"I disappointed you," she whispered.
"You didn't disappoint me."
She waited for him to explain. He didn't say another word, which really shouldn't have surprised her, as she already had noticed he wasn't one to embellish any of his remarks. The flaw obviously extended to compliments as well. She was feeling inordinately pleased with herself now, and all because she hadn't disappointed him.
Oh, yes, she was weary tonight. It had been a long, difficult day, after all, and that was why she was being so emotional.
He carried her back to his blankets and set her on her feet again. When she tried to turn away from him, he pulled her back into his arms and kissed her long and hard.
Her knees went weak, and when he let go of her she gracefully collapsed to the bed.
She regained her strength a minute later. After he'd stretched out on the blankets, she tried to kneel over him. He was having none of that. He pulled her down beside him, forced her back up against his chest, and wrapped his arms around her.
He wasn't about to let go of her. He knew she hadn't forgotten his promise to tell her exactly why he'd married her, and he wasn't at all certain how she would react to hearing a few of his reasons. He didn't want to have to get up and chase after her again. Women, he had learned, could be peculiar about matters that really shouldn't concern them. They tended to get their feelings injured quite easily; at least Alex's wife, Jamie, did. Brenna seemed to be even more emotional. Not only did she appear to get her feelings injured, she also insisted on telling Connor about it. The fact that she'd told him she believed she'd disappointed him was proof enough.
He was astounded she'd needed his reassurance. She hadn't tried to hide her vulnerability at all.
Yes, she astounded him all right, and pleased him more than he could ever have thought possible.
"Connor, you were going to tell me…"
"I wanted sons."
"And daughters," she reminded him.
"And daughters," he agreed. "I told you my reason earlier."
She tried to turn so she could look at him, but he tightened his hold on her, making movement impossible.
She gave up trying. She rested the side of her face on his upper arm, smiling because it felt so hard and warm against her cheek, then yawned loudly.
"But why did you marry me? You could have married any woman from the Highlands."
"You asked me."
"Please don't use that excuse. We both know you would never have held a child to her word."
"No, I wouldn't."
"Do you remember any of it? Surely you…"
He remembered every detail of the meeting with her father, of course. "Are you going to keep me awake all night?" he asked, irritably.
"No, of course not. I didn't mean to stray from the topic. I'm concerned your reason for marrying me has something to do with my father. Is that true?"
"No," he answered. "My feud is with MacNare. He went after Quinlan's family. He burned their home, destroyed their crops, and killed their stock. He wanted their land to add to his own. I had only just heard about this atrocity when another one of my followers came to me with a similar outrage to report."
"And because your men are loyal to you, you went to war on their behalf."
"There had to be another reason as well, for surely others have come to you in the past with stories of mistreatment, If you married each time, you'd have ten wives by now."
"I have another reason, but I don't wish to discuss it now."
"Someday will you explain?"
"All right then. Will you explain what our marriage has to do with your war?"
"It's simple, Brenna. MacNare wanted you."
"And so you took me away from him. Why didn't you just kill me?"
"I don't kill women."
"I didn't mean to insult you. You tell me you don't kill women, but you have no concerns about using them, do you?"
"When it's necessary."
"Why didn't you simply continue to war against him? Were your losses too substantial?"
"If a Highlander has vengeance in his heart, no loss is substantial. I was fortunate though. There were injuries, but none of my own died. My brother ordered me to end the feud. Alec has become what some would call a mediator in our land, and he has the power behind him to force others to do what he considers just. Marrying you was my last…"
"It is, only if you choose to think it is."
"What would you consider an insult then?"
"Destroying a man's crops, killing good horses. Those are insults. Killing a soldier is a much more grievous matter. I think perhaps you place too much value on marriage. You think like a woman."
"I would never have gone to such lengths."
"I'm my father's son. I am also a practical man."
He had told her the truth, God help her for asking him to, and she suddenly felt like weeping again.
She tried to be practical about it all and told herself it could have been worse. She couldn't imagine how, of course. She didn't like being used. No woman did. She didn't think he would understand how she felt, though.
"In future, I win learn now to become practical," she whispered. Her voice shook, and she didn't say another word for a long while because she knew she would start crying. She thought she'd rather die than let him know the damage he'd done to her hopes and dreams. She wasn't going to let him hurt her again, and if being practical meant she must give up her feelings and her heart, then she would be more practical than he was.
It didn't take her long to realize how foolish she was being. She didn't want to live without love, and that meant she was going to have to make Connor change his attitude, and how would she ever be able to do that?
The task was disheartening and seemed to be as impossible as making it rain on a sunny day. She squeezed her eyes shut as soon as she realized how teary she was becoming and tried to concentrate on her night prayers in hopes the ritual would occupy her thoughts.
Connor sought to close his mind against the hurt he'd just caused her so that ridiculous thoughts of guilt wouldn't bother him. It wasn't until he'd told her a fragment of the full truth that he realized how cold it made him sound to a woman as emotional as Brenna. She couldn't possibly understand, and he wasn't about to explain further.
His hatred for MacNare was burning him hollow inside, and though he still hadn't found any evidence to make him culpable in Donald MacAlister's death, Connor still wanted to believe what his father had suspected, that MacNare and MacNare's father, along with their relatives, had been involved in the planning of the attack on his home. He was determined to find the proof before he killed all those he suspected of participating in the slaughter, even if it took him long years to find the truth. Until then, he would have to be content with insignificant attacks meant solely to keep them enraged.
Alec was making his duty more difficult, of course. His brother knew what Donald MacAlister had said before he died, and Alec had also tried to find proof of MacNare's treachery. When he could find nothing, he decided that the suspicion was groundless. Now he wanted the strikes against the MacNare clan to stop. Connor knew he would have to accommodate his brother, but only for a while, until Alec became reasonable again. Gaining revenge wouldn't be forgotten, and Connor's hatred wouldn't lessen, but intensify. He was, after all, his father's son.
"When did you make your decision to marry me?"
Her question jarred him back to the present. "As soon as I heard MacNare was marrying one of Haynesworth's daughters."
Would the insults never stop? "Then you didn't even know that I was the one sent to MacNare? Dear God, you didn't know, did you? The proposals had nothing to do with your decision. The jest's on you, Connor. I wasn't supposed to marry MacNare, Rachel was. She's the pretty one," she instinctively added.
"Why didn't she come?"
"The king found out and put a stop to it. He wanted Rachel to marry a baron he favored."
"And so your father substituted you."
He was astonished by the way things were done in England and appalled that a father could treat his daughters with such casual disregard.
"When did you find out you were going to marry him, Brenna?"
"That isn't important."
"The day I left. Father told me what I was expected to do, and I took my leave a few hours later. It was wrong for you to make me think my proposals were why you came for me."
"It wasn't wrong. It will prove convenient though."
"My brother," he answered. "He will wish to hear my reasons for marrying you."
"And you plan only to tell him I proposed? But…"
He interrupted her. "My brother will ask you if you did propose."
"And if I refuse to answer?"
The thought was laughable. No man, let alone a woman, had ever refused Kincaid and lived long enough to tell of it. "You won't," he assured her.
"You show me little compassion, Connor."
"Did your father show compassion when he substituted one daughter for another? Admit it, Brenna. His behavior was sinful, not mine. We don't treat our daughters with such disrespect."
"Father had his reasons. I'm certain they were very important."
"Did your king grant his permission?"
"There wasn't time enough to gain his permission. I'm certain he will be pleased."
"I'm just as certain he won't be pleased at all. Don't rail against me or plague me with more questions, wife. I am your husband and your laird now, and you would do well to remember that. I saved you from a bleak future with a demon."
She was suddenly too furious with him to guard her words. "You have succeeded with your plan. No one will want me now. The very least you can do is let me go back home."
"Give me a son. Then you can go."
He regretted his cruelty as soon as the words were out of his mouth, but he wouldn't take them back.
And he would never let her go.
She disliked him intensely until noon the following day. Then she remembered her plan to be practical.
She really should try to get along with the vile man, shouldn't she? Besides, she wasn't one to wallow in misery for long periods. There were far more exciting things to think about, although admittedly, when Connor had promised her she could go back home as soon as she gave him a son, she was so outraged, she didn't believe she would ever be able to forgive him. What kind of monster was he to think she could leave her child behind?
He wasn't a monster, however. He was a man, that was all. And a stubborn, thoroughly impractical, and ignorant one as well.
Sufficient time hadn't passed to heal what she considered a grievous injury, but by afternoon she could at least look at him with less hostility.
She believed she'd come a long way in a very short while. She wasn't having murderous thoughts about her husband any longer, and she was beginning to notice he wasn't completely heartless and unfeeling. He seemed to be as concerned about Gilly as she was. He slowed their pace so her mare would be able to keep up, riding by Brenna's side all the while, and every once in a while, he actually looked worried.
After they'd crossed a wide meadow carpeted in rich green clover and purple heather she thought was too lovely to tread upon, Connor slowed the pace to a walk. He called a halt a few minutes later, as soon as they reached the protection of the forest.
"Quinlan, take the others and ride ahead. Wait for us near the crest."
Brenna noticed the surprise in Quinlan's expression. He looked as if he wanted to argue with his laird, but after giving Brenna what she could only interpret as a pitying glance, he rode on ahead.
She wasn't left guessing why Quinlan was feeling sorry for her. Connor waited until his men were gone, then forced her to look at him. She imagined she saw ice chips in his eyes, so furious did he appear to be.
"You will stop frowning at me this minute."
She had to wait until he let go of her to answer. "I didn't realize I was frowning at you. Is that why we stopped?"
"No," he answered. "I wanted to ask you something."
"Are you still in pain?"
She immediately lowered her gaze in embarrassment. In the blink of an eye, her face was flooded with color.
"I'm waiting for your answer."
"Must we talk about it?"
"Answer me," he ordered once again, though in a much more pleasant tone of voice.
"No, I'm not in pain."
"Was I too rough? Did I tear…"
"I'm fine, really. Please don't concern yourself."
"Brenna, will you get over your shyness with me soon?"
"I fervently hope so."
He found himself smiling in spite of his irritation. She'd sounded desperate.
He still wasn't completely convinced she was telling the truth about her condition, however, and therefore refused to let the subject go just yet.
"If you aren't in pain, why are you so restless in your saddle?"
She was surprised he'd noticed. He'd barely given her a glance all the while he'd ridden by her side, after all.
"I didn't realize how observant you were."
"I notice everything. So do the others, or they wouldn't be riding with me. It's one of the reasons we stay alive."
"Did you notice you broke my heart?"
He looked exasperated. "I did no such thing."
"We argued and…"
"We didn't argue."
"Then what did we do?"
"You asked questions. I answered them."
He really didn't understand at all. The revelation stunned her, and with it came a glimmer of hope for their future.
Perhaps Connor wasn't cruel or heartless, after all. He was just ignorant. She was blissfully relieved by her discovery.
"What else did you notice about me?" she asked.
He noticed every little thing about her, he wanted to answer her, such as the way she'd drawn her breath in when the meadow covered in a rainbow of colors first came into view, the radiant smile that came next, and then the frown when he wouldn't let her stop and explore because it would slow down his men.