He lessened his hold. "Are you still feeling embarrassed?"

"Just a little."

"I don't want you to be embarrassed at all. You will stop it now."

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She started to laugh before she realized he was perfectly serious. "Do you have any idea how arrogant you sound?"

She didn't wait for him to answer her. "I'm getting cold again. If you'll let go of me, I'll finish getting dressed."

"There isn't any need to dress. We're going to bed."

It wasn't what he said, but how he said it that made her panic.

He reeked with authority and looked as tense as a warrior about to go in for the kill.

She deliberately tried to misunderstand. "Together?"

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"Of course."

"Now? You want to go to bed now?"

He really was beginning to hate that word. "Yes, now."

"I'd rather not."

"I'd rather so."

"You might as well know I'm dreading it, Connor. I don't want to hurt your feelings, but I must be honest with you. Surely you don't want to force your attentions on an unwilling… Now what are you doing?"

"Putting the MacAlister plaid around you. Will you stop backing away from me every time I reach for you? It's damned irritating. Lift your hair out of my way."

"I'd rather you left me alone."

"You're trying my patience."

Why wouldn't he understand? She tried once again to get through to him.

"Connor, I don't have any experience."

She was sure she didn't need to explain in more detail. Surely he could hear the worry in her voice, see it in her eyes, and feel it in the way she trembled. Any decent, caring man would immediately try to soothe her.

"I do."

"That's it?" she cried out. "I'm supposed to be comforted because you have experience?"

"You want me to comfort you?" He sounded appalled by the very idea.

His reaction didn't sit well with her. Her frustration mounted until she wanted to scream. She took a slow, deep breath, instead, to calm herself.

It didn't help. "Yes, I most certainly do want you to comfort me."

He was afraid she was going to say that. For the first time in a very long while, he was at a loss for words. No other woman had ever made such a strange request of him before. In the past, women had always come to him willingly and offered their bodies, and if he'd been in the mood to accommodate them—which, he had to admit, was most of the time—he'd accepted. He'd been mindful of his responsibility to be gentle with them, of course, and he'd always made certain their enjoyment matched his own. None of them had been virgins, though; he wouldn't have taken them to his bed if they had been, and now that he thought about it, damned near every one of them had been well-versed in the art of pleasuring a man. In fact, they'd usually had more experience than he had.

But they'd all left smiling.

This gentle lady standing before him wasn't at all like other women. She was his bride, the woman who would carry his name and bear his children. He should respect her by doing whatever was required of him to allay her fears. Admittedly, he was completely lacking in experience when it came to meeting the emotional needs of women, but he was certain that, if he put his mind to it, he could draw from past observations.

No, no, he was wrong about that, Connor realized after contemplating the dilemma for a moment. He guessed he'd never taken the time to notice what other men did with their women, not even his brother, Alec.

Now what? He wasn't about to tell her she was out of luck. She'd probably start crying then, and he wouldn't have any idea how to get her to stop. His brother always left the hall whenever his wife wept and returned only after she'd calmed down enough to listen to reason. He wasn't going to follow Alec's example now. He'd never get her bedded if he walked away from her. Hell, she'd think she'd been given a reprieve.

There seemed to be only one way out of this mire. He was going to have to help her get over this foolish worry of hers, no matter how long it took.

He prayed for the unthinkable—understanding. "I have decided to comfort you."

"You have?" She looked thrilled.

"Yes, I have. However, you're going to have to explain this duty to me first so I'll know how to proceed.

You may begin."

"This isn't the time for jests."

"I wasn't jesting."

"You're really telling me the truth?"

The scowl on his face told her he didn't like being doubted. She hurried to calm him. "Yes, of course you're telling the truth. You're a laird, for heaven's sake. You wouldn't ever lie."

"Will you get on with it?"

She nodded, but didn't say another word.

"Brenna…"

"I'm thinking about it," she cried. "Your impatience is making me nervous. How to give comfort is rather difficult to explain. I don't want to make a muck of it."

She lapsed into silence again for what seemed like an hour. He couldn't understand what was taking her so long. He hadn't asked her to solve an impossible riddle, for the love of God. Why was she acting as though he had? He honestly didn't know how much longer he was going to be able to stand there without touching her. Couldn't she see what she was doing to him? No, of course she couldn't. She was fully occupied thinking about comfort, of all things. She seemed to have forgotten how to speak. She'd forgotten she was half na*ed too, but he hadn't. The second she stopped holding her gown together over her chest, the gap in the material widened enough for him to see the gentle swell of her breasts.

It almost killed him to look away. He suddenly realized that if he didn't get her covered up at once, he was going to completely lose his sense of discipline. He would run his fingers down her smooth, enticing skin, gently, of course, and then rip the thin-as-air gown off her.

She sure as hell wouldn't be thinking about comfort then, would she?

Connor quickly wrapped the plaid around her. He draped one long end over her shoulder, spread the material wide to cover her breasts, and secured the wool with the roped belt he'd carried along. The back of his hands deliberately brushed across her bare skin, not once but twice, while he dressed her, and damned if he didn't feel as though he'd been struck by hot lightning.

Covering her up didn't make his primitive urges go away. Now all he wanted to do was tear the plaid and her gown off her.

He stared into the distance instead.

"I'm pleased you're thinking about this."

She certainly gained his full attention with her remark. "You are?"

"Yes."

He gave her a hard look. "Exactly what do you think I'm thinking about?"

"Comfort."

He didn't laugh. She wouldn't understand why he was amused, and God help him, he'd probably tell her.

"You still haven't explained what you want from me."

"When you were younger, didn't your mother…"

"She's dead."

"I'm sorry."

"Why?"

"Because she died. What about your father? Didn't he ever comfort you."

"No."

"Why not?"

"He's dead. That's why not."

"Connor, wasn't there anyone you could turn to when you were a little boy?"

He shrugged. "My brother, Alec."

"Did he ever comfort you?"

"Hell, no." He was disgusted by the very idea.

"Wasn't there anyone who cared about you?"

He shrugged. "My stepmother, Euphemia, but she was in no condition to ever comfort me, or her own son, Raen, for that matter. My father's sudden death destroyed her, and she's been in mourning ever since. She cannot even bear to come back to my land. Her pain is still terrible."

"She must have loved your father a great deal."

"Of course she did," he answered impatiently. "Does comforting take long?"

How in heaven's name was she supposed to know the answer to that question?

"I don't think so," she decided. "Some husbands simply pat their wives on their shoulders as they walk past them to let them know they care about their feelings. My father did that very thing all the time, but now that I think about it, I must admit I'm not certain if he was offering my mother comfort or showing her affection."

She lifted her shoulders in a dainty shrug. Trying to make him understand was turning out to be more complicated than she'd expected. She tried to think of another example to give him. "Perhaps other husbands put their arms around their wives and…"

"Which do you prefer?"

"I beg your pardon?"

He repeated his question in a brisk, will-you-hurry-up tone of voice. "Do you want me to pat you or put my arms around you?" He was hopeless. Comfort needed to come from the heart, and Connor needed to feel it before he showed it. She guessed it was also an acquired art, learned after years of being loved and cared for by family members. And if she weren't so rattled about what was going to happen to her tonight, she probably would be able to explain it all quite nicely.

She couldn't even remember her new name now. "This isn't a lesson in sword fighting. You have to be sincere, spontaneous… and…"

She didn't continue because she couldn't think of anything else to say.

"You really don't have any idea what you're talking about, do you?"

She let out a long sigh. "No, not really."

He wasn't amused. "Then why in God's name have we been standing here?"

"I didn't realize how impatient you were, and I… Now what are you doing?"

"Lifting your hair up from under the plaid."

"Why?"

"I want to."

"Do you always do what you want to do? You do, don't you?"

"You'd be flat on your back now if I always did what I wanted to do."

She quit trying to push his hands away. There really didn't seem to be any reason for her to continue to argue with him anyway. Admittedly, she couldn't stop him from touching her—he was at least twice her size and strength, after all—but she protected the fragments of her pride by pretending she was in control of what was happening to her.

He made quick work of his task, and his hands were surprisingly gentle when he touched the sides of her neck. A shiver of pleasure raced down her back, and though it was a nice sensation, what was even more pleasing and surprising to her was that he corrected what bothered him instead of criticizing her.

She had grown up constantly being told what was wrong with her—God only knew, something always did seem to be amiss—then being ordered to correct the flaw. She knew Connor wouldn't be any different. It was only a matter of time before he got the hang of it and fell into the same routine as her parents and brothers and sisters.

Connor wasn't going to wait any longer. He took hold of Brenna's hand and started walking toward the bed he'd prepared. He was a little surprised she didn't fight him now.

"I might as well warn you now that I'm rarely put together," she suddenly blurted out.

"Your appearance doesn't matter to me."

"It doesn't?"

"Of course not."

She thought about that for a moment or two before realizing they were walking back toward camp.

"Where are we going?"

He heard the panic in her voice. God, he hated being patient. Were all virgins this impossible?

"What can I do to end this ridiculous fear of yours?"

"You could start by not snapping at me. It isn't ridiculous."

"Answer me."

"You could say something I might find… pleasant and hopeful about…"

"Mating?"

He thought of a thousand answers to give her, but all of them focused on how he would feel.

"Your hesitation worries me," she whispered.

"It won't kill you."

"It won't kill me? That's it?"

He smiled over the outrage in her voice. "You'll like it. Eventually."

She gave him a look that told him she didn't believe him. She kept walking though, and that was all he cared about at the moment.

"It's messy, isn't it?"

"No, it isn't."

"I doubt I'll like it," she whispered, for they were getting close to where his soldiers had bedded down for the night, and she didn't wish to be overheard. "I do want children, though."

"Exactly how did you plan to get them?"

She ignored the sarcasm in his voice. "Do you want children?"

"Of course. Why do you think I married you?"

"I don't know why. You promised to explain it all after we were wed."

"Later," he promised.

"Any woman could give you children. Why did you choose me?"

They stopped talking and now faced each other in the center of the clearing. She looked around, saw the other soldiers feigning sleep on their blankets, and in the center of the circle of men was an empty bed, fashioned together with yet another plaid.

She was horrified. Did he really expect her to sleep there, in the middle of the others? Yes, of course he did, she realized. Honest to God, he really didn't have any idea about the needs of women, did he?

She couldn't make a scene. His men would hear her if she started ranting at their laird, and that would only embarrass her and make him angry.

What was she going to do? She wasn't about to let him touch her with his men pretending to sleep not five feet away. Yet how could she stop him? Connor didn't look as though he would be reasonable much longer. His stance was rigid, his frown intense, and now that she thought about it, hadn't he already given her enough time to calm her worries? He had wanted to comfort her, or at least had tried to give her what she wanted, and she couldn't even imagine any other man going to such lengths to accommodate her.

The truth made her smile. Good lord, he really had comforted her, and she hadn't even realized it. She sighed. Her husband wasn't such a bad sort, after all.

It wouldn't be right for her to argue with him now. No, she would be diplomatic instead. If she was clever enough, he might not even realize she was getting her way. She reached for his hand just as he was about to take off his boots, and bent down, picked up the blanket from the ground, and then whispered,

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