He waited until he caught her alone near the water to talk to her.
"Brenna, I haven't betrayed you, and I want you to stop looking as though I have. It wasn't possible for me to take the time to send someone with Gilly to Quinlan's family."
"I understand." Her voice was completely devoid of emotion, and she gave her reply to the ground so she wouldn't have to look at him.
"No, you don't understand," he muttered. "MacNare and a fair number of his clan were following us, and though I would have loved a good fight, I couldn't give in to the pleasure because you would end up in the thick of it. I wasn't about to put you in such danger."
He raised his hand when she tried to interrupt him, and continued on. "However, as soon as we get home, I'll send one of my soldiers to find your mare and take her to Quinlan's father then."
"Thank you, Connor. Is our enemy close now?"
"Close enough," he answered.
"I didn't hear them."
"They weren't close enough to hear."
He was ready to dismiss the topic and turned to leave.
She wasn't. "Connor?"
She hurried after him, then suddenly stopped. She'd thought to kiss him on the cheek to let him know how much she appreciated his taking the time to explain the circumstances, but the memory of how he had reacted to her affection the last time was still fresh enough to hurt, and so she decided not to provoke him again.
"Thank you for confiding in me."
"Don't get used to it. It isn't customary for me to explain my actions to anyone. I doubt I'll do it again."
He seemed determined to ruin every kind moment with a nasty remark. He also had the discourteous and grating habit of walking away from her whenever he wanted to end a conversation, forcing her to chase after him.
"Are we safe now?"
He refused to give her any other details, such as explaining why they were safe now but hadn't been safe earlier in the day, and she was simply too worn out from trying to get along with him to attempt to coax him into giving her additional information.
She went to the creek and washed as quickly as she could. The water was much colder here than the water she'd bathed in the night before. By the time she put on fresh undergarments and stockings, even her scalp felt numb. She hadn't been able to locate the trunk filled with her gowns, but thankfully she still had two clean but wrinkled ones left in her satchel.
The cold night air was rapidly stealing what little strength she had left. She draped the shorter tunic over a bush in hopes that the damp air would ease the wrinkles out and sat down to brush her hair. She rushed through her night prayers to get them over and done with while she braided her hair, and when she was finished, she could barely find enough strength to put her shoes back on and stand up again.
She was thinking how lovely it would be to sleep in a warm bed and immediately felt guilty because poor Gilly wouldn't have a warm stable tonight. An unfamiliar noise turned her attention then. The sound had been whisper faint and seemed to come from the opposite side of the cove, although she couldn't see anything out of the ordinary. The trees were too thick, and the moon wasn't casting sufficient light down on the branches, but she was still certain she'd heard something that shouldn't have been there.
She stayed completely still, closed her eyes, and patiently waited several minutes before she heard the sound again. It was as clear as a shout to her now and very like the familiar sound of steel brushing over steel.
Men with weapons were coming their way, God help them. They weren't allies, she knew, because friends wouldn't be sneaking up on them, would they? No, of course not, she reasoned. They would shout their greeting.
She couldn't tell how many there were, but she had a feeling there were more than just a few.
She tried not to let her fear control her actions. She wanted to run as fast as her legs would carry her to warn Connor of the danger coming their way. She walked instead and tried not to make any noise at all.
She'd heard them approaching, after all, and any sound she made was bound to give them her exact location.
Lord, she was scared. She called to her husband in a soft voice as soon as she reached the narrow clearing, then saw him near a cluster of trees in deep discussion with Quinlan. They obviously had sought privacy for their talk, because they stood well away from the other warriors. She could tell from their rigid stances that the issue under discussion was serious. Connor didn't like what Quinlan was telling him, as he was shaking his head every other minute in obvious disagreement.
She hurried forward and called his name again as she approached, but he put his hand up in silent command not to interrupt him and didn't even glance her way.
She couldn't wait until they finished, of course—they'd all be dead if she did—and so she braced herself for his disapproval, then reached up and pulled his hand down.
The defiant action gained his full attention. His initial irritation vanished the second he saw how frightened she was.
"What is it?"
"Soldiers are coming toward us, Connor. I couldn't see their number, but I heard them. They're trying to be quiet."
Much to her confusion, her startling announcement didn't get the reaction she'd anticipated.
Connor smiled. "You actually heard them?"
It was apparent he hadn't grasped the ramifications yet. "Yes, I heard them. I don't believe they're allies.
They wouldn't care about making noise if they were, would they? We should leave with all possible haste. Why are you smiling? Don't you understand the danger we're in?"
She guessed he didn't understand when he didn't immediately move. She hadn't thought him at all slow-witted until now, and unfortunately, his friend seemed to suffer the same affliction. In fact, he was worse. He was having so much difficulty comprehending their dire situation, he laughed.
She felt like throwing her hands up in despair. She settled on wringing them together instead. "Connor, I'm… concerned."
"You have no reason to be concerned."
Connor usually didn't notice how a woman was groomed, but he couldn't seem to stop staring at his wife's hair now. He couldn't imagine what she'd tried to accomplish. Honest to God, he'd never seen anything quite like it.
He considered himself to be an astute man, however, and knew Brenna had extremely tender feelings, so he was careful to sound only mildly curious and not critical when he asked her to explain what she'd done. "What the hell have you done to your hair, wife? Did you mean to tie it in knots all over your head?"
She couldn't believe he wanted to talk about her appearance. "My braid? You want to discuss my braid?"
"Ah, so it's a braid," he said. "I hadn't realized."
She started backing away from him. She shook her head several times, and every time she moved, one of the knots came undone. "Can't you see how worried I am?" she cried out.
He couldn't imagine why she was worried, unless she hadn't been paying attention to him when he'd told her not to be concerned. Or had she heard and chosen not to believe him?
He wasn't going to lecture her, no matter how much she provoked him. No, he would simply help her reason it all out in her mind. She was an intelligent woman; it wouldn't take her any time at all.
"Exactly why are you worried?"
She was overwhelmed by his incomprehension and was, for the moment, rendered speechless. No one could be this obtuse, not even warlords.
Quinlan couldn't keep silent a moment longer. He felt he was far more astute than his laird in matters concerning women, and so he naturally sought to lend his counsel before his laird put his foot in his mouth and injured his lady's delicate feelings. "I believe your wife is still upset about the men she heard approaching. She might have thought we were in jeopardy."
Brenna was vigorously nodding her head in agreement when Connor denied the possibility. "No, my wife wouldn't dare insult me that way," he replied, keeping his gaze directed on her all the while. "She knows I'll protect her from harm. Isn't that so, Brenna?"
No, it wasn't so. How would she know if he was capable of protecting anyone or not? Just because he looked like a warlord from hell didn't mean he could fight like one. She didn't think it would be a good idea to tell him her thoughts, though. The way he stared at her made caution a much wiser choice, and she found herself nodding just to placate him.
The remaining knots came apart then, and her hair was once again where Connor wanted it to be, in soft curls down about her shoulders.
Brenna was just about to leave when the truth dawned on her. "You knew those men were there."
Connor looked at her, but said nothing.
"How long have you known?" she demanded.
"Since they joined us."
"They aren't your enemies."
"Of course not."
"Why didn't you tell me?" she demanded. "You should have."
"You're supposed to tell your wife important news."
He shook his head. Where in God's name did she come by these ideas? "I think not."
"I think so."
Connor couldn't believe she'd contradicted him. He gave her a hard stare and folded his arms across his chest.
Quinlan knew what that meant. His laird was getting angry. It was only a matter of time now before Connor said something he would later regret. Because he was Connor's friend, Quinlan couldn't let that happen. "Mi'lady, may I suggest you put your plaid on?" he asked. "Your husband wouldn't want you to catch a chill."
She looked as though she hadn't heard him and her attention remained focused on her husband. The tension between the two continued to build, for their gazes were locked on each other. Connor's was challenging, Brenna's was defiant, and neither one of them appeared willing to back down.
"The air's damp tonight," Quinlan interjected in yet another attempt to get his mistress's attention. "We're in for a fierce thunderstorm." His last comment did the trick. Quinlan felt like sighing with relief when Lady Brenna finally looked at him.
"Of course it's going to rain, she said. It's a fitting end to a hellishly long day. Have you seen my trunk, Quinlan? I'm in need of my heavy cloak."
"You'll wear my plaid," Connor told her.
He hadn't raised his voice to her, but she acted as though he had by backing farther away from him. "My trunk, Quinlan?" she reminded the soldier.
"We left it behind with your saddle, mi'lady."
"Please go and get it for me."
Quinlan turned to Connor to judge his reaction to her request before answering.
His laird shook his head but remained stubbornly silent, much to Quinlan's consternation, leaving him to fend for himself. "It isn't possible for me to go and get it for you. We left it behind several hours ago, and we've traveled a fair distance since then, over rough terrain, if you'll remember. We had to leave it, mi'lady," he quickly added when he noticed the look in her eyes. "The wagon wouldn't have made it up the narrow climb."
"Why did you leave it behind without asking my permission first?"
"By your laird's command," he explained, thinking that important fact would end the discussion once and for all. He was mistaken. Lady Brenna wasn't ready to let it go.
"Didn't it occur to either one of you that there might be some important reason why I wanted to keep the trunk?"
If she'd given him time to think of a reply, Quinlan was sure he would have thought of something appropriate to say to her, but she didn't give him time. His mistress's outrage seemed to be gathering momentum as she continued. "My sister Joan gave me the trunk and I had planned to put my children's clothes inside. I treasure it."
Quinlan suddenly felt about as low and inadequate as an Englishman must feel every time he looked in a mirror. He turned to his laird again, willing him with his hard stare and a slight nudge to take over the battle. Damn it all, Quinlan wasn't married to the distraught woman. Connor was. Let him suffer her disappointment.
Connor continued to stay stonily silent, however. "Mi'lady, it was necessary," Quinlan said. "Isn't that right, Laird?"
Brenna didn't particularly care what her husband had to say about it. She was too disheartened to listen to anyone any longer. The injustices done to her in the past several days were taking their toll now, and she thought that if she didn't get away from her husband for a few minutes, she'd start screaming.
She didn't bother to excuse herself; she simply walked away. A sudden thought made her stop. "My saddle, Quinlan? Did you say you also left the saddle my dear sister Rachel loaned to me?"
"Did you have another one, Brenna?" Connor asked dryly.
Lord, how she hated his condescending, be-reasonable tone. "No, I didn't." she answered.
"Mi'lady, it was also necessary to leave your sister's saddle behind," Quinlan blurted out.
"I treasured it too," she whispered.
Quinlan's shoulders slumped. He had known she would say that.
"I cannot help but wonder why you didn't ask my permission first, though."
Quinlan vowed not to say another word. He stared at his laird, imitated his threatening stance by folding his arms across his chest, and simply waited.
Connor didn't take the hint fast enough to please his friend. "Wouldn't you like to answer your wife ?"
Quinlan sounded downright desperate.
Connor let his friend see his exasperation before turning to Brenna. "I wouldn't be laird if I asked permission before I made decisions, especially insignificant ones. You were merely curious, weren't you?
You wouldn't show disapproval of your husband's actions in front of his followers. Isn't that right?"
She surprised him by agreeing. "Yes, I was simply curious, and no, I would never criticize you in front of your followers. Do you have the patience to endure one more question, husband?"
"What is it?"
"When do you suppose you'll leave me behind?"
Connor's mood darkened in the space of a heartbeat. He took a threatening step forward and briskly ordered her to come to him.
Quinlan moved back, looked to the heavens, and began to pray for divine intervention. His mistress had never seen Connor lose his temper, and though Quinlan knew his laird would never physically harm her, or any other woman for that matter, he could do considerable damage to her heart.