of entertainment, it wasn’t long before everyone knew every detail, except for the color of her eyes, which he had yet to see. It was just as well. He couldn’t leave often and perhaps someone else would find her.
No one ever did.
Two years passed and at twenty-six, the time had come for Kevin to find a wife to give him sons. He hated the thought, but there it was. Yet not one of the women in his clan measured up, and knowing his heart was set, most didn’t even try. Lairds from other clans tempted him with daughters, hoping to make a favorable alliance, but Kevin found none of them pleasing either. At last, he didn’t care who she was. All he had to do was bed her to have sons.
It was fortunate then, when a message arrived from an English Baron by the name of Stoneham, who offered his daughter in exchange for influence over another laird. Kevin quickly agreed.
Kevin’s mother was one of only a few English women to live among the MacGreagor clan. Her greatest gift was to teach some of them her native language, and it had come in handy for Kevin on more than one occasion. Communication with his wife, at least, was not going to be a problem. Yet, he was not looking forward to being married to a woman he had never seen.
“I will not agree!” Anna braced herself. She knew what was coming and wasn’t at all surprised when her father slapped her face.
Her home was a large English manor. It was a forbidding place with no gardens, little color in the courtyard and even less inside the many rooms. A stone wall surrounded the entire estate, the gates were almost always closed, and Anna was rarely allowed to go out. Her father was a wealthy man who found favor in the eyes of the king, and more often than not, there were guards everywhere.
The day Anna feared most was finally here. Her father and two of his guards had her cornered in her small bedchamber with no avenue of escape. He was determined to send her away, and she would be of no use to anyone if he did.
Baron Stoneham was a big man with foul smelling breath, who nearly always yelled. “You will agree! You are to go to his keep, agree to marry him and wait. Do you understand?”
It was a waste, she knew, but she stood her ground anyway. “I will not agree.”
The baron’s punishment was not what she expected. The two guards grabbed her arms and held her still while her father closed his fist and started to strike. Then he thought better of it. Slowly, he pulled his dagger and began to cut handfuls of her hair off. She was appalled and watched as her lovely locks fell to the wooden floor, but Anna didn’t cry. Years of experience taught her that crying would make him think he’d won. No, she would never let him see her cry.
“Do not fret, Anna. He will find you distasteful, but he has accepted you and he will not go back on his word. Highlanders are wild beasts and if he is as big as his father is, he is a brute of a man, who would rather kill you than look at you. All he asks is that you willingly agree to the marriage and I have assured him you will.” When Stoneham finished with her hair, he stood back and surveyed the damage. Satisfied, his words took on a sarcastic tone. “Let me see, perhaps a scar across your face would further his despair. Yes…yes, an ugly scar would be sweet revenge indeed.”
“What has this man done to deserve your ire?” she asked.
“Kevin MacGreagor has done nothing at all. It was his father who tricked me and I have not forgotten. When I attack the MacGreagors, I will burn his home and kill all his followers. And if you are a good girl, I might let you live. Do as I say, Anna, and before you know it, you will be back in England where you belong.”
She was hardly listening when he vowed to kill her little sister and her mother if she did not obey. Instead, she was trying to decide how best to avoid his dagger. Just then, he oddly put it away, and she was so greatly relieved, she was off her guard when he hit her with his fist. The blow knocked her out.
When Anna awoke just after dawn, she was lying face down across the back of a grazing horse. One rope was wrapped around her upper chest and arms, a second one was a few inches above her waist and a third bound her legs. She wiggled to get free of the constraints, but it was no use. Next, she tried scooting back in hopes she would slide off, but that didn’t work either. Her ribs hurt, her head was pounding and she doubted she could survive much longer with her head hanging down that way. This cannot be right, she thought. Surely, her father didn’t mean for her to die before she agreed to marry the Highlander.
Anna heard the thunder of their horses long before she saw them. They were enormous Highlanders, riding swiftly toward her, and the sight of them was terrifying. Except for seeing a few from a distance, she had very little knowledge of the people who lived in the north, and if what her father said was true, she’d been left at the gates of hell.
She closed her eyes, relaxed and pretended to be dead.
There were seven men in all, each dressed in the tradition of their clan with white shirts, light blue kilts and a length of matching cloth over one shoulder. As soon as they reached her, five formed a defensive circle, drew their swords and searched the woods with their eyes while the other two quickly dismounted and ran to her.
Clymer was shocked to find a woman in that condition and didn’t hesitate to slip his arm under her, carefully pull her down and stand her on the ground. Then he held on to her while Thomas cut and unwound the ropes. Her green gown was dirty, a missing sleeve exposed several bruises on her arm, and she wore no shoes.
In command of the small group of guards, Thomas was sickened at the sight of her injuries. The ropes had cut through her clothing, burned her all the way across her back in two places, and she was bleeding. Yet, when she finally raised her head, nothing could have prepared them for the sight of her face. It was a mass of swollen bruises. Blood covered her chin and trickled down her neck into her gown.
“‘Tis a wonder she is alive,” said Thomas. He quickly mounted his horse and walked it as close to her as he could. “Give her to me.”
Clymer couldn’t think of a place to touch her without hurting her, but there wasn’t time, so he just scooped her up and seated her in front of Thomas. He grabbed the reins of her horse, mounted his own and headed them north.
Thomas wrapped his arm around her waist and nudged his horse forward. “You are not safe here,” he whispered in less than perfect English. He felt her grab hold of his arm, and was relieved she had enough strength to do it. He knew her head had to be pounding as the blood drained back into her body, and wondered how she was able to sit up straight.
They were on MacGreagor land, but without knowing who had beaten her, they needed to be deeper in the forest and a lot more difficult to find. Several minutes later, Thomas gave the word and they halted in the thick forest near a small stream.
He was almost as big as Kevin with dark hair and green eyes. Thomas was Laird MacGreagor’s second in command and escorting the clan’s future mistress was a very high honor. When the men left home, they were not at war with anyone. Now they would be. A rage was building in Thomas, and once the others heard, the MacGreagor warriors would find the men who did this and gladly crush their skulls.
Thomas set those thoughts aside and took a deep, calming breath. First, he needed to keep her alive, at least long enough to tell them who did it. At his nod, the other men dismounted, took up defensive positions around them, and prepared to fight to keep her safe.
Thomas leaned to his right a little, so he could examine her back more closely. He decided if he was careful and put his arm between the rope burns, he could carry her without hurting her so much. He slid off the back of the horse, eased her down and carried her to the creek. As gently as he could, he set her on a smooth rock and held on until he was sure she could hold herself upright.
With Clymer standing behind him, Thomas knelt down on one knee in front of her. “Who did this to you?”
She didn’t answer. With the tip of her tongue, she checked to see if any teeth were missing. She had a long, deep cut on the inside of her cheek and knew that side of her face was swollen. The other side was not as bad, except her eye was nearly swollen shut. Her jaw hurt and when she felt a painful lump, she carefully moved her mouth up and down to see if it was broken. It didn’t seem to be, but her nose had not fared so well and she looked at Thomas. “Can you fix it?”
“It will hurt, Milady.” Before she could fear what he was about to do, he took hold of the back of her head with one hand and quickly straightened her nose with the other. She closed her eyes, clenched her fists and took deep breaths, as the pain shot through her whole face. Knowing first-hand how much it hurt, Thomas kept one hand on the back of her head and the other on her arm, ready to catch her if she passed out. At last, she began to relax her clenched fists and he knew the worst of the pain had subsided.
Thomas turned to Clymer and spoke in Gaelic. “She is very brave.”
“We should have brought a lass. How will we know if she is hurt inside?” asked Clymer.
Thomas turned back to Anna, “I must touch you.” He waited for her nod, put his hand on her stomach and gently pushed to see if it caused discomfort. It didn’t seem to hurt her. Next, he carefully felt her arms and then her legs. She had a large lump on the side of her knee and he feared it was broken.
“I must look,” Thomas whispered.
She was reluctant, but began to gather her skirt on that side until it was high enough to expose more bruises on her leg and the lump on her knee.
“Do you think it is broken?” Thomas asked.
She shook her head and let her skirt slide back down. They were Highlanders and she didn’t trust them, but this one seemed caring. “Who are you?”
“I am Thomas. We are your protection, Milady.”
“You are too late.”
“We came at the arranged time. If we had…”
She did not mean to insult him and thought to apologize, but changed the subject instead. “What day is this?”
Thomas wasn’t sure, so he looked to Clymer for the answer.
“Sunday,” Clymer answered.
Anna whispered, “Sunday, it cannot be.”
Thomas drew his dagger, pulled a length of kilt free of his belt and cut it off. He dipped it in the cold creek water, handed it to her, and watched her hold it against her swollen eye. Until then, she had not noticed the blood on him, reached out and touched his arm.
“Aye, ‘tis your blood. It will stop soon.” He took the cloth, rinsed it again and handed it back. “We will take you home.”
“I wish to die.”
Thomas stood up and straightened his shoulders, “You will not die. You are pledged to our laird and we will take you home.” He abruptly wrinkled his brow. “You are Lady Anna, are you not?” He was relieved when she nodded.
A tear rolled down her cheek, but she quickly dabbed it away with the cloth. “You do not understand; dying is the only gift I have to give.”
He was so taken aback, he didn’t say another word. Instead, he took the cloth from her, dipped it in the cold water one last time and handed it back.
“I need to …” she started.
He understood what she wanted and nodded. He helped her walk behind some trees, left her there and told the men to move away.
Anna thought about trying to run, but it was a fleeting thought. It was all she could do to take care of the necessary and bending her knee hurt profusely. At length, she walked back around the trees and went to the creek. She eased down on the rock, cupped her hands and tried to lean over, but the motion stretched her back. Before she knew it, Thomas was kneeling in front of her again. He untied his flask of water and helped her hold it so she could drink. She was beginning to feel a little better. “Thank you.”
He put his flask away and nodded. “Are you hungry?”
She shook her head. “How far?”
“Not far, we will arrive before dark. Tell me when you need to rest.”
“I need a new face.”
It made him smile. Perhaps she wasn’t going to die after all. He offered his hand to help her up again, but when she saw her horse, she bowed her head. “What is it?”
“I have no belongings?”
He was afraid she would begin to cry and he couldn’t blame her if she did. “We will see to your needs.”
As soon as Thomas mounted his horse, Clymer put his hands around Anna’s waist and lifted her back into Thomas’ lap. Then Clymer handed the reins of her horse to another man, quickly mounted and rode away.
Anna hurt everywhere and it wasn’t easy to stay upright, yet she would rather die than let these men see what a coward she really was. If Kevin MacGreagor was the monster her father said, she would need a great deal more courage than this to endure him.
She didn’t want to think about Kevin MacGreagor and instead, tried to decide what hurt the most. It was her back. The bleeding had stopped and the skin was tightening. The threads of her clothing were stuck to the wounds and pulled when she moved -- which on a horse, was constantly. She wondered if her cold rag would ease her back, but couldn’t imagine anything touching the rope burns. The remaining sleeve of her favorite gown was in shreds and when she looked down at her soiled skirt, it was clear her father’s degradation was complete.
Thomas could feel the drops of blood hitting his arm, and was worried she would bleed to death before he got her home. “Lean against me, Lass, and hold on. We must go faster.” He waited until she complied and then encouraged his horse to gallop.
Clymer rode hard to the MacGreagor keep to tell Kevin what had happened. He knew his laird would be enraged, but not as enraged now as he would be when he saw her. The beating of a defenseless woman was a specific insult to all MacGreagors, and Kevin’s worries about an English bride not fitting in would be trifle now.
As soon as he was spotted riding swiftly up the road toward the village, one of the guards let out a long, low whistle and others hurried to lower the drawbridge across the moat. A crowd, all dressed in his same colors, began to gather as Clymer slowed his horse, crossed the bridge, covered the width of the courtyard, and then halted his horse near the steps of the Keep.
Standing on the landing outside the door of his home, Kevin knew something was wrong or Clymer wouldn’t have come back alone. He held his breath and watched as his warrior took the steps two at a time to reach him.
He was nearly out of breath, but Clymer wasted no time before he blurted it out, “She has been beaten.”
Kevin’s head jutted forward. “What?”
“She wants to die, Kevin. She said ‘tis the only gift she has to give.”
He spread his legs apart, crossed his arms and prepared himself to hear the details. “But she is still alive?”
“Aye. Thomas felt her stomach, but he dared not touch her ribs. She is able to stand, but we do not know how bad she is hurt. She is very brave. She only shed one tear, but her face, Kevin; they hit her in the face.”
“Is she bleeding?”
“There was blood on the ground near her horse. It comes from her mouth. Her back bled, but it stopped before I left. We should have taken a lass with us. We cannot tell if she has been…”
Kevin quickly interrupted him, “Have the lads stopped?”
“Nay, they will continue unless Thomas thinks she can ride no longer.”
“How far away are they?”
Clymer looked up to see where the sun was in the sky. “They are going slow, half a day, maybe more. She needs Katie’s medicine for the rope burns, and…”
“Rope burns?” It was Kevin’s sister, Katie, who asked the question. Standing in the doorway behind her brother, she looked a lot like Kevin with the same dark hair and soft blue eyes.
“Aye, they bound her in three places and left her across the back of a horse face down. Whoever did it wanted her dead by the time we got there. The ropes broke the skin on her back, but we could see no blood on the back of her skirt where her legs were bound.”
Katie shook her head in disbelief. “Is she dirty as well?”
“Aye, she is covered in it, her clothes are torn and her belongings are gone.” He bowed his head and took a forgotten breath. “She does not complain. She has been kicked.”
“Kevin, you must cover her before you bring her here. She will not like anyone seeing her like that.”
Kevin’s arms were by his sides now and his fists were clenched. It didn’t take long for the growing crowd to pass the word, which made the women bow their heads. The men narrowed their eyes and closely watched their laird, waiting for his command. Filled with rage, Kevin didn’t trust himself to say a word, but he nodded to his sister and then to his stable master on the other side of the courtyard. Everyone knew what he meant to do and instantly, several men headed for their horses.
“Find the priest,” Kevin ordered finally.
“Do you think she will die?” Katie asked.
“I will not let her die; I intend to marry her now instead.”
In a matter of minutes, his horse was ready, the priest was found and a contingent of men followed him across the drawbridge. The priest was normally a talkative, friendly man, but he’d never been surrounded by so much anger, and he wisely kept his mouth shut. God help the man who did this, he thought as he crossed himself.
They rode hard, slowing to follow a narrow path when it was required, and then racing across the open land. At last, they spotted Anna’s small band of protectors in the distance.
Anna was not on her horse and Kevin began to panic, until he noticed Thomas holding her in his lap. He slowed his men and when they were close enough, he put his hand up to stop both guards. He signaled the priest to follow and then slowly walked his horse toward his future wife.
The closer he got, the worse she looked. Someone had cut off all her hair, she was slumped against Thomas and for a moment, he thought she was dead. If she was, all his attempts to avoid a war were for naught. For this, all of Scotland would feel his wrath. She finally moved her hand and he remembered to breathe. He guided his horse around to the other side and looked at her back. The moment he saw it, he closed his eyes and brought a hand up to his forehead.
His rage turned to pity and for a reason he could not understand, he wanted her in his arms. If she died, he wanted to be holding her when it happened. Somehow, this was his fault, but he couldn’t think of that just now. First, he had to get her home where Katie could try to keep her alive.
Kevin turned his horse around, eased up next to Thomas and noticed the look of despair on his second’s face. It was clear Thomas didn’t think she would survive. He took a longer look at her back, put his arm between the rope burns, slipped his other arm under her knees and gently lifted her. She only slightly moaned when he set her in his lap.
Suddenly, she reeled back and looked up at him. The terror in her one good eye startled him. “‘Tis all right, Lass, you are safe now.”
“Who are you?”
“I will now be your husband.”
“Aye, now.” Kevin nodded and the priest waited until Thomas moved away so he could come closer.
Anna started to protest, but then she thought about her little sister, Rachel. The child was not yet four and Anna was well aware her father meant what he said; he would kill Rachel if Anna didn’t comply. Yet she was only supposed to agree to marry him. She heard the priest begin and said, “No.”
“Aye,” demanded Kevin.
She put her hands on her head, remembered her hair was almost gone, closed her eyes and hung her head in shame. She’d never felt so defeated.
“It will grow back, Lass.”
She doubted she would live that long. Why not marry him? Death would come soon no matter what she did and he was so insistent. She hardly had the strength to breathe, let alone sit there and argue with the man. So when he demanded she marry him a second time, she nodded her consent and prayed death would come quickly.
The priest shortened the ceremony as best he could, but Anna wasn’t even listening. She said, ‘I do,’ and the priest blessed the marriage. It was done then and there was nothing she could do about it, so she relaxed, leaned against her husband and awaited her fate.
The Priest unfolded an extra plaid and handed it to him, but Kevin couldn’t think how to cover her back. The wool was soft, but not soft enough. There wasn’t a man alive who didn’t know how badly a rope burn hurt, especially when the skin was cut. He finally covered her in the front, left her back open and when he nodded, the rest of his men came to escort them home.
The more he thought about what they had done to her, the angrier he became. He turned to Thomas and spoke in Gaelic. “Did you see anyone?”
“Nay, she was alone in the clearing. They must have killed her guard, but not there. We did not see them.”
Anna found it very odd, but the sound of Kevin’s voice and the warmth of his body soothed her. She turned just enough to put her ear against his chest, and the beat of his heart somehow made her feel safe. Ridiculous! Safe would be far, far away from them all, especially her father.
Blood hit Kevin’s arm and he noticed. “Has she been bleeding the whole time?”
“Aye, ‘tis worse when she tries to talk.”
“Did you ask her who did this?”
“She did not answer.”
Kevin paused to think for a moment. “Who could have done it?”
Thomas shook his head. “Sophia was not pleased when you refused her, and cutting off Anna’s hair is something a lass might do.”
“Could a lass alone do this much damage?”
“Nay, if it was Sophia, she had help. English swine might have done it,” said Thomas.
“Aye, but they rarely come this far north and we have had no report of them. Who among the clans could hate me enough to nearly kill my bride?”
“I can think of no one else. All the clans have known of your plans for weeks, and some even knew you would meet her today. It could have been anyone.”
Kevin gritted his teeth. “I will kill the lads who did this.”
“And I will happily help you.”
They rode in silence for a while before Kevin asked, “Could Sophia’s father be behind it? Did he take offense when I refused his daughter?”
“I did not see it in his face, and surely he would not be willing to go to war over it.”
“Lads have gone to war for less,” said Kevin.
“True. We live on very good land and they might think to take it from us while we fight a war.”
Anna suddenly arched her back and Kevin realized he accidentally brushed his arm against it. He leaned down and whispered, “I am sorry, Lass. I will be more careful.” He felt her lean a little further forward and relax again. Then he closed his eyes. No woman should have to suffer such brutality and especially not because of him. He decided to be quiet and let her sleep if she could.
It was another hour of going slowly up hill and down again, before she suddenly sat up. “I am going to throw up.”
“Spread out!” he ordered. He jerked on the reins, pulled the extra plaid off her and tossed it away. Then he slid down, grabbed her waist and carefully lowered her to the ground. She turned, walked into the trees and bent over.
Anna didn’t realize Kevin had his hands on her waist, holding her from behind so she wouldn’t fall. What came up was mostly blood and she tried not to get it on her skirt, which was absurd since it was already ruined. “Please, just let me die.”
“I will not let you die. Did they knock out your teeth?” Kevin asked.
She shook her head.
“Are you hurt inside?”
Again, she shook her head. “My mouth is cut.” She felt her lips with her fingertips, and was grateful when Thomas handed her a cloth. She dabbed at her lips and took a deep breath.
Thomas remembered to speak English. When he spoke to Clymer at the creek in Gaelic, it seemed to disturb her. “We need to get her home, Kevin, she needs rest.”
“It will hurt her if we go faster.”
Anna shook her head. “Get it over with, and do not cover me.”
“She is right, Kevin. The longer she is on a horse, the longer she will bleed.”
Finally feeling a little anger of her own, she twisted free of his hands, ignored her bare feet, and walked back to his horse. She waited for Kevin to mount, let Thomas lift her and decided to see to her own comfort. Her legs were over Kevin’s leg and the bruise on the side of her knee was touching it. So when she noticed Thomas folding the extra plaid, she said, “May I have that?”
“Aye.” When she pointed to her knee, he folded the plaid smaller and slipped it under her leg.
Next, she moved Kevin’s arm lower on her hip. Then she touched the piece of plaid over his shoulder and looked up at him. He realized it was not soft enough, pulled the cloth out of his belt, and tossed it over his shoulder. Then he opened his shirt so even it would not chafe her skin.
The one thing she couldn’t do anything about was the inside of her mouth. The cut, apparently from her own teeth, went all the way from her lip to the back of her jaw. It was swollen on the inside too and each up and down movement of the horse made her teeth go into the cut again. The last thing she did was turn enough to put her head against his bare chest so she could hear his heart again. Then she grabbed hold of his arm, closed her eyes and relaxed.
Kevin was surprised by her boldness. She was showing him how not to hurt her and he was grateful. She was also holding on tight so he could go faster and he couldn’t help himself. He softly laid his cheek against the top of her head. “Tell me if you need to stop again.” He felt her slight nod.
He had ridden hard to get to her, but he wasn’t about to ride that hard getting her back and only urged the horse to gallop. It was still a long ride and Kevin noticed Thomas often looking at her face. She was still bleeding, but Thomas didn’t seem too concerned, so Kevin kept going. He knew she wasn’t sleeping; she still had a grip on his arm and he realized it was a good way to know she was still alive. The priest, he noticed, was praying and crossing himself often.
He should have sent the guard all the way to her home instead of arranging to meet her half way. At the time, he felt it would keep her from having to spend a night in the forest alone with his men. He knew his men would honor her, but she didn’t know that.
He quickly lowered his head. “Do you want to stop?” He felt her shake her head a little, but he slowed the horse anyway and his men slowed with him. She shifted her weight, adjusted her arms and relaxed again. “I am very sorry you are hurt,” he softly said.
Anna ignored him. She was too tired to hold on any longer and needed to find a more comfortable position for her hand. She tried moving it to her lap, but his arm was in the way. He started to lift it so she could slip her arm under his, but she gently pushed it back down.
It was then he noticed how cold her hand was and slowed the horse even more. “I won’t let you fall. Use my warmth, Anna.”
She tried a couple of different positions before she finally turned her upper body a little more toward him and tucked her hand inside his shirt just above his belt. The warmth felt wonderful and she wanted to consume all of it. It seemed, as long as she could feel his warmth and hear his heart, she could stand the pain. Why was that?
He started them moving faster again, although she had to be suffering, and he wasn’t convinced it was the right thing to do. She never made a sound and he greatly admired her for it. He wasn’t sure even he was that brave.
At last, he slowed the horse to a walk and led the way back across the drawbridge. Almost every adult in the clan was gathered in the courtyard silently watching. It was supposed to be a celebration when he met his intended, but everything was different now. She was not covered, his followers couldn’t help but see the damage, and several lowered their eyes.
Then he saw it. As he neared the steps, he noticed the women had left gifts for his wife, one on each step. There was a brush for her hair -- what was left of it, several soft cloths for her to wash with, new shirts and plaids, shoes, soap and soft leather belts. Each gift was adorned with flower petals and Kevin couldn’t have been more pleased.
He glanced at the faces of the women and nodded his appreciation. “We are home,” he whispered. He waited until Anna sat up straight, got down and lifted her to the ground. Then he held on until he was sure she had her balance. “Can you walk?”
He took her hand and led her to the steps where she too noticed the gifts. “They are for you.”
Anna slowly turned to look at all the people. Some caught their breath when they got a good look at her face, but she dismissed it. She knew she must look awful. Just as he had done, she nodded her appreciation, and she meant it too.
However, when she tried to bend her knee to climb the first step, it was obvious she needed help, so Kevin quickly scooped her up into his arms. “You can show your bravery later.”
As he carried her up the stairs, she noticed some of the women had tears in their eyes. No one, except perhaps her imprisoned mother, had ever cared for her enough to cry and it puzzled her.
Kevin carried her through the door, across the great hall, up a flight of stairs and turned down a long balcony. When he reached the last bedchamber, he took her inside, where his sister and two other women were waiting.
He carefully lowered Anna to the bed; made sure she could sit up and then knelt down in front of her. “Katie is my sister and she will take good care of you.” Anna’s eyes were closed and he knew she had to be exhausted. “All that we have is yours for the asking. Do not hesitate.”
She wasn’t paying much attention to his words, but she nodded slightly anyway. All she wanted was to be left alone and it didn’t look like that was going to happen any time soon. When she opened her good eye, he was gone.
Kevin reached the bottom of the stairs before he began to run his fingers through his hair and take several deep breaths. When he looked down, his whole front was covered with blood. “She bled too much and she is very cold. Even my body did not warm her.”
Thomas put a comforting hand on Kevin’s shoulder. “It was right to bring her faster. Her bleeding will stop now.”
“Should we give her wine?”
“It will hurt her mouth and she will throw up again.”
“‘Tis hard to see a lass suffer.”
“It ‘tis, at that. The people want to talk to you.”
Kevin rubbed his brow. “I hardly know what to say.”
“She is their mistress now and they have waited a long time for one. Just tell them she is not going to die.”
“Do you believe it?”
“I do. She wanted us to let her die when we found her, but she does not give in to it. She keeps herself alive.”
Kevin ran his fingers through his hair one last time, opened the door and went out.
“Who did this?” a man shouted.
“We do not know, but she is strong, she will survive.”
“Is she hurt inside?” a woman wanted to know.
“She says nay. She needs rest and time to heal.”
Another woman asked, “Where does she bleed?”
Thomas answered, “You will know everything soon enough. Go home and let her rest.” They obeyed and as soon as they began to disperse, he and Kevin walked across the courtyard and headed to the loch to wash the blood off.
They were grateful when a woman handed clean clothing to each. Keeping clean was something Kevin insisted on for all his people and for a very important reason. Should they need to hide or sneak up on an enemy, he wanted to make sure no one could smell them before they saw them.
The loch was to the east of the Keep and was normally a quiet, tranquil place. Neither man bothered to undress. They removed their shoes, walked into the loch and swam the width of it twice, not only to clean the blood, but to relieve their anger. It wasn’t helping that much and he wasn’t sure why, but Kevin found it uncomfortable being that far away from Anna. He got out, changed into the clean clothing and headed back.
In the bedchamber, the next hour was a flurry of activity. Katie looked inside her mouth to see where the blood was coming from, saw the cut and told her not to talk. Anna was relieved to find Katie’s English was as good as her brother’s.
The three women cut off her clothing and bathed her. They looked as pained to do it as she felt, and soon she found herself trying to comfort them with a gentle touch and a nod. Katie applied a soothing salve to her rope burns, which helped, and Gretchen spoon fed her warm broth, so she wouldn’t have to open her mouth much. It was all very kind of them and very, very unsettling for Anna.
Finally, they let her lay down on her stomach. Katie was careful to cover her backside only up to her waist, and sent the others out so Anna could sleep.
Kevin stood at the bottom of the stairs and watched as the two women came down, and then hurried off to tell the rest of the clan every detail of her condition. He waited until they closed the large front door behind them and then turned to Clymer. “Send riders to the nearest clans to tell them what has happened.” He watched Clymer leave and turned to walk up the stairs. Kevin knew once the first few were told, word would spread all across the Highlands and the message would be clear -- someone tried to kill Kevin MacGreagor’s bride and he wanted to know who.
Katie pulled a chair up next to Anna’s bed and sat down. “It is all right to cry, you know. We are family now and I will not blame you.”
When the door opened, Katie slipped out of the chair, and just before she left her brother alone with his wife, she touched his arm and whispered, “The bleeding has stopped; she will live.”
He hardly knew what to say, so he just watched her for a moment. Parts of her hair had been clipped so near her scalp, it was a wonder she wasn’t cut. Her eyes were closed and he thought she was asleep, so he quietly sat down in the chair and covered her hand with his. Her skin was much warmer now, but when she pulled away, he knew she was awake. “I am sorry we were not there in time to protect you.”
She lifted her head a little. “You could not protect me.”
“Who did this to you?”
She didn’t answer.
“Did you see their faces?”
Again, she didn’t answer.
“Tell me!” He hadn’t meant to raise his voice and when he saw her tense, he instantly regretted it. In a much softer tone, he said, “Anna, you are surrounded by lads who will give their lives to protect you. You are safe now and you need not fret.”
“They cannot protect me.”
“Aye, but they can. You are new to the Highlands and you do not yet understand our strength. You will see; we can protect you.” He walked to the door and when he looked back, her eyes were closed.
All through the night, women took turns sitting by her side. Anna threw up once more, but there was no blood -- a good sign she had no internal injuries. Her mouth began to bleed again, but not badly and it soon stopped. She woke every time she tried to move and remembered to thank the women for helping her. Finally, she decided the pain was not so severe when she turned on her right side. After that, she slept a full five hours.
When she awoke, she couldn’t figure out where she was. A man, no a god, sat in the chair beside her and she had trouble focusing on his face. The sun shone through the window behind him. His hair was golden and he was far too big to be a mortal man.
“Did I die?” she whispered.
Kevin smiled. “Nay.”
“Who are you?”
“I am your husband, do you not remember?”
“Oh.” It seemed easier and a lot less painful to speak than it had the day before, and he spoke English as well as his sister.
Anna slowly moved her legs over the side of the bed and started to sit up before she realized she had nothing on. She quickly covered herself, but not before he noticed the dark bruise on the side of her left knee, lighter ones on her legs and a large bruise on her shoulder. “Perhaps you should stay in bed.”
“No, I need to walk the stiffness out.” She bowed her head then, and closed her eyes. “I am ashamed of my appearance and I would not blame you for refusing me.” She hoped he would.
He changed the subject. “Who is Rachel?”
Her head shot up. “How do you know…?”
“You talked in your sleep.”
“What else did I say?”
“Answer my question first.”
She hesitated but saw no harm in telling him. “Rachel is my little sister.”
“I see. To answer your question, nay, you said nothing else.” He lied. In fact, he thought he knew a great deal. Some of her muttering was impossible to understand, but Rachel was in danger and Anna had to help her. Danger from whom, he did not know, nor was he certain what Anna could do about it. He was sure of one thing; he doubted Anna would tell him who hurt her until Rachel was safe. Did one of the clans have her? The thought made his rage begin to build again. “Is Rachel in danger?”
She didn’t answer.
“Should I notify your father?”
Anna shook her head.
Her father must be dead, he thought. Her attackers killed her father and her guard, then beat her and took her little sister, threatening to kill Rachel if Anna told. Was that what happened? His mind was racing. If that was it, his wife was suffering a lot more than he knew. He decided to ask her another question. “Do you think Rachel is in the Highlands somewhere?”
She shook her head and that changed his every thought. It was the English then, and that meant …”
“Please do not question me.” She touched her short, dark hair and sighed.
“It will grow back and your face will heal. Are you quite certain no ribs are broken? Do you hurt inside?”
“No.” She tried again to smile and this time when she looked, she recognized him. He was the giant on the hill she nearly shot with her arrow. She’d hidden in the trees, watched him search for her and remembered his face. It was a good face and up close, he was quite handsome.
She suddenly remembered Threcher, her beautiful black stallion and her smile faded. Before she was forced to face her father, she whispered in the horse’s ear, told him to escape and find her. Yet, he was just a horse and she knew it was impossible. Her Threcher was probably dead by now anyway.
He noticed the change in her and instinctively reached for her hand, but she jumped and pulled away. “Give me your hand, Anna.” It wasn’t a request; it was an order.
She watched the look in his eye and when she almost believed he did not mean to hurt her, she reluctantly obeyed.
“I give you my pledge. You are my wife and I will never hurt you. If it is the wedding night that worries you, we will not consummate this marriage until you come to me. I will sleep in the next chamber until then.” He let go of her hand and stood up. “There are at least ten lasses outside this door who want to help you. Do not deny them. ‘Tis an honor to help my wife and their feelings will be hurt if you do not allow it. Is there anything you wish me to do?”
She thought about it for a moment. “My father said there would be a banquet. I do not believe …”
“We call it a feast, but you need not worry. We have delayed it until you are healed.”
He was impressed by her courtesy. Just as his sister said, in all her discomfort, Anna still remembered to be courteous. She reminded him of his mother, but he believed his mother was an exception. The English were rarely thought of as courteous by the Highlanders. In fact, they had little regard for the English on any level. He nodded and walked out the door allowing the flood of skirts to enter.
When Anna saw it, she was thrilled. Mary had made a scarf for her head to hide her missing hair. Anna nearly burst into tears of joy, which actually made some of the other women lose a tear or two. She wanted to wear it right away.
Mary smoothed a small section of hair along the side of Anna’s face, wet her fingers and curled it in front of her ear. On the other side, she did the same thing. Then she tied the scarf in the back and all the women smiled their approval.
“I told you she would like it,” Gretchen scoffed.
Natty said, “Nay, I believe I am the one who said it.”
Before long, they were all talking so fast in Gaelic Anna couldn’t understand a word. Not that she knew that many words in Gaelic, but she recognized her name. It didn’t sound quite the same as it did in English. It sounded more like Hanna with a long ‘A’ and when she burst out laughing they all stopped to stare at her.
She was afraid she had insulted them and tried to explain. “Anna…Anna…not Hanna,” but her sore mouth made it nearly impossible to pronounce it correctly either, and this time when she started to laugh, they all laughed with her.
Downstairs, Kevin smiled at Thomas. “If marriage means laughter, perhaps I will not mind so much.”
The great hall was a large room that served as a gathering place with a long, narrow table in the middle. Several tall-backed chairs were around it and smaller tables along the walls held bowls of flowers, water pitchers and goblets. Weapons, captured or passed from one laird to the next, hung on one wall, while a colorful tapestry hung on the one opposite. At the far end of the room, a large hearth kept the place warm.
Thomas pulled a chair away from the table and sat down next to Kevin, “So you think it was the English?”
Kevin shook his head. “Why would the king allow his lads to beat a lass? If he wished to start a war, he would simply attack.”
“Perhaps they were only dressed as English soldiers.”
“That is possible.”
The two men continued to eat their morning meal in silence until Kevin finally said, “I cannot rid myself of the feeling this is my fault somehow, and now I am responsible for whatever is happening to Rachel. If I could remember doing or saying something, we would know who did this.”
“Kevin, you know how the clans like to gossip. You need not do anything for people to be misled. Besides, there is more than that to consider.”
Thomas looked deadly serious. “Kevin, did they force her?”
Laird MacGreagor hung his head for a moment. “Katie saw no evidence of it when she undressed her and Anna did not say.”
“Anna was surprised to learn it was Sunday. If she passed out, it could have happened without her knowing. What will you do if she is with child?”
“I have already done it. I have married her and no one will ever know whose child it is.”
“And you will always wonder.”
“Thomas, I have done something and that helpless lass upstairs is paying for it. The child will be mine, even if it does not carry my blood and I will love it, perhaps more than any others to make amends. ‘Tis the least I can do.”
Thomas broke off a bite of bread, chewed and swallowed. “Anna has courage and she does not complain.”
“I am well pleased with that. I would not enjoy a weak wife who cries constantly and demands too much of my attention. How many of our lasses would say nothing of the pain?”
“Not many; Katie perhaps.”
Kevin smiled finally. “Why do you not tell my sister you prefer her?”
“That kind of courage I do not have.”
Kevin slapped him on the back and grinned. “Perhaps if another lad prefers her, your courage will increase.”
“Perhaps, it will at that.”
The men paused to listen when the women upstairs laughed again. “I wonder what makes them laugh,” Thomas muttered.
“Whatever it is, the lasses will soon love my wife. ‘Tis far more than I could have hoped for.”
“Aye, she will make them laugh -- until she hears about the other lass.”
“She will not hear.”
“Aye, she will. You must be the one to tell Anna about the other lass, Kevin. ‘Tis not kind to keep it from her. Everyone knows and it will not be long before she learns the language and one of the lasses lets it slip. She is their mistress now and she will demand to know.”
“Then tell the lasses not to slip. I have enough on my mind without that.”
She was dressed in a soft English gown someone managed to find for her. The sleeves were off and a square had been cut out of the back to keep it from rubbing against her wounds. Anna’s new shoes, compliments of the cobbler who worked all night to make them, fit amazingly well. Her hair was neatly tucked under the scarf, except for the two curls, and she closed her eyes when she tasted the wonderful stew one of the women brought for her noon meal. The woman even made sure the chunks were cut small enough to swallow without chewing. It seemed like a lifetime since she’d eaten a full meal and she couldn’t hide her enjoyment, which she could see, pleased the woman immensely.
Katie had been in and out all morning, putting more salve on her wounds and fussing over her like a mother hen. Anna couldn’t remember a time when anyone, except her father’s servants when they were allowed to, ever cared about her so much. She felt content, warm and yes, even loved -- which worried her. This was an altogether different world than the one she grew up in. Her world offered only harshness, pain and sorrow. How long before this world fell apart?
When Anna finished her meal and the woman took it away, she was alone for the first time. She tried not to think about her troubles and looked around at her surroundings instead. It was a large room, much larger than she realized. The furnishings were made of dark wood, colorful drawings hung on the walls and the bed was near enough to the hearth to keep her warm at night. Fresh flowers floated in a bowl of water on the table. She took her time standing up and found she wasn’t nearly as sore as she thought.
There was the hard lump on the top of one shoulder, and of course, one on the side of her knee. So long as no one touched them, she decided she could bear that pain. If only her back and her face would stop hurting. She walked to the window and looked out.
Then she remembered she was actually married to the man she had dreamed about for the better part of two years. How was that possible? All that time, she knew he was a Highlander and probably dangerous, but he didn’t seem to be now. She knew by the way he demanded to know who had hurt her, that he could be dangerous when he needed to be. Yet, she also felt his regret for raising his voice. She thought about how tender he was with her and how he cared about her pain. It was very strange behavior for a man, let alone a Highlander.
Anna was contemplating the idea that he may someday love her, when she heard a shout downstairs and froze. It took all her courage, but she gathered her wits, peeked out the door and then eased out on the balcony, until she could look down into the great hall below. Kevin was flanked by three of his warriors and he didn’t look happy. A commoner, dressed in English attire, had his back to her, and it was clear the man was trembling.
“I am her husband. If you have a message for her, you will give it to me!” said Kevin.
The stranger could hardly get the words out. “You are married? Already? We thought the wedding was tomorrow week.”
“Our plans have changed. Either give me the message or be gone with you.”
“No!” She said it before she realized what she was doing and darted back inside the bedchamber.
Kevin looked up at the empty place where he spotted her earlier and reconsidered. Perhaps the message was about Rachel. “My wife cannot come down, but if you speak your message loud enough, I am certain she will hear you.”
The commoner refused. “The message is for her ears only. ‘Tis from her mother.”
Ignoring the pain and stiffness in her body, Anna walked the length of the balcony and started down the stairs. Her injured knee wasn’t bending very well, but she wasn’t going to let that stop her. She was grateful when Thomas raced up to make sure she didn’t fall, thanked him and then turned to the commoner, “What is it, Harold?”
“Dear God, what have they done to your face?”
She dismissed his outburst. “Why has my mother sent you? Is she unwell?” Anna made it to the bottom of the stairs before she stopped.
Harold took a deep breath, walked to her and tried to recognize her. It wasn’t easy to look at the extraordinarily beautiful face, that was now all swollen and bruised. He had to take another deep breath and then another. “She sent word by way of her maid, who said to say, the beast has broken out.”
Anna’s good eye danced and she smiled. “When?”
“Not more than an hour after you left, your mother guesses. I set out not long behind and did not see him, but I will not be surprised if he is trying to find you.”
Kevin glared, “What beast?”
“Threcher is my horse. My father hates him and calls him ‘the beast.’ But Harold, you did not come all this way to tell me about a horse.”
“No, no, I did not.” He glanced at Kevin and then looked back at her. “‘Tis a private matter.”
“Then we will ask Laird MacGreagor to excuse us.”
Kevin was not pleased. “Nay, she is not to be alone with any lad save me, until we find the swine that beat her.”
“I agree,” Harold said, surprising everyone. He was an old man and so short, his head barely reached the giant’s armpit, nor was he aware the three MacGreagor warriors were now standing right behind him. “In that case, I will whisper it…with your permission, Laird MacGreagor.”
Kevin allowed it, but the warriors made sure Harold kept his hands off Kevin’s wife.
Anna listened to his words and then asked, “Does my mother know what is happening?”
“That is how I knew where to find you.” Harold took a step back and trampled the toes of one of the giants. His eyes flew open wide and he was sure he would meet his maker that very day. Fortunately, the giant didn’t strike him and accepted his hasty apology.
Now Anna was actually crying. Through a cloud of tears, she thanked Harold and turned to her husband. “Please see that Harold gets home safely. I need him.” She started up the stairs and again Thomas stayed by her side.
When she turned her back and Harold saw the rope burns, he had to bite his knuckle and turn away until she was out of hearing. Then he lost all control. “That scunner!”
Kevin and his warriors moved closer. “Who? Tell me his name?”
“I cannot and neither can she.”
“There are lives at risk.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Kevin watched his wife disappear into her bedchamber and then studied the sincerity on the man’s face. “Is Rachel one of them?” Harold looked distressed and could not even begin to speak so Kevin decided to explain. “Anna talked in her sleep.”
“Oh.” Harold slumped. “That is what I came to tell her. They moved Rachel and we do not know where she is.”
“Who moved her?”
“Laird MacGreagor, please do not ask me that question. Rachel is very young and she could be anywhere by now. I cannot say for sure, but I would be willing to wager Anna took that beating to save her sister’s life.”
Thomas asked, “How did you get all this way on our land without anyone spotting you?”
“Oh, they spotted me; they just did not know it. And if I tell you how, I will not be able to come back.”
Thomas rolled his eyes, “Kevin, what should we do with him.”
“See him safely home. Anna wants his help and so do I.” With that, he turned and headed up the stairs. He knew whomever Thomas assigned to see Harold home would grill the man all the way back to England if he had to. Kevin was determined to find out what the hell was going on.
When he entered the bedchamber, Anna was staring out the window. “Are you all right?” He asked it so softly he wasn’t sure she heard.
“‘Tis a beautiful land.” The window looked out over the colorful glen at the edge of the forest and she was right, it was beautiful. “I suspect I could see it better without all these tears in my eyes.”
He picked a cloth up off the table and handed it to her. “Would you like to go for a walk?”
“I cannot. I mean, I would not want your people to see me like this.”
“They are your people now too, and they have already seen you.”
“Yes, but not for long. Katie will not let me look, but I see it in her eyes and Harold was revolted. I know it must be dreadful.”
“Would you like a mirror?”
She turned to him and nodded. She carefully dabbed at her tears, heard him open the door to the next bedchamber, and then watched him come back in.
He gave her a hand mirror and stepped away. “It was my mother’s and you may keep it if you like.”
“Thank you.” It took all of her will power, but finally she lifted the mirror and looked. Horrified, she instantly lowered it and closed her eyes. At length, she looked again and began to study the damage more closely. She opened her mouth as wide as she could and looked at the inside of her cheek. It was obvious both her upper and lower teeth had deeply cut it. Then she looked for chipped teeth. They seemed undamaged.
He watched her and was also relieved her teeth were not broken. He noticed how meticulously she examined every inch of her face. Weeks before, he wondered how it would be to have an ugly wife, but dismissed it, thinking no woman could live up to the beauty of the one on the horse. Besides, he intended to ignore the woman most of the time. Still, Anna seemed to care, and if she cared, she would likely try to look her best and it would be enough.
Anna took a deep breath. She was most concerned with her nose. It was bruised, tender to the touch and had a lump on the bridge, but it was once again straight. “Thomas fixed it for me.”
“He told me. He also said you did not cry out. As I recall, when I fixed his nose, he yelled and stomped his foot.”
It made her smile. She looked in the mirror again and then set it down on the table. “I suspect it will take a week or two to find my face again, and I will go daft if I stay hidden away. I believe I would like to take a walk.”
He was pleased with her; she seemed to be sensible. He could have done a lot worse, he reminded himself, and perhaps he might even like her eventually. He already admired her. She didn’t seem to need his comfort either, as he imagined most women would. Instead, her calm manner seemed to soothe his anger and he marveled at the feeling.
Her husband never left her side and was there if she needed him, as she slowly walked down the steps on the outside of the Keep. Clymer was waiting at the bottom and she remembered he was one of the men who had been kind to her the day before. As soon as she reached the bottom, she touched his arm and thanked him.
Anna didn’t notice the two older men standing in the courtyard at first, and when she did, she was intrigued by their different colored plaids. Each had two guards behind him and each had his hands clasped behind his back.
Kevin knew they would be there and wanted them to know she would live, as well as to see her brutalized condition. They were his friends and Lairds in their own right, having control over thousands. One held the land closest to Kevin’s to the north and the other to the west. If there was to be a war, he needed them to know firsthand the reason.
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.
She took a longer drink, closed her eyes, felt the wine beginning to work and finally answered, “A little.” In truth, she was starting not to care if it hurt to talk. “However, you might want to cherish this time. Once I get started, you will likely pray for peace and quiet.”
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?”
“Are you accustomed to drinking so much?” he asked.
“I am not accustomed to drinking at all. I believe this is only my second time. Harold gave me some when I was injured before and it eased my pain.”
“You will fall flat on your face if you have more.”
“Do you fall flat on your face after drinking wine?”
“Nay,” he admitted.
“Then neither will I.”
“I do not drink that much. A lad knows his limit.”
“And a woman does not?”
“Not one who is unaccustomed to drinking.”
“My, but you are a stubborn man.”
Katie was thoroughly enjoying the banter between them. She noticed the gleam in her brother’s eye, knew Kevin was enjoying it as well and she was thrilled. He needed a way out of his loneliness and she hoped a wife would help. Anna obviously had a sharp mind and was not intimidated by her brother. Indeed, Anna was going to be more than a help -- he was going to love her whether he wanted to or not. Perhaps now she could think about a marriage for herself.
“Why did you marry me?” Anna was asking.
“Why?” he hesitantly asked.
“Yes, why? You are surrounded by beautiful women, yet you chose me sight unseen. There must be a reason.” Anna was concentrating on his reaction and didn’t notice the swell in the chests of the serving women when Katie repeated her words in Gaelic.
He looked at his sister for help, but now Katie was looking down at her food and appeared to be choosing what she would eat next.
Anna reached over and lightly covered his hand with hers. “You can tell me. I am your wife, but I hope to be your friend as well. I promise I will not be offended.”
“I wanted sons,” he admitted finally.
“And no other woman can give you sons?”
He was trapped, in a way he had never felt trapped before, and there was simply no way out of it. How could he tell her he loved another? Well, it couldn’t be helped, she would find out eventually anyway. “I once saw a lass…,” he began, trying to carefully choose his words.
“Did you think she was handsome?”
He couldn’t help himself. “She was more than handsome, she was...” He stopped, wondering how the devil he was going to get through this.
“Please continue; I want to know all about her.”
“She was on a horse.”
Anna’s heart leapt.
Katie could hardly believe what she was seeing. Kevin was Laird over hundreds and one little woman was making him squirm like a guilty child. She glanced at the two women standing behind him and noticed they were completely enjoying Anna’s audacity, even though they couldn’t understand a word of it.
Anna didn’t look away and didn’t move her hand, which prevented him from eating. “The lass was on a horse and what?”
He cleared his throat and decided not to elaborate on the woman’s beauty. “It was not so much her appearance, as it was the love she and the horse shared. I have never seen anything like it.”
“Nay, I have said quite enough. Talk of something else.”
“Does everyone else know about this woman?”
“Good, then I will ask one of them.”
Kevin slumped. “What more do you wish to know?”
“Well, what did the woman do to make you think she and the horse cared for each other?”
“Tricks, but it was not the tricks that impressed me, it was the way she trusted him with her life. The horse could have killed her, but somehow, I knew he would not.” Once he got started, Kevin couldn’t seem to stop himself. “And she used no bridle nor signaled with her arms. Instead, she talked to him and the horse knew exactly what to do.”
Anna finally removed her hand, relieved him of his misery, and smiled. “Thank you for explaining. We will not talk of this again.” She hoped no one could tell how fast her heart was beating. Kevin not only remembered her, he talked like a man in love. He had chosen an unseen woman, because he couldn’t have the one he really wanted. If only he knew the woman in his heart was sitting right beside him. Someday, she might just tell him.
He often dreamed about the woman with the black stallion. It was a pleasant dream, filled with blue skies, wild flowers, love, hope and laughter. But this night the dream was dark, the horse was mean, the woman fell and he woke up with a start. As soon as he shook the memory out of his mind, he went to check on his wife.
Her door was open and she wasn’t in bed. Instead, she was still dressed and standing at the window again.
“Anna, you need to rest.”
“I have rested most of the day. Now I need to think.”
“Would you like my company?” She didn’t say no, so he stayed. He leaned against the wall near the window and waited for a long time before she spoke again.
“My mother is chained to her bed.”
Anna raised her hand to stop him. “Please, let me get this said. It is not easy for me.” She paused to collect her thoughts again, turned toward him and continued. “She tried to leave my father when Rachel was a baby, so he chains her and locks the door to her bedchamber. The only time he lets her out is to bathe. You see, he holds us captive, all of us, even the servants. When we do something that displeases him, he punishes my mother.”
Kevin hung his head.
“We have tried everything to save her. We even sent a plea to the king, but my father is a very clever man. He does not hurt her where it will show and if she does not obey him in front of company, he threatens to kill one of us. The king even came, believed she was fit and dismissed our plea.”
“Was it your father who beat you?”
She hesitated, wondering if she should admit it. Kevin was guessing, but if she said ‘no’ he would find out and hate her for lying. Besides, it was too late to stop now. “Yes.”
“I will kill him.” He watched her carefully to judge her reaction, but she remained calm.
“I have often vowed to do the same.” She took a deep breath, “God help me, I have thought about it far more often than is fitting for a woman.”
“What stopped you?”
She turned back to look out the window. “Fear. He is a strong man and if I failed, he would kill me and that could hardly help my mother and sister. Harold, the man who came here, is my dearest friend...my only friend. He once found me...” She decided not to elaborate on that. “He does not live on our estate, but when I can, I go to him. Many are the days Harold and I have plotted to kill my father. His guards will not let any man near him or Harold would gladly do it.” She shook her head in sorrow. “God will never forgive me for these evil thoughts.”
“I have a hundred lads who would be glad to have the honor.”
“Can your men get to him before he kills my mother?”
“Aye, they can.”
“If only it were that simple.”
“Why is it not that simple?”
“We would never find Rachel. He has given her to someone and I have searched my mind, but I cannot think who. She could be anywhere.” Anna abruptly grabbed Kevin’s arm. “Do you hate my father?”
“Because he hurt you.”
“Yes, that is exactly what he hoped. He broke no bones and my insides are not harmed. He wanted only to disfigure me enough to make you hate him.”
“But why? I have given him no cause.”
“I do not know. He said, but I cannot remember.” She started to bite her lower lip and hurt herself. “I suppose I should not do that for a while.”
They were both lost in thought for several minutes before he asked, “Are you tired enough to sleep now?”
“I believe I am.” She surprised him when she reached up on tiptoe and briefly put her bruised cheek against his. Then she let go, stood back and narrowed her eyes. “You appear to be a kind man, but so did my father once. I warn you now, no man will ever chain me to a bed.”
He took hold of her hand. “I assure you, my followers, both lads and lasses, would never let such a thing happen. They seem to think you belong to them now.” With that, he walked out of the room, closed the door and quietly went downstairs where his pacing wouldn’t bother anyone.
Angus was the inside sentry for the night and he soon got dizzy watching him. If Kevin wanted to talk, he would. Until then, it was Angus’ job to be on guard and to alert his laird if there was trouble outside.
Kevin was so enraged, he wanted to tear Anna’s father apart and make him suffer before he killed him. Anna had been beaten before and probably more than once. No wonder she was so brave, she was accustomed to it. Then he remembered how she wanted more wine to dull her pain. He wanted her to eat something first, and forgot to give her more wine before she went to bed. At least, that was one mistake he could do something about. He grabbed a goblet, quickly filled it and went back up to her room. When he went in, she was trying to unbutton the top of her gown in the back. Her arms were raised, the bottom of the cut out square in her gown was touching her lower rope burn, and she was softly moaning.
He handed her the goblet and watched her greedily drink. Then he walked behind her and began to unbutton her gown. “Do you want me to stay until you sleep? I will turn my back while you undress and get in bed.”
She had terror in her eyes when she answered, “No.”
He finished with her buttons and walked back around to see her face. “You promise not to fall if I leave?”
“I meant to give you more wine earlier. Please forgive me for neglecting it and wake me if you need more.” It wasn’t easy to read her expression through all that swelling, but he thought she looked puzzled when he left. Perhaps, he was mistaken.
He went back downstairs, poured himself some wine, drank and started to pace again. Never in his life had he heard of a woman being chained to a bed. He couldn’t think of that now, it made him too furious. Instead, he concentrated on what else Anna told him. Her father did it to make Kevin hate him. Why? What had he done? He mulled it over and over in his mind and came up with far more questions than answers.
Then he thought about the way she put her cheek to his. Was it affection or was it gratitude? How was he supposed to know; he’d never been married before. Aside from the woman on the horse, he’d hardly wanted to be around women, except to satisfy his lust. He told himself he would talk to Katie, she would know.
He stopped pacing, sat down at the long table, and rested his head in his hands. Why on earth did he care anyway? He only married her to have sons. Affection or gratitude shouldn’t matter in the least. No, he would not talk to Katie. Finding Rachel should be his only concern. After that, killing the scunner and freeing Anna’s mother would be easy. Still, if Anna had no idea where Rachel was, how would they find her?
It was time to confide in his men. They were wise and maybe they would have suggestions.
The counsel of Kevin’s ten most trusted men was called for early the next morning. Instead of holding it in the great hall where they would disturb Anna’s sleep, they walked across the drawbridge and into the glen.
Anna was not asleep. Instead, she was watching from her window and could just imagine what he was telling them. Still, she wasn’t sure until every one of them became suddenly enraged. Several of them cursed and then spat on the ground. Kevin let them vent their anger for a while longer before he put his hand up to quiet them. Then he told them the rest of it.
Anna turned her back and moved away from the window. They knew. It was her own father who had beaten her, and now everyone would know. She was so embarrassed and humiliated, she felt sick to her stomach. Maybe she shouldn’t have told Kevin.
Yet, she thought about it most of the night and she had no other choice. She was a good two and maybe three days away and there was nothing she could do without riding all the way back to England. Then what could she do?
She once hid behind a tree outside the wall that encircled their estate. She loaded her bow with an arrow and she would have shot her father, but he never came out. He rarely left and never when she was outside the wall.
Anna needed an army and it occurred to her, her husband just happened to have one. Maybe Kevin could save her mother and sister. Suddenly, she remembered something more.
He noticed Anna right away. She walked into the meadow toward him with all the charm and grace of a queen. He thought maybe he should go to her to make sure she didn’t fall, but he was too late. Two of his warriors raced back to walk by her side and she thanked each of them. He patiently waited until she came closer. “Is there something you need?”
“Yes, I need to warn you.”
“My father means to burn your home and kill all of your people.” Thomas interpreted and most of the men grumbled something when he finished, but when she turned to look at them, they quieted.
“Did he say when?” Thomas asked.
She started to do her own pacing in front of her husband and the warriors got out of her way so she could. “I have been thinking about that. Father said I was to agree to marry Kevin and then wait.”
“Wait for what?” Kevin asked.
“I do not know. He said that if I were a good girl, he would see that I was not killed and I could go back home. The wedding was not supposed to be until next week and only Harold knows we are already married.”
Thomas cleared his throat and got her attention. “Everyone knows now, Milady. We delayed the feast and sent word to all the clans.”
“I see.” She turned again to her husband. “Tell me, why did you marry me so quickly?”
He wasn’t about to tell her the truth. “I wanted to keep you safe.”
“This you could not do without marrying me?”
Thomas came to his laird’s rescue. “Aye, but you are safer still now that you are his wife. The other clans will not dare harm you.” He prayed she would accept that explanation.
Anna lightly rubbed her forehead. “I believe you spoiled my father’s plans and who knows what he will do now. I was not told to marry you. I was told to go to your home, simply agree to marry you and then wait. Wait for what? The day of our wedding when you would be distracted and your defenses would be down?”
“Aye, but our defenses are never down,” Kevin said.
Justin, Kevin’s third in command who also spoke English, had been quiet the whole time and even now, he remained thoughtful before he spoke. “Did you say, Milady, that your father wanted us to hate him?”
“Perhaps he means to draw us out.”
“How?” Kevin asked.
Anna caught her breath, “Rachel...he means to use Rachel. He knows I will try to save her and if he kills me, you would...”
Kevin suddenly took her elbow and turned her to him. “Do not say such a thing. I will not let anyone kill you.”
“I am not convinced you can stop him. He holds favor with the king and tells his lies very well. He might convince the King of England to fight you.”
“You will not die!”
She was surprised by his reaction. If he loved her, she wouldn’t have been surprised at all, but he loved the woman on the horse. It must be his pride. All men were filled with pride and his pride was certainly not going to let her die without a fight, just as she would not let her sister die either, though she couldn’t think how to prevent it. Kevin’s voice broke into her thoughts.
“Anna, is that all of it?”
She moved away and began to pace again. “It is so difficult to remember. Please allow me a moment to think.” She walked back and forth twice more before she stopped. “He talked of revenge, but not at you. That’s right, he said your father tricked him and he has not forgotten.”
Kevin raised his voice and nearly shouted at her, “My father has been dead these seven years. What could he have done?”
Instead of being frightened by his tone, she was suddenly frustrated, and was about to run her fingers through her hair, when she remembered the scarf and quickly lowered her hand. She started to pace again. “I do not know, Kevin. I remember the soldiers holding me, and father cutting my hair with his dagger. Then he thought to cut my face so I would have an unsightly scar.”
Anna quickly went on, “I was concentrating on which way to turn my head, and it was not an easy decision. If I moved my head too far, he would cut my throat. He must have changed his mind. I wasn’t prepared for his fist and I do not remember all this bruising. I must have passed out.”
“She is tired, Kevin,” Thomas whispered. “We have hounded the poor lass enough. I will take her back.”
“Nay, I will take her back. I should not have yelled at her.”
“Aye, you should not have. The women might poison your food if you do it again.”
She was finally alone again in her bedchamber and it was over. She’d told Kevin everything she could remember and fretting wasn’t going to help. If only she could figure out where her father had hidden Rachel, and dear God, was her mother still alive? Her father had no reason to spare her now that Anna had done what he wanted. She thought about getting down on her knees to pray, but it would be too painful.
What she feared almost as much as losing her mother and sister was the thought of a battle. She might lose even more if it came to that, she had only just found Kevin and she could not bear the thought of him dying because of her. Exhausted, she couldn’t think any more, so she curled up on her bed and fell asleep.
By the time Kevin returned to his counsel, the men were pondering the inevitable questions: What had Kevin’s father done to make Baron Stoneham want revenge? And why now?
“Perhaps he waited until Anna was old enough to marry?” Thomas suggested.
Clymer asked, “How old do you think she is?”
“I did not bother to ask,” Kevin admitted. He’d really made a mess of everything. She had the body and the mind of a woman, but without seeing her face there was no way to even guess how old she was.
Thomas said, “More likely, the scunner just thought of his plan. A lad with revenge in his heart often waits for the best possible time to strike. He heard you wanted a wife and that began it.”
“We must ask the elders what your father did to the scunner. They would know.” Justin appreciated the nods from the other men.
“Aye, but most of our elders died in the plague and more have died since,” Kevin reminded them. It was another mountain to climb and all of them tried to think whom they could ask. Perhaps someone in another clan remembered.
“Athena did not die,” Thomas muttered.
Kevin headed back to the hold, crossed the bridge and then turned up the path to the cottages. Athena had been one of his mother’s closest friends and still mourned the loss. He would try not to upset her; at least that was his plan.
She was indeed an elder, though she was barely over forty-five. With wars, childbirth and sickness, it could be a harsh life in the Highlands and more than a few women were lost because of it. He knocked lightly on her door and waited for her to answer. She was a tall woman with long dark hair braided down the middle of her back. She was obviously pleased to see him until she thought of something and her smile faded.
“What is it?” He left the door open and the other men outside.
“Your mother would weep over what has happened to your wife.”
He knew if he gave in to her desire to talk about his mother, all hope of a quick conversation would be lost. “Athena, I need your help. There is a lad by the name of Stoneham who...”
“Is that scunner still alive?” She plopped herself down in a chair and folded her arms in a huff.
“You know him?” He could see the ire in her eyes and started to be concerned about her health.
“Stoneham is not his real name, ‘tis MacGreagor.”
Kevin couldn’t believe his ears. At length, he sat down and put his head in his hands. “My wife is Stoneham’s daughter.” The woman beside him didn’t say a word, so he slowly raised his head to see her face.
Athena was lost in her memories and it took her a moment to react, “She is fortunate to be alive.”
“Aye, she is. Tell me all of it, Athena, the lad has sworn his revenge and means to attack.”
She scoffed then. “He does not have the courage to attack us. He is a coward.”
“He told Anna my father tricked him. Do you know what happened?”
“I do.” Athena had to think where to begin and it took several moments. “Stoneham was one of your father’s most trusted men. He was a mean scunner and everyone knew it except your father, God rest his soul.”
Kevin feared she would start mourning his father so he hurried on. “Did my father find out his true nature?”
“Aye. One night Stoneham beat his wife and thought he had killed her. He knew your father would kill him and he had to think of something fast. The moat and the walls were just started and it was easy for a lad to slip past the guards. He carried her into the woods and left her for the animals to feed on. The next day, he claimed she had wandered off in the night but he didn’t know she...”
Athena looked tortured when she grasped his hand as though she needed his strength. “She crawled on her belly. One of her legs and one arm was broken, but she was determined not to let him get away with it. So she crawled nearly all night. Just after sunrise, one of the guards found her. She begged the guard not to sound the alarm and go get your father instead. The guard took pity on her and did as she asked.”
Kevin moved his chair closer and put his arm around her shoulders. He could see she was ready to collapse and he wasn’t going to let that happen, at least not until he heard it all.
“Your father was so furious he could hardly stand on his own two feet. He carried her inside the Keep, woke your mother and put the lass in his very own bed. By then she had blessedly passed out.”
“But how did father trick Stoneham?”
“He pretended he had not found her and when Stoneham reported his wife missing, he believed your father’s lads were scouring the land looking for her. Your father returned with a scrap of cloth wrapped around a fresh bone and when Stoneham looked relieved, your father no longer had any doubts. He would have struck him dead right then, but he wanted the clan to see so others would remember.”
“I have heard this story.”
“Aye, you have. Your father whipped Stoneham in the glen until he admitted he had beaten the lass. Then he put his sword through the lad’s stomach.”
“But he did not kill him.”
“Nay, he wanted Stoneham to suffer, left him alone in the glen and assumed he would die a slow, painful death in the night. It was a mistake. The next morning, Stoneham was gone and so were three other lads your father thought were loyal. His true followers hunted them down and killed the other three, but Stoneham’s mother was English and he found sanctuary with her family. It was his mother’s name he took.”
Kevin gently encouraged her to put her head on his shoulder before he asked, “Are you the lass?” He wondered if she would cry, but she only nodded. He let her rest for a moment more and then the time came to tell her what the problem was. “Stoneham has chained Anna’s mother to her bed.” Kevin had never seen such fury in a woman.
She leapt out of her chair, grabbed her sword and started out the door. “I will kill the scunner myself!”
He quickly grabbed her around the waist and hauled her back inside. “I will be happy to save you the trouble.”
As Kevin left Athena’s cottage, his jaw was clenched tight when he started to speak to his men, “A MacGreagor did this to my wife. My father should have killed him outright, but he did not and Anna pays for it. I will not make the same mistake!”
In the beginning, Kevin had not planned to spend so much time with a wife. Nevertheless, she was his wife and he thought she would be furious in the morning, when she learned he left without her. She might be even more upset when her guards wouldn’t let her leave, even to ride a horse when she was able. Furthermore, he was worried she would break away from her guard and ride all the way back to England alone. All manner of horrible things could happen to her, he didn’t want that on his conscience too, and asked everyone to keep a close eye on her.
After their evening meal, he asked if she would enjoy another walk and she quickly agreed. Anna was still wearing the gown with the open back, but she walked much better and seemed far more cheerful.
She let him take her hand even though she was certain she wouldn’t fall, and they turned up a different path. The cool air felt good on her back but the warmth of his hand felt even better. They were halfway up the slight incline when she stopped to look at the stars. “I love the stars. Perhaps someday we might sleep outside.”
“You would not mind?”
“Heavens no, I love the outdoors and if you are with me, I will have nothing to fear.”
He liked her honesty. “Are you afraid of what will happen when we consummate our marriage?”
“I was only allowed to spend a few hours with my mother and we did not talk of it much. I am afraid I know very little. Is it the same as horses?”
“In a way, but it is far more enjoyable for people.”
“It does not look enjoyable.” She turned away and started walking again. “I would ask Katie, but she is unmarried.”
“My sister’s husband was lost at sea.”
Anna was surprised. “She never said a word.”
“I do not think she liked him much. She told me he was dull witted.”
“I see, then I will ask Katie.”
“Would you rather ask me?”
It took Anna a full minute to mull it over in her mind. “I have heard it is very pleasing for a lad.”
“‘Tis pleasing for a lass, as well.”
She was sure that wasn’t true and swore she wasn’t ever going to find out. Still, touching him was pleasing. In fact, she could hardly keep from touching him. “Have you any duties in mind for me? I have helped in my father’s house, but I was not very good at it. Besides, I am sure things are done differently here. I do not want to disappoint you, but...”
He stopped walking and waited until she turned to him. “Anna, I will not be disappointed. You are our mistress now and you can have and do anything you like. You can plant flowers, move the furniture, order different food or throw everything out the window. You will please me when you make this your home.” For a second he was worried about the sparkle in her eye and wondered if she really would throw everything out the window.
“I may have anything I like?”
He hesitated. “What is it?”
“I would like you to hold me.”
He was relieved. At least that request he could easily agree to. “I will hold you whenever you like.”
“I would like it now.” She caught the look on his face and decided he found the idea repulsive, so she started to walk on. He didn’t join her and wouldn’t let go of her hand, so she was forced to turn and face him.
“Where precisely can I touch you without hurting you?”
“Oh that, I thought you did not want to.”
“I want to very much.”
“You are right, of course, it would be painful.” She started walking again and he easily caught up. Then she stopped and turned to him. “When you were bringing me here on your horse and I rested my head against your chest, I could hear your heart and it comforted me somehow. Even the sound of your voice gave me peace. I think about that and try to understand it.”
“Perhaps you would have felt the same with any lad.”
“I did not feel the same when Thomas held me. He was very kind, but I did not feel the same. With you, I felt safe. Do you think it odd?”
He thought about his strange need to hold her when he first saw her. “‘Tis not odd at all, I am your husband, and I want you to feel safe.”
“Then may I hear your heart now?”
“The same way as before?” When she nodded, he slowly pulled the length of plaid off his shoulder and opened his shirt. He put the palm of her hand on his chest and covered it with his. Then with his other hand, he cupped the back of her head and slowly drew her to him.
At last, she was close to him again. She put her ear against his chest, closed her eyes and listened to the peaceful, steady rhythm of his heartbeat. Yet that was not all, now that she knew who he was, she loved the feel of his touch and his warmth so much more. Without realizing what she was doing, she wrapped her other arm around him.
Not two hours before, he had been filled with more rage than he could possibly endure. Yet having her so close seemed to wash away his rage and he thought only of the way her touch felt. He wanted to hold her even closer and thought of the day he could without hurting her. Then he felt her arm go around him, so he put his cheek against the top of her head and closed his eyes. Maybe he needed her touch as much as she needed his. When she moved closer still and her body was against his, it was all he could do to keep from holding her the way he really wanted to.
Anna didn’t want to move away and was glad he didn’t make her. She couldn’t remember a time when she felt so content. Was this love? She hoped so; she hoped so very much.
He had a feeling he would remember this and didn’t have the faintest idea why. It was the kind of tender moment he had never experienced before with a woman. Was it because she was so vulnerable and he had a duty to protect her? Or was it something else? He wondered, if only for a second, if he was beginning to love her. He didn’t want her to, but when she started to pull away, he let go.
They walked further than they had the day before and she didn’t get tired as quickly, but when they turned back, she was glad of it. Perhaps she was expecting too much too soon as Katie suggested. They didn’t talk much on the way back either, but she was content just to be near him. He had given her permission to touch him whenever she wanted and her heart was pounding with excitement and joy. She would touch him, she would even kiss him -- but that was all.
He heard her let out a long sigh. “Why do you sigh?”
“I just realized I have shared my burden with you.”
“Nay, you have given your burden to me.”
“If that were so, I would not still have a heavy heart.”
He realized she was right. “When Thomas found you, why did you want to die?”
“There were two reasons. First, I thought if I was dead, my father’s plan would be useless, and he would have no reason to kill my mother or my sister.”
“Father told me you were a cruel man who would kill me and never love me. I was dead either way … or so I thought.”
“Do you still believe him?”
“I do not believe you intend to kill me, but...”
She had to turn away so he wouldn’t see the twinkle in her eye. “You might find me pleasing someday, but you will never love me.”
His heart sank. He should never have told her about the woman on the horse. What kind of man would give his wife no hope of ever being loved? Katie said he already did love her and he had to admit he enjoyed her touch and her company very much. She seemed so open and free with him. Even now, she was able to tell him what she felt. Yes, he might learn to love Anna, but how the hell was he going to get the other woman out of his heart?
When they got back inside, he took the time to show her where everything was and then walked her to her bedchamber.
Kevin leaned down and kissed her forehead. “Good night. Wake me if you need anything.”
“What is it?”
She looked into his eyes and if she could have, she would have looked into his soul. What she was about to say was important to her and she wanted him to remember. “When you kill my father, tell him it is from me.”
He studied both her eyes and her words. “You know we are leaving? Who told you?”
“No one.” She turned, walked to the bed and sat down. “It is the only way. If you wait until he uses Rachel to draw you out, he will have the advantage.”
He was quick to sit down on the bed beside her and take both of her hands in his. “As soon as you told me it was your father, I sent lads to watch him. He may well lead them to Rachel. Try not to worry.”
“I will try.”
“Good. I will be pleased if you use this time to take good care of yourself and get well. I expect a healthy wife when I return.” He kissed her forehead again and got up. Just as he closed the door, he heard her whisper, “Come back to me, Kevin MacGreagor.”
He stood outside her door for a while and then went back in. He took her hands and pulled her to her feet. “Listen to my heart and hear my words.” He placed his hands the same as before and waited until she rested against him. “Remember the feel of this and be comforted while I am gone.” He closed his eyes and memorized it as well.
She stayed close, but this time she felt something deeper than comfort and safety. It was more even than the excitement of being near him. She loved this man.
When she started to pull away, he said, “I will come back to you, I give you my pledge.”
It was early in the morning when Baron Stoneham locked the bedchamber door, slipped the key into his belt, and went down the stairs. He had just entered the dining room for his morning meal when he stopped dead. Three giant Highlanders stood beside the table with their arms folded across their chests. He quickly looked around for his two-man guard and found them slumped in the corner, unarmed and unmoving. The woman servant still held a platter of pastries in her hand ,and looked as though she were going to pass out from fright at any moment.
“How the devil did you get in here?” Stoneham demanded but none of them answered. “Which of you is Kevin MacGreagor?” Still none of them answered so he tried again in Gaelic. It didn’t help, so he thought of another approach. “I assume you got my gift. You were pleased, of course. If I were you, I would kill her, she is worthless.”
It was all Kevin could do to control himself. The man before him was indeed a MacGreagor, just as large and just as intimidating as any Highlander could be. He wanted to kill Stoneham with his bare hands and do it now. Instead, he nodded.
The baron couldn’t quite believe his eyes when the woman stepped out from behind Kevin. “Athena?”
“I am surprised you remember me,” she said in her native tongue. “You left me without children.”
He laughed. Then he slowly looked her up and down as though he were undressing her with his eyes. She was still a vision of beauty even at her age. “I could give you one now.”
Kevin could feel the tension rising in both Thomas and Clymer, so he shifted his weight just a little to calm them. Both men eased.
Athena pretended not to mind what he was doing. Instead, she gave Stoneham a once over with her eyes as well until they rested on the slight bulge in his belt. She looked up and smiled seductively. It made him do exactly what she wanted and when he reached out and pulled her to him, she slipped her hand in his belt and got the key. Her other hand went to his crotch and painfully grabbed hold to remind him what she was capable of. He instantly released her and pushed her back.
Athena laughed at the giant she once called husband and folded her arms to show she wasn’t one bit afraid of him. “Aye, you could give me a child. I will have Rachel.”
He didn’t look at all surprised. “So the filthy girl told you about her sister.” He shifted his attention then to the one he assumed was Kevin -- the one in the middle. “We have been expecting you. I hope you brought an army, you will need one.”
The woman servant couldn’t understand a word they said, but she did recognize Rachel’s name. She couldn’t help herself when she looked at the Highlander nearest her and asked, “Anna?”
“Silence,” the Baron roared.
For the first time in years, she ignored him and asked again. “Anna?” She stared at Thomas hoping for some sign that Anna was alive. When she didn’t get it, she caught her breath. “Dear God, she is dead.”
“She is not dead,” Kevin finally said in perfect English.
The Baron dared to smile. “Of course not. If she were, she would not have been able to tell him about Rachel.”
“I will have Rachel,” Athena demanded.
He started to slap Athena aside when all three giants took a step forward at the same time. They were a little too close for comfort now and he reached for his sword. Then he thought better of it and folded his arms. “Rachel means nothing to me, nor does Anna, I only wanted a son. You may have them both -- if you can find Rachel.”
Athena turned toward Kevin and gave him a slight nod. Then she walked to the woman servant, took the platter of pastries out of her hand and set it down on the table. The servant was more than willing to follow Athena out of the room, although she made a wide berth around the Baron to keep out of his reach.
Upstairs, Anna’s mother was dressed. She didn’t really know why she bothered since she would not be bathing or seeing either one of her daughters today. Yet it was her habit, so she took care to wash her face and brush her hair. Her hair wasn’t as dark as Anna’s and they didn’t look a lot alike, but it was obvious Anna had her blue eyes.
There was one big difference. Anna’s mother had hideous scars, especially the one around her ankle where the chain and the lock often rubbed against it. At least the chain was long enough to allow her to walk about the room. It was the only exercise she was allowed.
She heard loud voices downstairs, grabbed the chain and rushed to the window to see if anyone was there. The courtyard was empty. In fact, it was uncommonly empty of even her husband’s guards or their mounts. The baron must have sent them away, she thought, but Catherin hadn’t heard it. Next, she looked up the hill. Sometimes Harold would wave from there and she would wave back to signal she was well. He wasn’t there. She wondered what he would do if ever she didn’t wave back.
She tried to listen to the voices, but the sounds were muffled and she couldn’t make out but a few words. Then she heard a woman say something about Rachel. Catherin was suddenly terrified and covered her mouth to keep from crying out. She thought she had already accepted the idea that both her daughters were dead, but in truth, she wasn’t prepared at all.
It surprised her when she heard the key go in the lock and saw the door handle turn. She held her breath and watched as the door slowly opened, but it wasn’t her husband as she expected. Instead, a tall woman wearing a plaid stepped inside and raised a finger to her mouth to signal she should remain quiet.
Behind the woman stood a large man wearing a matching kilt and a white shirt. He watched her for a moment and then took a step inside. He paused to make sure she wasn’t going to get upset and once he was assured, he walked to her and smiled.
His interest seemed to be in the chain, Catherin realized, and when he reached out his hand, she gave him the part she held in her hand. His eyes were kind, and when he took her elbow and urged her to move closer to the bed, she went willingly. The man let go of her arm and took hold of the chain with both hands. To her amazement, he flexed the muscles in his arms and easily pulled one of the links apart. She and Anna had tried to do just that countless times and couldn’t get it to budge.
Suddenly, she was free, filled with overwhelming joy, and started to speak, but the woman reminded her to be quiet. The man handed the end of the chain back to her, leaned down and scooped her up in his arms. As quiet as a mouse, they slipped down the stairs, through the sitting room and out the front door. He continued to carry her across the courtyard and she was so grateful, she wrapped her arm around him and kissed the side of his neck. Justin smiled. He carried her through the gate, around the corner and further still, before he finally stopped and put her down.
Anna’s mother had tears in her eyes and she could barely see the man standing before her. It wasn’t until she spotted the crown on his head that she realized it was the King of England. She tried to curtsy, but he took hold of her arm and wouldn’t let her.
“Catherin, how will you ever forgive me?” The king took the chain out of her hand, knelt down and raised her skirt just enough to see her ankle. He grimaced, closed his eyes, and swore under his breath. It took him a moment to realize the woman from the Highlands was handing him a key. As quickly as he could, he opened the lock and let the chain fall away.
“My daughters?” Catherin asked, wiping the tears off her cheeks with the hem of her skirt.
“We have not yet found Rachel, but we will. My men will search every house until they find her.” He stood up, patted her arm and smiled. “Anna is fine.”
“He beat her, I heard him.”
“I know, but she is healing.”
Kevin knew he wasn’t going to get Rachel’s location from the scunner, so he let Stoneham stand there, threatening and insulting everyone and everything he could think of. Kevin wasn’t even listening. He could still hear Anna’s words -- If I moved my head too far, he would cut my throat. -- The thought of how frightened she must have been made Kevin’s blood boil. Then he forced himself to remember the feel of her head on his chest so he could calm down.
Stoneham seemed to be convinced he could handle all three men without breaking a sweat. Kevin would have liked proving him wrong, but he promised the king he wouldn’t kill the man -- at least not yet.
“Stoneham,” the voice behind him boomed.
Stoneham spun around. “Your Majesty?” He started to bow, but the king shoved him aside and walked into the dining room. Behind Stoneham, ten of the king’s well-armed men stood with swords drawn glaring at him and the color began to drain out of Stoneham’s arrogant face.
The king walked to the Highlanders and turned to face Stoneham. Had he realized how puny he looked next to the giants, he would have reconsidered. “Something quite remarkable has happened,” the king began, “I seem to have misplaced two full count of men and do you know where I found them? Right here surrounding your property. They were under the mistaken belief I had ordered them to protect you from an expected MacGreagor attack.”
Stoneham was starting to get nervous and the king was glad of it when he walked around the Highlanders to the window, looked out and then turned back to face him. “I sent them away. Would you like to see for yourself?” Stoneham didn’t move. “I thought not. Thank God, I will not have that worry. A war with the Highlands is not something I would enjoy just now. When you are dead, I must remember to give this property to a more sensible man.”
The king retraced his steps, noticed the glare Stoneham was giving Kevin and the one Kevin was returning. “Should I let the MacGreagor have you? I hear his father let you live, but I doubt the son will be so generous. By the way, you have committed bigamy. The church frowns on bigamy, you know. I met your first wife a few days ago and she has impressed me greatly.
Would you believe she walked right into my court unattended and when one of my guards tried to stop her, she broke his arm? I was forced to hear what she had to say while I still had a command left. I am thinking of asking her to teach my men a thing or two and perhaps help us improve our Gaelic.”
“She is not my wife, she is a liar,” Stoneham muttered.
“I see.” The king spotted the pastries on the table and walked over to examine them. “Invite your other wife to join us. She is a lovely woman and I would enjoy having tea and a pastry with her. As I recall, she has a smile that can make the birds sing.”
“Oh, I doubt that. Call up to her and see if she will come down.” When Stoneham stalled, the king called up instead. “Catherin, I demand you come down at once!”
She didn’t hesitate for a moment. Catherin went back inside, threaded her way through the king’s guard, walked into the room and turned to face her husband. Athena was right behind her and with as much hate in her eyes as she could manage, Athena dropped the lock and chain at Stoneham’s feet.
The king broke off a bite of pastry, savored the taste and swallowed. “Tell me, Stoneham, to which of these lovely ladies should I give the pleasure of cutting you in half?”
When it was time to leave, Kevin asked Catherin if she wanted to go with them, but she seemed unwilling to answer. Instead, she whispered to Athena…she wanted to see Anna, but she didn’t want to go back upstairs to get her things. Athena understood and did it for her. Then, when Athena announced she was going with the King to find Rachel, Catherin was so used to being told what to do, she didn’t demand to go with them.
The king, on the other hand, wasn’t so sure taking Athena was a good idea. He didn’t want a war with the Highlanders and couldn’t be sure he wouldn’t do or say something to offend her. But Athena was having none of it and stood with her hands on her hips glaring at him. The king shot Kevin a silent plea for help, but Kevin only shrugged. Finally, the king gave in.
The two men agreed on a place in the forest where the Highlanders and Catherin would wait, and it had already been three days. Kevin hadn’t brought an army with him. Instead, he only brought three men, plus the two he sent earlier to watch Stoneham, and there wasn’t much to do. A couple of the men caught fish in a pond, which provided them with plenty to eat. The men practiced their warrior skills in the small clearing, and then told stories around the fire at night. They were careful to speak in their native language. Some of the stories were unfit for the ears of a lady.
Kevin kept a close eye on Catherin, but tried not to let her know. She seemed to want to see and touch everything, just as Anna had and she rarely spoke. The first night, she looked at the stars for so long, he thought she would never rest. The next morning, she got up and walked fully dressed right into the pond. He was ready to hurry in after her, but she knew how to swim quite well and didn’t go too far out. She played in the water like a child, swimming, backstroking and even floating.
It was Justin who pulled the chain apart and he felt a desire to see to her, so he grabbed her bundle of things and took them to the pond. Then he set the bundle down and hung a plaid over the low branch of a tree so she could have privacy when she dressed.
The King was right. When she smiled at Justin, Kevin thought she really could make the birds sing. He wondered if his wife had the same smile. In fact, if she looked at all like her mother after her face healed, he would be very pleased. He left the pond, sat down with his back against a tree and closed his eyes. Would she really be glad her father was dead? He was her father, after all. Would she want the details of how he died? He hoped not, it was a gruesome affair. Most importantly, was she thinking about Kevin too? He remembered every moment he spent with her from the time he lifted her out of Thomas' arms, to the last moment when she listened to his heart. Suddenly, he opened his eyes. The whole time he’d been away, he’d actually been thinking about his wife and not the woman on the horse.
The second day, Catherin told Justin she wanted to bathe properly, so he arranged her privacy. He wasn’t worried any of the men would look. None of them wanted to see the scars the scunner probably left on her. The second night, she slept like a baby. The third day, she talked more and worried more. What if they couldn’t find Rachel?
Justin tried to ease her fears, but wasn’t very successful. Then he found a soft piece of wood, sat down on a rock, took out his dagger and began to carve. The longer he worked, the more fascinated she became and before long, she was sitting on another rock not far from him.
Kevin found a second piece of wood and handed it to her. Then he offered her his dagger. She stared at the dagger for a long moment, decided it would be all right, took it from him and tried to learn how to carve.
The first time she made a mistake, she looked terrified. Yet Justin only laughed, so she finally relaxed and smiled. Every once in a while she would make what she thought was another mistake, look at Justin’s reaction and smile when he laughed, putting a smile on all their faces.
In the afternoon, Kevin went to the pond to wash up and when he came back, Catherin was in a deep discussion with Justin. She was whispering and Justin kept shaking his head. “What is it?”
“She wants to ask about Anna, but she is afraid. I keep telling her there is nothing to be afraid of. She says Stoneham would not let her ask about either of her daughters.”
“But why does she imagine we are the same?”
“She knows her husband was a MacGreagor.”
Kevin took a deep breath and slowly let it out. He untied a leather pouch from his belt, reached in, felt for what he wanted and withdrew a closed fist. Next, he sat down on the ground in front of her. “Catherin, give me your hand.” She looked like she had just been struck by lightning and he had to tell her three times before she obeyed.
When she finally reached out, he turned her palm up and dropped a beautiful blue stone into her hand. Then he closed her hand and held it between both of his. “This stone belonged to my mother and she told me these words: ‘God condemns the soul of a lad who hurts a woman or a child.’ If any lad hurts you ever again, you are to give this stone back to me and I will kill him. Do you understand?” He waited for her slow nod and then released her hand. Then he stretched out on the grass and began, “I will not lie, Anna was badly beaten and we thought she would die.” He saw Catherin grimace when he began to tell her the extent of Anna’s injuries, but it was better than letting her believe the beating was far worse.
In the Keep, Anna was healing and becoming more attractive by the minute. She often went outside for a walk and when she didn’t seem to want company, Katie watched her from the window. Every once in a while, Anna would walk to the closed drawbridge, and then just stand there looking at it. Kevin wanted her kept inside, but saying no to Anna was the hardest thing Katie ever had to do. She decided if Anna looked like she was going to climb the wall, she would take her out and face her brother’s ire later.
Be sensible, Anna told herself. Kevin was trying to protect her, not imprison her. For days, no one had come or gone except small hunting parties and men hauling water from the moat. She reasoned, if she were imprisoned, so were the rest of them, and they didn’t seem to mind. Kevin told her she could only go out when it was safe. Did that mean her father had gained an army somehow and was heading this way? Surely, someone would have told her if that were true. Then why was the bridge always up? Try as she might, she could not help but feel she was a prisoner again.
She decided to continue her walk before someone thought she was daft. How many times had she stood in front of her father’s courtyard gate trying to will it to open so she could ride Threcher? The older she got the less often it opened.
She thought about planting flowers around the Keep. That was something else she wasn’t allowed to do at home. In fact, there were no plants or flowers anywhere in the manor. She didn’t know how to plant flowers and every time she asked someone in the hold to show her how to do something, they did it for her. It seemed like they wanted her to be utterly useless and it annoyed her.
She was suddenly standing there looking at the bridge again and Katie was right beside her. She didn’t mean to sound angry, but she couldn’t seem to help it. “What could be taking so long?”
“It has only been a few days.”
“Thirteen miserable, frustrating days. I thought I could survive anything, but I am not so sure anymore. I am as worried about Kevin and the men, as I am about my mother and sister. Sometimes, I do not want to love your brother, it is too painful.”
Katie smiled. “You might not feel that way once you discover all his faults.”
“Well, he snores when he is too tired.”
“I will not be bothered. I do not intend to sleep in the same room.”
“I see.” Katie wasn’t sure how to handle this situation. “Are you afraid of him?”
“A little. I do not want to...my mother sometimes...”
“Come, we will sit on the steps. ‘Tis a beautiful day and we must enjoy it before the rains come.” Katie led the way and waited until they both got comfortable on the steps. “My brother is a good lad. He blames himself for what happened to you and he will not force you into his bed.”
“How many people has Kevin killed?”
Her question caught Katie completely off guard. “I do not know. Our lads never tell us such things and the women are wise enough not to ask. MacGreagors do not find pleasure in killing for any reason, and often need time to accept what they have done. When a lass asks, her husband may leave and not come home for days.”
“Have you ever seen Kevin kill someone?”
“Someone? Kevin has never killed a lass in his life. I have only seen him kill one lad and the lad deserved to die. He was torturing animals. We kill animals when we need the meat, but we do not torture anything or anyone. Kevin warned him not to do it three times, but the lad disobeyed.”
“Did Kevin believe the man would torture more than animals?”
“Aye, he did. There is an evil in some lads. Our father told of a man our grandfather allowed to live, and the lad tortured and murdered seven people before he was put to death.”
“Does God approve the death of such a man?”
“I am certain he does.”
Anna watched a flock of birds fly over and wished she were among them. She wanted out and it was driving her mad, so she wrapped her arms tightly around her knees.
Katie could see her tension and tried to think of ways to distract her. “Anna, do you want children?”
“I do not know, I have not thought about that. I suppose all lasses want children someday.”
“When a lass loves a lad, it is natural to want to give him children. We give our lads a happy home and children. In return, the lads protect us and see that we are fed.”
“When they are not snoring, you mean.”
Katie smiled. “Aye, when they are not snoring. A wise lass gets her lad to turn over so he does not snore.”
“How could I do that? Kevin is too big.”
“When he comes home, I will show you where to poke him.”
“Did your husband snore?”
Katie looped her arm through Anna’s and grinned. “He snored so loudly, he scared a wild boar away.” Just as she hoped, it seemed to lighten Anna’s mood. “He also made strange sounds when he ate. Had I known, I would never have married him. It was so unpleasant, I could not eat myself and I was feather thin by the end of our six months of marriage. My husband was lost at sea and when there was no hope of finding him, I came home. You will never guess what Kevin did when he saw me so thin.”
“He was very young at the time, brought me three bowls of food and demanded I eat them all.” Katie got up and pulled Anna to her feet. “Walk with me. Emily had her baby a month ago and I have not yet seen it.”
“The children do not like me. I see them when I walk, but they do not come near.”
“Their mothers have forbidden it.”
Katie led Anna around the corner of the Keep and chose the nearest path. She wondered why she hadn’t thought of it before; let the children keep Anna occupied. “The mothers were afraid one would hurt you. Shall we tell them you are well enough now?”
Anna’s eyes lit up.
As soon as they neared Emily’s cottage, the door opened and Emily welcomed them inside. Her cottage was neat and clean with simple furnishings, including one bed for her children, one for the adults and a table and chairs. She spoke in Gaelic and Katie interpreted. “Emily is honored to have you in her home. She wants to know if you would like to hold her baby.”
“I do not know how.” Anna confessed.
“Did you not hold your little sister?”
“No, I was not allowed.”
Katie explained it to Emily, who quickly pulled a chair away from the table and urged Anna to sit down. The box the baby slept in was made of strong sticks securely tied together with strips of leather. She lifted her child out of the box and carefully placed her in Anna’s arms.
Anna beamed and leaned down to put her cheek next to the baby’s cheek. It was the softest thing she had ever felt and she closed her eyes to savor the feeling. Then two little boys ran in, saw Anna and abruptly stopped. She handed the baby back to her mother and motioned for the boys to come. Each looked to their mother for permission and once she nodded, they ran to her. Anna was surprised when they wanted to touch her face. It was as though they needed to be sure it did not still hurt, and when the smallest one poked her cheek, she poked his back. That made him laugh.
“There now,” Katie said. “By nightfall, all the mothers will know, the place will be crawling with children again and they will all want to poke your face.”
“I will love it.”
It was a true blessing. Every time Anna went out to walk, the children gathered around. They poked her at first, but she knew games and tricks they had never seen before and they were fascinated. Once when Katie looked out the window, Anna was flat on the ground with laughing children crawling all over her and Katie couldn’t wait to tell Kevin --his wife doesn’t know it, but she wants children.
Word finally came by way of one of the king’s soldiers; they finally found Rachel. The Highlanders gathered their things, prepared the horses and were standing near the clearing watching Catherin pace back and forth.
Justin leaned close to Kevin, “How long should I wait before I marry her?”
Kevin looked surprised. “You prefer her?”
“Are you daft? Every unmarried lad in the clan will want her.”
“Then ‘tis a good thing you have the advantage.”
“It was you who saved her and it is you she talks to.” Catherin was pacing faster now and Kevin could only guess how hard it was for her to wait. “It will please my wife if her mother and sister live with us.”
“Aye. How old do you think Catherin is?”
Kevin smiled, “I do not even know how old Anna is, but I would guess Stoneham took Catherin when she was very young.”
Finally, Athena walked into the clearing with a child in her arms. Catherin screeched, began to run and as soon as Athena let Rachel down, the child turned and ran into her mother’s arms.
Behind Athena, the King of England sat on his horse watching. He got down when Athena walked back to him and was surprised when the woman boldly kissed his cheek. Grinning, he got back on his mount, returned Kevin’s nod of appreciation and rode away.
On the other side of Kevin, Thomas sighed. “It warms my heart to see such joy. Do you want me to ride ahead and tell your wife we are bringing them with us?”
“Nay, I wish to surprise her.”
Kevin and his warriors had been gone for most of three weeks when they finally neared the Keep. He told Justin to hide Catherin and Rachel in the trees so he could sneak them in later. Catherin didn’t look happy about that idea, but she didn’t make a fuss.
The men were tired, hungry and wanted to see their families. Instead of being inside the wall, the women, children and most of the guards were standing on the crest watching something in the meadow. Kevin almost didn’t go see what it was, but when his men headed over and the crowd laughed, it piqued his curiosity.
As soon as he swung down off his horse, Katie ran to him. “You are not going to believe this!” She grabbed his arm and was practically dragging him when he came to a sudden halt.
There she was. The horse was as big as he remembered and the woman was even more beautiful. She was wearing the same skirt with her purple tunic, belt and medallion. The only thing different was the white ruffled nightcap on her head and this time she carried no bow and arrows.
The woman slid off the horse and lay down in the field. The horse circled her once and then sidestepped until he was as close as he could get without stepping on her. Then the stallion nudged her side with his head. She didn’t move a muscle, so he nudged her again. Suddenly, she sprang up, patted his nose and ran away. The crowd roared.
It was the horse’s turn. He got down on all fours, laid down and rolled over on his back until his hooves were sticking up in the air. Again, the crowd roared.
“The horse showed up two days ago,” Katie said, watching the woman walk over to the horse. The woman took her bare foot and gently nudged the side of the horse, but the horse didn’t move and half the crowd was bent over with laughter. Again, the woman nudged the horse and this time the horse rolled away from her until he was on his side. The woman gently patted his neck, sat down on his side and then stretched out. She folded her arms and closed her eyes. The horse closed his eyes as well and they both looked like they were asleep.
Kevin was worried. “The horse cannot help but hurt her this time.”
“I have seen her do this twice before. Just watch.” said Katie.
The horse moved so slowly, it was a thing of beauty. He let the woman sit up, step off and move away before he rolled on his stomach and got his legs under him. Then he waited until she grabbed his mane and swung up on his back. As soon as they were up and trotting again, she moved to stand on his back, and when he stopped in the middle of the meadow, she slowly curtsied. The crowd cheered.
“How did you find her and what do I do now? I am married.”
Katie was surprised Anna’s ruffled nightcap hadn’t given it away. She put her hands on her hips and watched the side of his face. “‘Tis a sorry day when a MacGreagor does not recognize his own wife.”
His mouth dropped and he nearly went weak in the knees. He couldn’t take his eyes off her before, but now he saw her as his wife and she was even more magnificent.
“The horse swam the moat and nearly toppled the wall to get to her,” said Katie, “I have never seen anyone so happy to see a horse. I tell you Kevin, she rides like the wind and gave her guards quite a scare the first time she outran them.”
Anna slid down off the horse and started to walk away. The horse followed and began to nudge her back just as it had the first time Kevin saw her.
Katie continued, “We also have a visitor. The same morning the horse showed up, the guards found Anna’s friend, Harold, sleeping in the courtyard. He is the one who told us Stoneham was dead, her mother was free and you were looking for Rachel.”
“How did he get in?”
“No one knows and he is not telling, no matter how many of your men glare at him. He came to bring her belongings. Anna probably knows how he got in. In fact, it might take a lifetime to learn everything Anna knows and we must be grateful our mother taught us to speak English. Shall I get her attention?”
“She knows I am here. She shot an arrow between my legs, remember, and I was certain she had not noticed me then.”
Katie laughed, “She said she wasn’t aiming that low.”
He looked at his sister finally. “Do you mean she remembered me?”
“When you tried to find her that day, she hid in the forest to get a good look at your face. Then the first morning she was here, she recognized you.”
“I looked everywhere for her that day and each time I went back.”
“She tried to find you too...when her father finally let her out. Kevin, you have no idea how happy you made her when you told her about the lass on the horse.”
“I thought she would hate me forever.” He watched Anna sit down and then carefully turn until she was lying face up on the horse’s back. His smile widened even more when she finished her trick and the horse brought her to him.
“Threcher stop,” she said not two feet from him. Her eyes were dancing and she nearly forgot her manners until the horse started pawing the ground. “Oh, do forgive me. Threcher, this is my husband. You will obey him as you do me.” The horse nodded, curled a leg back, bowed and then stood back up.
“He might not let you touch me,” she warned, when Kevin moved closer. “He will need to get used to you first. In case you have not noticed, he is a very powerful horse. I have had him since the day he was born and sometimes I think he understands English. Tell me, are my mother and sister well? Did you find Rachel?”
She was so beautiful up close he could hardly think and Katie had to nudge him to get him to answer. “Aye, are you getting down off that horse?”
They had a very large audience, but neither of them seemed to notice. “That depends.”
He spread his legs apart and folded his arms, “On what?”
“I have not yet had a wedding feast and I wondered if that could be arranged.”
“It could. Is there anything else?”
“And what might that be?”
She grinned and once more stood up on the horse’s back. With her eyes closed, she began to turn and fall so she would land on her back in his arms. “You!”
It was the first time she had been kissed and she hardly knew what to expect, but the minute he set her down, put his strong arms around her and touched his lips to hers, she was completely lost in the wonder of it.
He didn’t hear the crowd cheering or feel his sister pat his arm before she walked away. All he could think about was how good she felt in his arms. He didn’t even notice when the horse trotted off to graze and the crowd left.
He kissed her, ravished her neck, lifted her into his arms, swung her around and kissed her again. Then he remembered he meant to bathe in the loch before he saw her.
When he finally set her down, she looked into his eyes. “Did you kill him?”
“Nay, the King of England killed him.”
She was astounded and couldn’t quite take it in. Finally, she asked, “Did you tell him what I said?”
“Aye, right before he died.”
“Good.” She took his hand and walked with him toward the drawbridge.
He let go of her hand and put his arm around her instead. “Should we put your horse in the stable?”
“I doubt anyone can.”
“Are you challenging us?”
“Not at all, I am protecting our property. You would not like knowing what happened to the last stable someone tried to put him in.”
He couldn’t stop looking at her and hadn’t heard much of what she said. He was sure ten thousand men could attack and he would still be looking at her, so he had to force himself to think of something else. “How did Harold get inside the hold?” When she started to laugh, he frowned. “Anna, it is for our protection. I must know.”
She sighed and gave in. “Well, Harold found Threcher. He also found my belongings and managed to recover some of them. He used what I am wearing now to tempt the horse so he would follow. It seems my horse likes purple. Threcher is nearly two hands taller than that sad thing Harold rides, so when they got here, Harold got them across the moat and used the two horses like stair steps to get over the wall and jump down. Unfortunately, he brought my clothing inside with him and Threcher was having none of it.”
“I would prefer you wear my plaid.”
“I know, but I worry the plaid will come undone when I ride. If it did and Threcher stepped on it...”
“I see your meaning.” A shiver ran down his spine just thinking about what could happen. He kissed her hard and then headed for the loch to bathe.
She watched him take the clean clothing one of the women handed him and sighed. “I believe I like kissing very much -- but that is all.”
Kevin invited his twenty most trusted men and their wives to join them for the evening meal. Half his men were unmarried and he wondered just how much competition Justin would have. Two hours before, the cooks began to prepare the meal, men carried water up for his wife’s bath and women brought bouquets of flowers to adorn the great hall. Anna hadn’t changed a thing, but no matter, he was convinced she would once she felt it was her home. He wanted everything to be perfect for his surprise and so far, it was.
All they had to do was wait for her and he couldn’t keep from glancing toward her door every thirty seconds or so. He reminded Thomas one more time to tell everyone not to notice when her mother and sister came in. Then he saw the annoyed look on Thomas’ face.
At last, her door opened and she walked out. She couldn’t have been more becoming. She wore his plaid and moved along the balcony with such grace it took his breath away. On her head, she wore a blue scarf the same color as her eyes that hung down her back to her waist.
When she started down the stairs, she noticed how quiet it had gotten, so she stopped and wrinkled her brow. She tilted her head to one side and asked, “Is something amiss?”
“Nothing could be amiss tonight, I would not let it be,” her husband answered, heading to the bottom of the stairs to meet her.
Thomas leaned closer to Katie, “I did not even guess how bonnie she would be.”
“That’s right; you have been away while she was healing. She does not know how beautiful she is either. She keeps asking why the men stare at her. She thinks it is her lack of hair, but Kevin will soon notice and have a few heads.” Katie watched her brother kiss his wife and cheered with the rest of the gathering.
“Does that mean you did not miss me, Lass?” Thomas asked.
Katie looked at the gleam in his eye and blushed. Too soon, Kevin and Anna were standing in front of her and it was her duty to keep talking until the surprise arrived. So she talked…and talked...until blessedly, Kevin interrupted.
“Anna, turn around.”
“No, I want to hear what your sister has to say.” But Katie stopped talking. Then she heard a small voice behind her say, “My Anna.” She spun around so fast, she nearly toppled over. “Rachel?” She ran to her mother and soon, mother and daughter were hugging, kissing, and nearly squishing Rachel between them.
“My Anna,” the little girl announced again.
Anna moved away and fully intended to take Rachel out of her mother’s arms, but the child reached for Justin instead. He was more than happy to take her and lifted her high in the air until she giggled.
Anna wanted to introduce her to Katie, but her mother turned to look at the closed door. The room grew quiet and the guests parted when Catherin slowly moved toward it. Anna motioned for the guard to move away and followed her mother.
Catherin paused and for a very long time she stared at the handle. Her hand was shaking, but she finally managed to get a firm hold on it and began to pull. It was a heavy door and Kevin thought to help her, but Anna shook her head. Catherin added her other hand and when the door opened, a look of sheer joy crossed her face. She let the guard hold the door open for her and headed out.
In the light of a full moon, the dark courtyard was a dusty blue when Catherin walked straight across it until she reached the raised drawbridge and stopped. Behind her, Anna and all thirty-one guests followed. With Kevin’s nod, the bridge began to lower and as soon as it was secure, Catherin glanced back, spotted Rachel sitting on Justin’s shoulder and then started across.
“Is she going back to England?” Justin whispered to Kevin.
“If she is, it seems we are all going with her.”
Catherin turned toward the meadow where Threcher was grazing. When they reached the crest, the crowd stopped to watch. Anna hurried to catch up, and without a word, took her mother’s hand and made her stop. Then she let go, moved away, reached both of her arms out with her palms up and slowly began to spin. In a few seconds, her mother did the same.
“What are they doing?” asked Kevin.
Katie answered, “They are tasting freedom. Anna did the same thing when we finally let her out.”
Athena said, “A MacGreagor did this to them and it will be MacGreagors who set it right.” Everyone nodded.
Anna grabbed her mother’s hand and pointed. The horse was turning around and around and when she saw it, Catherin burst out laughing. Soon mother and daughter were laughing so hard, they had to sit down in the meadow.
Katie asked Rachel if she was hungry and when the child nodded, she took her off Justin’s shoulder and led the guests back inside. That left only Kevin and Justin to watch the women play in the meadow like children, and Kevin wondered if he would ever get them to come back inside. He began to doubt it even more when Catherin wanted to spin again and Anna joined her. Then he wondered if the women even knew he and Justin were there.
Dizzy, Anna and her mother had to hug each other to keep from falling and finally sat down in the grass. Unaware the breeze would carry their words to the men, they began to talk.
“Mother, there are good people here. They are so kind and loving; I hardly know what to do. I have thanked them so often I am certain they have grown weary of hearing it.”
“Your husband and Justin are kind, but...”
“I believe my husband is a very good man. I love him, Mother. I realize I know little of love, but my heart leaps when he is near me. Did you love my father at first?”
“Anna, I was twelve. What could I have known of love?”
“Twelve,” Justin breathed. “That scunner!”
“Am I too young to know of love?” Anna asked.
Catherin brushed a strand of Anna’s hair out of her daughter’s face. “At seventeen, you are twice as wise and three times more brave than I will ever be. You must be the one to decide if you are old enough to love.”
Kevin shifted his weight. “Good heavens, her mother is not much older than I am.”
“Mother, will you stay for just a little while and learn about these people?”
“I am afraid.”
“I know, I am terrified too.”
The women were looking at the men now and Kevin’s mind was racing. He knew Catherin was frightened, but Anna hadn’t seemed afraid since that first day when she wouldn’t give him her hand. What terrified her?
“I am thinking of Rachel,” Anna was saying. “I want to see her in a home where there is love and joy, not fear.”
Catherin sighed, “I want that too.”
“If you leave, where will you go?”
“I do not know. I will never go back to that place of torment and unhappiness.”
“Neither will I.” Anna leaned over and put her head on her mother’s shoulder.
Catherin hugged her daughter, but didn’t seem willing to take her eyes off the men. “How will we escape?”
“We?” Kevin muttered.
“It will not be easy,” Anna admitted. She sat back up, pulled a hand full of grass out of the ground and let the blades slowly slip through her fingers. “They watch every move I make. It is for my protection, my husband says, but it is far more protection than I care to have. I am not at all sure I could endure a whole life of it.”
“Have the men held you down?”
Justin didn’t want to hear what that meant, but he stayed where he was just the same.
Kevin knew exactly what it meant. He took a deep breath and let it out. No wonder she was terrified. He heard someone walk up behind him and turned to look. Holding Rachel in her arms, Athena didn’t stop. Instead, she took the child to her mother, exchanged a few whispers with the women and came back.
Athena stood in front of Kevin with her arms folded and watched his eyes. “They want to leave. Let them go.”
“How can I, she is my wife and it is not safe for them out there alone.”
“Anna was brought here against her will and for days you have imprisoned her. Her mother has been locked away for two years. Do you really think you can keep them?”
“There must be a way to convince them we will not harm them.”
“Kevin, I rode beside Catherin all the way back and told her everything I could think of about us.”
“She did not believe you?”
“I doubt she even heard me. She is free, but she is not really free until she is allowed to make her own decisions.”
“She can make her own decisions here.”
Athena closed her eyes and slowly opened them again. “Kevin, what does a horse do when you first take off his bridle and set him free?”
“He runs,” Justin answered.
“Aye, Catherin wants to run too. It is all she can think about. You can talk, but she does not hear your words.”
“I cannot let Anna go, I love her.”
“Then show her how much you love her by letting her go. They must know they are free to leave whenever they want.”
“Athena is right, Kevin. It pains me to say it, but she is right. We have to let them go.” Justin looked at Catherin one last time and then walked with Athena back across the bridge.
Anna and her mother stood up and watched Kevin for a moment, but when he didn’t make a move, Anna snapped her fingers and the stallion walked to her. She swung up on his back, took Rachel and then gave her mother a hand up. For a long moment, Anna just sat there looking at him until finally, she mumbled something to the horse. Threcher turned, walked away from Kevin and disappeared into the forest.
Kevin stood there for another hour waiting, but Anna didn’t come back and his heart was actually hurting. He’d never felt that kind of pain before and didn’t think he would survive it. A thousand thoughts were going through his mind. The women hadn’t taken a thing with them; they’d not even eaten their evening meal. Anna had no bow and arrows and no dagger. How would they live?
By the end of the next hour, Katie finally walked out to him. She lifted his arm and forced him to put it around her. “Anna started stealing things. We might not have realized what she was doing, but one of the men noticed her hips were wider leaving than they were coming back. Her horse outran her guard five times in the last two days. She has hidden things in the forest somewhere.”
“She planned this?”
“Not this exactly, but she would have gone soon anyway. At least, they are not totally without. She has a bow and arrows, two daggers and three plaids that I know of. They will be fine.”
“Does she know how to sneak up on her prey?”
“She can split an apple in half with an arrow and from a considerable distance.” Katie hugged her brother. “Anna didn’t seem interested in doing anything except walk every inch of the grounds. I think now she was trying to find a way out, in case you...”
“In case I tried to force her into my bed.” He closed his eyes. “She told her mother she loves me. Was she lying?”
“Nay, but she said loving you hurt too much. That was when you were gone and she was worried about you.”
“Now she is gone and I am worried. She is right, love hurts too much.”
“Come inside, all we can do is pray love will bring Anna back.”
She didn’t come back. A week passed and when each night came, Kevin stood in the window of the bedchamber, he hoped to share with her, watching the meadow until he finally crawled into bed. Then another week passed and another.
He realized he was acting like a soppy teenager instead of a twenty-six-year old man and he had to force himself to concentrate on his responsibilities. Each time a messenger or another laird came, he silently prayed for word of her. There was no word of her. How was it possible she managed to keep so well hidden in Scotland? It was the horse, he realized and he remembered to be grateful they had such a good protector.
A hundred times, he made up his mind to send men out to look for her, but Athena and Katie always talked him out of it. Besides, they could have left Scotland and be in the heart of England by now. Did Anna have aunts and uncles they could go to? He admitted he had no idea. In fact, he knew very little about his wife. All they really talked about was her father.
He thought about how happy she was to see him when he came home, and about the first time he could really hold her and kiss her. But those few minutes went by too quickly. What haunted him the most was the feel of her when she laid her injured head on his chest and listened to his heart. She stayed there for a long time and it was still vivid in his mind. Half of the time, he hated that memory and the other half, he believed it was the only reason his heart kept beating.
Justin wasn’t handling it much better and sometimes Kevin spotted him leaning against a tree at the edge of the meadow. There were details of men assigned to hunt, fish and cut wood, but each time they went out, they came back -- without Anna.
Anna sat in the warm afternoon sun on a large rock, wearing traditional English clothing, and hugging Kevin’s neatly folded plaid. Threcher grazed while Rachel picked wild flowers in the small clearing.
“I have never loved a man,” Catherin said, sitting next to her daughter on the same rock.
“It is not altogether pleasant; missing Kevin takes all my strength. I am not as brave as I thought.”
“I think about Justin sometimes.”
“Do you?” Anna smiled. “Justin is a good man.”
“I trusted him, but I do not know why. Rachel loves him and wanted to be constantly with him when we rode to the MacGreagors.”
“Did he mind?”
“He did not seem to. She fell asleep on his shoulder and he often kissed her cheek. I have never seen a man do that before.” Catherin giggled. “I wanted him to kiss my cheek too.”
“And let you fall asleep on his shoulder?”
Catherin laughed. “Aye.”
“On a horse?”
Catherin couldn’t stop laughing long enough to answer and nodded instead. At length, she took several deep breaths to calm herself. “It feels so good to laugh. I swear, I will never let anyone take the laughter away again.”
“Nor will I.”
Her dark memories started to fog her mind, but Catherin pushed them away, “Justin tried to teach me how to carve wood and he did not yell when I made a mistake.”
“All lads yell, even Harold.”
“Justin did not. He is a thoughtful man. His English is not good, but he does not speak until he is sure of what to say.”
“I believe you like him.”
“I believe I do too. But...” Catherin started to leap up when Rachel fell, but the child laughed and Catherin relaxed.
“We are afraid they will hold us down.”
“Aye. If Athena were here, she would tell us the truth. The King said she broke a man’s arm.”
“Did she? I would like to learn how to do that.”
“So would I. Do you think they would let Rachel and I live with Athena?” Catherin asked.
“Perhaps. Would you rather have a cottage of your own?”
“I would indeed. I wonder if your husband would let me.”
“I think my husband would let you do whatever you want. He let us leave and did not chase us. I thought he would. If he had, I would have hated him for it.”
“Perhaps he is wise as well as handsome. But the wall, Anna. I cannot live again inside a wall.”
Kevin sat on the bed, unlaced one of his shoes and took it off. He was exhausted, but just like all the other nights; he didn’t want to sleep without at least knowing she was alive. He looked around the room. Everything was exactly the same as it had been before he rode out that day to make Anna his wife. She changed nothing and now there was little evidence she had ever been there. The scarf Mary made for her hair and the clothing she wore to ride her horse the day she left were still there. However, Katie put those away so he wouldn’t have to see them. Sometimes, he touched his mother’s hand mirror just because she had touched it. No one spoke of Anna now, not even Katie, and he admitted there wasn’t much left to say.
She was his for just a moment, quick to come and even quicker to pass away. He tried to think what he could have done differently. He shouldn’t have made her stay inside the wall and if she came back, he vowed he would never do it again. He would see that the bridge remained down all day and raised only at night or when there was certain danger. He didn’t like the idea of not having a guard with her, but he was willing to ask her what she wanted when she came back...if she came back.
He pulled off his other shoe, stretched out on the same bed she once slept in and stared at nothing at all. She was gone, she might not ever come back and he had to find a way to live with it.
Kevin closed his eyes and whispered, “Come back to me, Anna MacGreagor.”
When he glanced out the window just after sunrise, Kevin spotted a man sleeping in the middle of the meadow. Harold! How had he forgotten about Harold? Kevin wasn’t completely dressed. One shoe was on, the other was not, and he couldn’t have cared less. He went flying down the stairs and out the door, yelling for Justin on the way. He could hardly wait until the drawbridge was lowered so he could get out. Then he ran into the meadow with Justin, Thomas and Clymer right behind him.
Harold heard the noisy bridge come down and stood up to greet them. For a moment, he wasn’t sure Kevin was going to stop before he ran him down, and the other three looked like they would trample him as well. When they finally did stop, he stroked the side of his beard. “I have begun to worry about you MacGreagors. I have been in and out of your hold three times since I got here.”
“How?” Thomas demanded.
That was the last thing on Kevin’s mind. “Have you seen Anna? Is she well? Do you know where she is?”
Harold smiled. “A little worried about her, are you?”
“Worried? I have nearly lost my mind.”
“Well now,” Harold began, walking slowly away with the men following close behind. He knelt down, picked up a rock and started to examine it. “They showed up on my doorstep a few weeks ago. I do not mind telling you, I was surprised to see them. What do you suppose they wanted to do?”
“I have no idea,” answered Kevin.
“They wanted to burn that hell house they called home.”
“And did they?”
“Aye, they burned it two days running. The first day, it didn’t burn completely, so they lit it again. Then they shouted their rage and called Stoneham a few names I have never heard before. I believe some names were in your fine language. After that, they danced, drank wine and celebrated.”
“Are they still there?”
“No.” Harold turned his back and walked to another stone. Again, the Highlanders followed.
“Where are they?”
“Just wait, I am getting to it. They were worried about the servants, so I helped find good positions for them. Next, they wanted to swim. They swam every day for two weeks straight and they stayed in the water until they were wrinkled from head to toe. Watching those two swim is a thing of beauty.”
It was Justin who questioned him next. “Did they laugh? I love it when Catherin laughs.”
“Did they? They could hardly stop laughing. They cried too. They cried so hard they broke my heart and gave themselves a vile headache -- which made them laugh again. They were helping each other heal, you see.”
Again, Harold walked a little closer to the trees before he continued, “Laird MacGreagor, Anna said to say thank you for not coming after her. She feared you would and she needed this time with her mother. I could tell you stories...oh well, we best not get into that.”
“Is she coming back?”
“I will not say just yet. You see, Anna had to wait until her mother figured out where to go and what to do. With her husband dead, she has no one to tend her or any family to turn to but Anna.”
“Does she not understand we will gladly care for her?” Justin asked.
“I cannot rightly say what Catherin understands.” He turned then and looked directly at Kevin. “They need a door in the wall. They can swim the moat, but they need to be able to go out whenever their fear overcomes them. Do you agree?”
For the first time in weeks, Kevin felt there was hope. He quickly nodded. “We will begin it today.”
“Good. Put it as close to the forest as possible so they can slip into the woods before any enemy sees them. If you are not aware of how to hide a door in a wall, I will assist you. I have three of my own. Next, Catherin wants a cottage where she can raise Rachel in peace. She wants to learn to protect herself and how to cook. She wants Athena to teach her. I think it would be good for both of Stoneham’s wives.”
“Done!” Justin said.
“Anna says your people will not let her learn how to do anything and she feels useless. Can you correct this problem?”
Kevin quickly nodded, “I can and I will.” He could feel her before he saw her, and held his breath as he slowly turned to look behind him. She was standing next to her mother with Threcher on the other side.
Rachel started to squirm, so Catherin let her down and when she ran to him, Justin caught the child, swung her up high and then kissed her cheek. “I am so happy to see you, Lassie.” He lifted her high again and made Rachel giggle. He hoped, but he hadn’t expected it when Catherin walked to him. “I am happy to see you as well.”
“I want...I mean, Anna said...I…,” Catherin couldn’t seem to get it out and looked to him for help.
“I will not deny you.”
His words gave her the courage she needed. “I want to hear your heart.”
He set Rachel down and opened his arms. She was hesitant, but she timidly moved into his arms and put her ear to his chest. He wasn’t sure if he should, but he softly wrapped his arms around her. She didn’t stay long, but it was enough for both of them. It was a beginning.
“I will build you a cottage anywhere you like.” Justin picked Rachel back up and turned them toward the Keep. “Athena will be glad to see you and she will...”
Thomas and Clymer each grabbed one of Harold’s arms and began to walk him toward the bridge. Each demanded to know exactly how he got in this time.
Kevin hadn’t taken his eyes off his wife. He knew she was terrified, so he waited. When she finally looked at him, he thought of his shoe problem. He smiled, pointed to the foot with the shoe and then to the one without.
She returned his smile, but she was trembling when she slowly started toward him. Where had all her courage gone? She was still a good ten feet away when she stopped.
“I love you,” he said.
“I have loved you for years.”
She nervously giggled and then she grew deadly serious. “I must know...”
“Anything, you may ask me anything.”
“Are you going to have your lads hold me down?”
“Anna, my lads would never do such a thing. They would rather cut out my heart.” He wanted to reach out to her so badly it hurt. Still, he waited. “Did your father’s lads hold you down?”
“No, just my mother. I saw it start once, but when she screamed, I ran away. I have been so ashamed of not helping her.” A tear rolled down her cheek and she wiped it away.
“Would you like me to hold you?” Suddenly, she ran into his arms. He wanted to comfort her, but she wanted to be kissed, so he lowered his lips to hers and remembered to be gentle and loving.
In the window of the Keep, Katie sighed. “At last.”
It was another two weeks of long walks, talking, laughing and kissing before Anna began to feel more comfortable. She wanted to know every detail of what would happen when she came into his bedchamber and he didn’t hold back a single thing. Sometimes, he explained two different ways until he was sure she understood. When he told her again that she would find pleasure in it, she rolled her eyes.
Then at last, she opened the door to his bedchamber in the middle of the night and went in to his waiting arms.
RACHEL -- had a dark secret and even she didn't know what it was. She was seventeen, determined to become as good a warrior as any Highlander, and was firmly against taking a husband. Connor had other ideas. He loved Rachel and when a rival clan took her, he thought he would lose his mind. How would he ever get her back and if he did, would her dark secret separate them forever?