Quinlan was the first to laugh. The others quickly followed his sinful example. Her embarrassment intensified, of course, and she desperately tried to think of a way to turn their attention away from her eating habits.
None of them was ready to change the topic, however.
"Isn't it a fine, spring evening?" she asked.
"Do you eat more when you're nervous?" Quinlan asked.
What an odd question. "No," she answered.
The rude men all laughed again. She waited for them to quiet down before once again trying to change the subject.
"Connor, will you introduce me to your soldiers?"
"They'll introduce themselves."
She already knew Owen and Quinlan by name, of course, and when she looked at the other three warriors, they each told her their names.
Aeden was the thinnest of the group, though he still wouldn't be considered puny by an Englishman's measure, she supposed, and Donald was the name of the soldier with the big brown eyes that reminded her of a doe's.
Giric was the shy one in the group. He could barely look directly at her when he told her his name.
"It's a pleasure to meet all of you," she announced once they'd finished.
"May I ask you a question, mi'lady?" Quinlan said.
"Yes," she answered.
"When you first saw us, you were afraid. Some of us were wondering why."
"Did you think we were going to harm you?" Aeden asked. He added a smile, indicating he found the possibility amusing. "You were praying."
"Yes, I was praying, and yes, I did believe you were going to harm me."
"But after, mi'lady," Owen said. "After you knew we meant you no harm, weren't you still afraid? I wondered why."
Hadn't any of them ever looked in a mirror? Or did they have such luxuries where they lived?
She decided it would be unkind to point out how peculiar they looked, and so she simply shrugged and didn't say anything at all.
None of them wanted to let it go. "Was it our war paint that put you on your guard?" Owen asked.
"I really don't care to answer, for I have no wish to hurt your feelings."
For some reason, her honesty made the men laugh again. She decided to be a bit more blunt then.
"However, I will admit it was your war paint that put me on my guard. Yes, it was," she emphasized with a nod. "And your size, and your dress, and your manners, and your intimidating frowns, and the way my father's twelve soldiers cowered to the five of you… Shall I go on?"
She could tell they'd taken her comments as compliments. She really should set them straight, she thought, and explain she hadn't been at all impressed with them—no proper English lady in her right mind would be—but then a fresh worry popped into her head, and she immediately looked at Connor.
"I'm not wearing war paint. You might as well understand that fact right this minute. It's barbaric, Connor, and you cannot expect me to…"
The men's laughter stopped her protest. Connor didn't laugh, of course; the man never laughed as far as she could tell, but he did smile. Her heart noticed by pounding a quick beat. He had beautiful white teeth, all of them did, and she wondered how they could put such ugly paint on their skin and take such good care of their teeth at the same time. They really were a peculiar lot, all right. Would she ever be able to understand them or find her place among them?
"Women aren't given the honor."
She didn't know what he was talking about. "What honor?"
"Paint," he explained. "The tradition belongs to warriors alone."
Connor didn't look as though he was jesting, and so she didn't dare laugh. The effort cost her, though.
Her throat ached considerably from the strain of being polite.
"Have you never seen a Highlander before, mi'lady? Do you know anything at all about us?" Giric asked in a whisper. He was blushing to the roots of his freckles and, in his shyness, had directed his question to the ground.
"When I was younger, I thought I knew all about you. I even knew where you lived."
"Where did you think we lived?" Donald asked, smiling over the sparkle he'd noticed in his mistress's eyes.
"Under my bed. You came out only at night, while I was sleeping. I'd always wake up screaming, of course, and run like lightning to my parents' chamber."
She expected the men to laugh over her jest, or at the very least, smile a little. Unfortunately, none of them seemed to understand she was teasing them. Three of them looked confused; the other two looked appalled.
"Did you just insult us?" Owen asked. He sounded as though he couldn't believe such an atrocity was possible.
"No, I was jesting. For heaven's sake, couldn't you tell the difference?"
They all shook their heads. Quinlan had the most difficulty hiding his smile. "It seems your bride has been dreaming about you for years, Laird," he drawled out.
"It would seem so," he agreed.
She didn't even try to hide her exasperation. The effort to have a decent conversation with them was making her head throb, and being polite was a wasted undertaking.
She gave up trying. "Connor, may I be excused?"
She bowed her head to the men and walked away. She had already headed for the lake with her hairbrush, fresh clothing, and her blanket in her arms before Connor got around to giving her permission.
She reached the break in the pines, stopped, and then glanced back over her shoulder.
"They weren't dreams. They were nightmares."
They didn't laugh until she was well out of sight, but the sound of their amusement was loud enough to reach the other side of the lake. She didn't believe the soldiers had finally gotten her jest, though; they appeared to be too slow-witted for that. She assumed Connor had made an atrocious remark about something his men would find humorous, like murder and mayhem. They all seemed to have a twisted sense of humor. She'd come to her opinion when she saw them smiling like heathens after Connor had told them they could kill the English soldiers. And hadn't they pouted like boys when the order was rescinded?
Brenna was immediately nagged by guilt. She knew she shouldn't continue to judge Connor so harshly.
Could he help it if he was a barbarian or that he had been raised like a wild animal? No, no, of course he couldn't. Besides, he was her husband now. She was going to be stuck with him for the rest of her life, and shouldn't she at least try to like him?
Did he expect to take her to his bed tonight? She tried to block the frightening possibility as soon as it entered her mind. That was easier said than done, however; Lord help her, she couldn't even think about Connor touching her without shaking in panic. She knew her reaction wasn't at all reasonable. She was a grown woman now, not a child, and, therefore, understood what was expected of her. Her mother had patiently explained that all husbands wanted to bed their wives as soon as the wedding festivities ended.
She hadn't given her daughter any specifics though, and while Brenna understood the basics, or at least believed she did, she'd still been left guessing about the finer points. It all sounded horribly awkward and messy to her.
Brenna wouldn't worry about it. If Connor decided to bed her, perhaps God would take pity on her and let her sleep through the ordeal.
She smiled over this fanciful notion while she stripped out of her clothes. She ran into the water before she could change her mind, gritted her teeth against the chill, and hurriedly washed.
Just as she was getting out, she heard someone approach. She moved back into the water, until she was covered to her chin, and waited.
A minute or so later, Connor appeared. A plaid was draped over his arm.
"It's time to get out."
"I would have privacy when I do."
She couldn't believe he needed to ask. "Because I require it."
"You're going to freeze to death. Come out. Now." His hard command didn't leave room for argument.
"I will not get out. I'm not wearing anything. I really must have privacy now."
He pretended not to notice she'd shouted at him. "No one's here," he said.
"You're here, and you're standing right in the moonlight. I cannot come out until you leave."
His bride had dared to shout at him again. He shook his head over her audacity. "Don't raise your voice to me."
He sounded as though he'd run out of patience. She reminded herself she'd vowed to get along and thought that perhaps if she gave him what he wanted, he would naturally reciprocate in kind.
Her lips were getting numb from the frigid water and her teeth were chattering so, she could barely speak at all now. "All right then. I won't shout. Will you please leave now?"
Her husband obviously didn't understand how to reciprocate. She'd have to explain it all to him later, but not now. Her skin was wrinkling like old prunes, and if she didn't get out soon, she really would freeze to death.
Pride was killing her. "I cannot possibly get out."
"Why? Are you embarrassed?"
He sounded surprised by the possibility. She closed her eyes, said a fast prayer for endurance, then answered, "Of course I'm embarrassed."
"Shyness has no place between us. Do you want me to come in after you?"
"I'll drown you if you do."
The ridiculous threat made him smile. "Will it help if I take my clothes off?"
She didn't realize he was teasing her, and honest to God, if she shouted at him once more, he thought he just might go in and get her.
"Connor, will you at least turn your back while I get dressed?"
His sigh was strong enough to push her under the water. "You're being very foolish."
She didn't mind his criticism. She got what she wanted, after all. He finally turned around. She hurried up the bank and dried herself with all possible haste. Fearing there wouldn't be enough time before her impatient husband turned around, she didn't bother putting on her chemise but slipped the white cotton gown over her head.
Pink ribbons secured the thin undergown from the bottom of her waist to the top of her chin. Her fingers felt as though they were being pricked by a thousand sharp pins now, making the task terribly awkward, and try as she did, she couldn't get the delicate ribbons properly tied.
She gave up on the task for the moment. The heavy tunic she planned to put over the undergown would sufficiently cover her bare chest. The problem was getting to the thing. She'd draped the garment on a low-hanging branch so it wouldn't get dirty, but she'd have to walk around Connor to get to it. She wasn't about to let him see her in such an indecent state and was forced to ask him to please hand it to her.
He turned around instead. She started backing away from him, thinking only to put a little distance between them, but then she felt herself slipping on the wet slope. She would have fallen flat on her face or plunged back into the water, but Connor saved her from disgracing herself by pulling her back to safety.
If he hadn't looked so disgruntled, she would have thanked him for his assistance.
She pulled her gown tight over her br**sts and frowned with disapproval.
"I want you to understand you have nothing to fear from me. My duty is to take care of you, not harm you."
"I don't fear you."
"You just backed away from me," he reminded her dryly. "You were obviously frightened a minute ago."
She shook her head. The ribbon holding her hair up in a lopsided knot near the top of her crown flew into the water, and the thick mass of curls dropped down around her shoulders.
Looking at her in such a disheveled state gave him a sudden rush of pleasure. She was the most provocative creature he'd ever met. A man could get lost in the magic of those big blue eyes of hers and forget all about his duties while he paused to admire the sensual grace in the way she moved.
What the hell was wrong with him? Brenna wasn't casting a spell on him, yet he was acting as though she were. He quickly became irritated. He wasn't about to let her rob him of his discipline, and damn, but she was a bother.
And a temptress. All he wanted to think about was kissing her frown away and making hard, hot love to her.
She would probably die of fright if she had any idea of his thoughts. She couldn't possibly know how alluring she was, or how his body was reacting to her near nakedness. She wouldn't be frowning up at him with such indignation if she realized how close she was to being tossed onto the nearest blanket.
"Stop shaking your head at me," he ordered in a gruff voice.
"I was merely letting you know, most emphatically, that I wasn't frightened. It's just that I didn't expect you to turn around, and I was surprised. Your manners do give me grave concerns."
He smiled. Her eyes widened in disbelief. "Manners aren't important to you?"
"No? But you should think they're important."
"Why?" she repeated. Her mind went blank. Heaven help her, she couldn't come up with a single reason.
The way Connor was looking at her, with such warmth and tenderness in his eyes, made her forget even what they'd been talking about.
She took a step closer to him. "You are a very confusing man," she whispered. "But if I am to keep my sanity, I guess I'll have to try to understand you. You'd better be worth the bother, Connor."
Almost as an afterthought, she said, "You may let go of me now."
He didn't feel like letting go of her, and because he was accustomed to doing exactly what he wanted to do, he ignored her wishes. Her soft skin, as smooth as an angel's and the color of pale gold in the moonlight, felt good against his rough, callused hands.
How had this treasure eluded other men?
"Haven't you ever been courted by other men?"
"I was betrothed to a baron, but he died before I was old enough to marry him. I never actually met the man, or many others for that matter. Father wouldn't allow any men around his daughters, especially Rachel," she explained. "She's the pretty one."
"Did the baron to whom you were pledged die in battle?"
"He died in bed?"
"It was tragic," she snapped. "Not amusing."
"Only an Englishman would die in his bed."
She thought his opinion too ignorant to argue about. "Will you stop squeezing my arms now?"