Excerpt from Perfect Strangers

     Gabrielle sneezed, sniffled, then wiped her eyes and nose on the cloth. Distracted, it took a second for the reality of the situation to seep in. Sweet Lord, she was alone in the chamber with none other than The Black Douglas. Her heartbeat accelerated, heating the already fevered blood in her veins. She shivered and yanked the blanket up protectively close beneath her chin.
     "Cold?" Connor asked as he eased himself onto Mairghread's recently vacated seat. The wooden chair legs groaned beneath his weight.
     "Aye, a bit chilly," Gabrielle lied. Her shiver had nothing to do with the damp night air and everything to do with this man's commanding presence. However, there was no reason he should know that.
     "Then Mairghread was right for once. 'Tis maun soup ye be needing to warm ye up on the inside and chase away those fever chills." Gabrielle watched, transfixed, as he dipped the spoon into the soup, coming up with a hearty mouthful. Compared to the gnarled old hand that had so recently held it, Connor's big hand dwarfed the spoon handle until the utensil looked sized for a child. "Here ye go, lass. Eat up and get well. The preacher will not wait fore'er, don't ye ken?"
     "If you're thinking... Oh, nay, I will not. I—" Her words were cut short as, seizing the opportunity of her open mouth, Connor shoved the spoonful of soup past her lips. He used the bowl of the spoon to not only catch the drop of broth that trickled down her chin but to also nudge her gaping mouth shut before more broth could spill out.
     Gabrielle chewed swiftly, barely noticing that the once-tasty soup now had the flavor of mud. A wave of irritation swept though her. Oh, but it was difficult to suppress the urge to finish what she'd started, and tell this heathen exactly what she thought of him and his impatient preacher.
     She swallowed down the soup and was in the process of opening her mouth to vent her mounting ire... only to find she had no breath left in her lungs to vent it with. Her breathing had paused just beneath her hammering heart when Connor plucked the cloth from her hand and wiped the residue of broth from her chin.
     Gabrielle stared at him. The gesture left her speechless. Nay, that was wrong. It wasn't the gesture that stunned her so much as the gentleness with which he'd accomplished it.
     While The Black Douglas was known for many things, consideration wasn't one of them. Was it possible the rumors and ballads about this man were wrong? That he wasn't in truth the heartless, barbaric monster they all painted him?
     Gabrielle suppressed a groan. Dear Lord, she must be sicker than she originally thought to even be considering such a notion. Was this not, after all, the same man who'd flagrantly—and much too easily, as far as she was concerned—stolen her, his brother's fiancée, right out from under the other man's nose? Was this not the same man who claimed it a rightful theft, the same man who'd then boldly bragged about marrying her himself?
     Aye, it was. But, Gabrielle found all of those misdeeds hard to remember when the feel of Connor's strong, cloth-covered fingers gently skimming her jaw still lingered and tingled in her veins.
     "Here, lass, swallow down another bite. 'Tis good and hearty fare, just the thing for a sick wench." He'd dipped the spoon back into the bowl and now held it close to her tightly compressed lips.
     Gabrielle shook her head. She was wise enough this time not to open her mouth to voice the protest that itched the tip of her tongue.
     Her attention had been locked on the closed door at the foot of the bed. It now lifted to his face.
     From a distance, his eyes had looked... well, merely gray. Up close, she saw that there was nothing "merely" about them. The irises were predominantly slate colored, yet now she noticed they were also flecked with intriguing shards of brilliant blue. The darkness of his eyebrows, and the uncommonly long, thick black eyelashes, contrasted sharply, complementing and enhancing their color.
     She shook her head to clear it, ignoring the way the gesture set her temples to throbbing anew. "I'll not be marrying you, Connor Douglas, so get that notion out of your head right now."
     This time, Gabrielle was prepared. She kept her teeth clenched together as she talked, giving him no opportunity to shove more food into her mouth.
     Connor frowned and looked vaguely disappointed.
     Gabrielle gritted her teeth until her jaw hurt almost as much as her pounding head and aching throat. Did he truly think her so stupid she would fall for that trick more than once? If so, the man had a good deal to learn about Careltons and their intelligence... not to mention their stubborn determination!
     "Right now me main concern is nursing ye back to health. What's done is done, and cannot be undone. What happens after ye're well will happen. There's naught ye can do aboot it. Ye're... er, a robust lass, I'll grant ye that, but naught more than a lass all the same. If I chose to wed ye, there's not a thing ye can do to stop me."
     "That's where you're wrong. There are several things I can, and will, do," Gabrielle replied tightly, even as her fevered mind scrambled to think of what even one of those things might be. "You realize that..."—ah-ha!—"that Elizabeth will have your head when she finds out what you've done, do you not?"
     "Elizabeth isn't my sovereign, she's yers." Connor replaced the spoon in the bowl, then sat back in the chair, his shrewd gray gaze never leaving her. "And aye, the messenger she sent this afternoon did mention something aboot separating me head from me shoulders, but I paid the threat no heed."
     She sucked in a quick breath. The Queen had sent a messenger? And The Black Douglas had blatantly ignored the threat the messenger carried? Was the man insane?! Did he not know that, while Elizabeth could ignore much, never could the woman stand to be ignored herself?
     "What about your young king?" Gabrielle asked, and winced. Even to her own ears, her voice sounded weak, shaky, lacking its previous conviction. "Methinks James will be equally displeased with what you've done."
     A reckless grin that made Gabrielle's heart skip a beat tugged at one corner of Connor's mouth. "Och! but there's the rub. Ye're right aboot him not being pleased, but I've gotten him angrier in the past. Jamie threatens only a fine." When she regarded him suspiciously, he shrugged and added, "His messenger arrived as the Queen's was leaving, and shortly a'fore twa sent by the March Wardens. Squeezed in between those was a messenger from the Maxwell. Er, I think that be the order. Truth to tell, I dinny remember exactly, there were so many messengers coming and going. 'Tis been a busy afternoon."
     That even one messenger had come was music to Gabrielle's ears. Surely with so many protests and threats The Black Douglas would have to let her go now.
     Wouldn't he?
     Her gaze raked his face; Connor's features were ruggedly carved, his expression decisive. A glint of persistence shimmered like liquid gray fire in his eyes.
     An uneasy feeling prickled along the nape of Gabrielle's neck. The Black Douglas looked more determined than ever to keep and wed her.
     She shuddered. This would never do!
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