He wouldn't be cruel, though, and for that reason, Quinlan didn't try to intervene. The fat was in the fire now, and she had placed it there when she deliberately provoked her husband by asking him such an atrocious question. She would have to suffer the consequences of her actions, and by moving a little distance away from the two of them, Quinlan hoped she would realize he wouldn't, and couldn't, come to her assistance.
Connor didn't have any intention of losing his temper, for he knew that his bride was worn out. The shadows under her eyes indicated her exhaustion. He was fully responsible for her condition, of course, and believed the only thing he could do about it now was force her to bed. Getting her to relax enough to sleep was going to be a little more difficult. She'd have to get rid of the tension inside her first, and perhaps arguing would serve that purpose. A good fight always left him feeling relaxed, and while he admitted he didn't know anything at all about how gentlewomen like Brenna would react, he didn't believe there was any harm in letting her rail at him. Once she was rested, she would become reasonable again, or so he hoped, and then she would beg his forgiveness.
"You're being unreasonable, Brenna."
"I believe I'm being very reasonable."
"You do? Then explain your reason for asking me such a question. Did your sainted parents leave you behind?" He fully expected a denial, of course.
She gave him the truth instead. "As a matter of fact, they did." As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she regretted them. Now Connor was going to have an even lower opinion of her dear parents.
"They didn't leave me on purpose. They just forgot. Surely you see the difference."
"Do you expect me to believe they forgot you? No parents would leave their child behind, even English parents."
"Your wife looks as though she means what she says," Quinlan interjected. "Did they leave you at home, mi'lady?"
She shook her head. "I spoke in haste."
"Then you exaggerated?" Connor asked, thinking he was being considerate because he hadn't asked her to admit she'd lied to him.
"You're making this more important that it was. I wish I'd never said a word now, because you're going to think ill of my mother and father. You just don't understand. It only happened a couple of times, and they were still loving parents. They had eight children, and with so many, they were bound to forget about one of us every now and again. It was all my own fault anyway. I should have stayed with the others."
"They left you twice?"
The bit of added information she'd mentioned had stunned him.
"You look furious, and I cannot imagine why. You weren't left behind. I was, and I assure you, it didn't bother me at all."
"Of course it bothered you," he countered. "Did they ever forget any of the others?"
"No, but I tended to wander…"
He wouldn't listen to any excuses. "Where did these loving parents leave you?"
The pigheaded man was never going to understand, and she was suddenly too tired to keep on trying to make him. Lord, he was a trial, and if she didn't find a little peace and quiet soon, she was going to start screaming like a madwoman.
Connor didn't look as if he was in any mood to leave, and so she decided she would.
He had other inclinations. He wasn't going to let her walk away from him until she satisfied his curiosity. "I want an answer."
"I have finished discussing this topic."
The look he gave her suggested she change her mind.
"Honestly, Connor, you're just like a flea chasing after a hound. My parents left me in the middle of the countryside. Are you happy now? Or was there something more embarrassing you wanted me to admit?"
She didn't wait around long enough to find out. She didn't bother to ask permission to leave either, but she couldn't seem to stop herself from bowing her head to both men before she walked away. She blamed the courtesy on her mother because she'd been relentless in her attempts to turn her daughters into proper ladies.
Owen called out to his mistress as she passed him. "Mi'lady, if you're looking for water, it's in the opposite direction."
She answered the soldier, but her voice wasn't strong enough to carry across the clearing.
"Now what?" Connor muttered as soon as he saw how startled Owen looked. The soldier glanced his way before chasing after his mistress.
Quinlan didn't dare smile, though he was vastly amused by the resignation he'd heard in Connor's voice.
"Owen looked surprised. Your wife must have said something to alarm him."
"Of course she did," Connor replied. "Honest to God, Quinlan, she's a damned nuisance."
In Quinlan's estimation, she was still just about perfect. Connor didn't realize his blessing yet, but Quinlan could tell from the way Connor studied his wife with such a perplexed look on his face that he was already captivated by her. He obviously didn't like the way he reacted to her if his dark mood of late was any indication. From what Quinlan had observed about his mistress, he could only conclude she was having just as much difficulty understanding her reaction to her husband.
"She's going to cause quite a disturbance at home."
"I can't let that happen."
"I'm not sure you can stop it from happening," Quinlan said. "The men will have trouble concentrating on their duties. They'll want to spend their days staring at your wife, and their women won't like it much.
Have you any idea how beautiful she is, or haven't you taken the time to notice?"
"I'm not blind; of course I noticed. Her appearance is yet another flaw I must contend with."
"I don't see it as such."
"You're a shallow man. That's why you don't see it as such."
Quinlan thoroughly appreciated the insult and smiled in reaction.
"Laird?" Owen shouted. "May I have a moment of your time? It's important."
He waited for Connor's approval before coming forward. "Mi'lady told me she wasn't going to the creek.
She's going to get her trunk. Then she thought she might want to walk all the way back to England. Those were her very words to me, and given with a smile, mind you. I tried to dissuade her, but she wouldn't listen to reason. Do you think she really means to try?"
Connor didn't answer the soldier. He doubted Owen would hear a word he said anyway, as Quinlan's laughter was gratingly loud. He considered shoving his friend to the ground just for the sheer hell of it, then decided he couldn't really fault him. Connor would find Brenna's independence amusing too, if he weren't married to the impossible woman; but he was married to her, and that made everything different.
Why couldn't she be more agreeable? Her impulsiveness was going to drive him to distraction. She surprised him every time he turned around, and he didn't like it at all. She should be more predictable, shouldn't she? Oh, he should have known she was going to be trouble the minute he met her. Hell, his wife was thoroughly unique. Connor wasn't a fool; he realized his good fortune. Still, he wished she would hurry up and get used to him; once she did, she'd calm down enough for him to be able to concentrate on more important matters.
He was beginning to think he would never understand how her mind worked. How could he when she was constantly changing on him? One minute she was soft and willing, and the next, she was stubborn and difficult.
He couldn't be expected to put up with a whirlwind. Most men surely wouldn't have been as patient as he'd been, but he was finished with that now. He could take only so much provocation in one day, and he had had his fill.
"I wonder if Lady Brenna realizes she's going the wrong way," Quinlan remarked. "She'll be knocking on Kincaid's door if she keeps walking through the night."
"Mi'lady knows she's going north," Owen said. "She told me she's deliberately making a wide circle so as not to disturb the soldiers patrolling the creek."
Quinlan turned to Connor. "Shouldn't you go after your wife?"
"My brother's soldiers won't let her get far."
"I believe she expects you to come after her."
"The hell with that," he muttered.
He contradicted his own decision a second later, when he shoved the two men aside and went striding after his wife.
He had to go farther than he'd expected. He found her leaning against a tree a fair distance away from the clearing. She looked defeated. He didn't like to see her like that, especially when he realized he was largely responsible. Still, he was still thankful she wasn't weeping.
She put her hand up in a silent command to stop him from coming any closer, which he completely ignored, and as soon as he reached her, he lifted her into his arms.
He expected her to fight him; she surprised him by putting her arms around his neck and resting her head against his shoulder. She was suddenly soft and willing again.
"My brother told me no woman in her right mind would marry me, and if you really meant to go after your trunk, I would have to say…?"
"That I'm not in my right mind?" she responded. "If I'm demented, it's all your fault. You pushed me right over the edge, Connor."
He smiled in spite of himself. His wife said the most outrageous things to him.
"You meant to keep on walking?"
"No. I meant to have a few minutes alone. You knew that, didn't you?"
No, he hadn't known, but he decided to pretend he had. "Yes," he said.
"I was never alone, though. You knew that too, didn't you?"
"Who are the two soldiers following me?"
"My brother's sentries. You're on Alec's land, if you'll remember."
She didn't remember any such thing. She yawned then and turned her attention to a more worrisome problem. "I seem to have misplaced my shoe. I can't imagine how it happened."
He didn't have any trouble imagining it at all. She was constantly leaving her things about. "I'll find it," he promised. "Brenna, what was it really all about back there? Do you know?"
"Do you mean to ask me if I had another reason for becoming upset?"
He had just asked her that very question, hadn't he? "Yes," he said.
She began to rub the back of his neck while she thought about how she could make him understand.
Connor doubted she was even aware of what she was doing, but he found the caresses very pleasing.
"I understand now what was bothering me. I didn't understand then."
He rolled his eyes heavenward. Getting a straight answer out of her was turning into strenuous work.
"And?" he prodded.
"The trunk and the saddle and my mare were all gifts from members of my family. You're trying to take them away from me, and I can't let you do that. I'm not ready to let go."
"Exactly what am I taking away?"
She wouldn't let him continue. "You are trying to take them away, aren't you? And if I let you succeed, what will I have left?"
The impact of what he said struck her, and yet she still tried to resist the truth. She didn't want him; she wanted her family.
"You have me." His voice was hard now, insistent.
She looked up at him then, and her childish resolution to cling to the old and the familiar seemed to lose its importance. The look in his eyes mesmerized her. There was such tenderness and vulnerability there.
"Do I have you, Connor?"
"Aye, lass, you do."
She smiled then, her doubts gone. He had surely spoken from his heart, or so she believed, and her own heart warmed in reaction. She had seen this side of him only once before, on their wedding night, when he'd taken her into his arms and made love to her. The warlord had vanished then, and she had embraced the man. Now he was giving her this magical gift once again. How could she resist him?
She nodded her acceptance, her mind at peace, because she finally understood that what she was doing was both holy and right, made so by the church and God himself the minute Father Sinclair had united them as husband and wife, and although she'd been telling herself she would make the best of her circumstances, she admitted now she hadn't really accepted the marriage.
It was time for her to stop fearing her future and let go of her desperate hold on her past, and as soon as she made the decision to do just that, the most wondrous thing happened to her. She willingly gave herself to him.
"You have me now, Connor MacAlister, because I have decided that you should."
She sealed her promise with a kiss, in spite of his specific order that she must never, ever kiss him without first gaining permission, and when she'd finished, she tucked her head under his chin and closed her eyes.
He was never again going to be surprised by anything she said, Connor thought. She'd decided? Aye, those had been her very words all right.
"You and I are starting over," she whispered.
Here we go again, he thought to himself. He still didn't understand what she was talking about, but if she'd asked him for his agreement, he would have given it just to make her happy. He really shouldn't have cared if she was happy or not, but he did care. He consoled himself with his hope that once she adjusted to her new life, she would stop having such peculiar ideas.
Connor leaned back against the tree and stared down at his wife. She seemed serene now, which meant he was finally going to get some peace and quiet and could figure out what in hell he would say to his brother tomorrow, and wasn't that all that mattered anyway?
"Yes?" he asked.
"I'll take good care of you."
He was stunned by this promise, and though he probably should have been insulted, because it was his duty to take care of her and not the other way around, she'd sounded so sincere, he knew she meant to please him.
She fell asleep before he could set her straight. She moved closer to him until her soft mouth was pressed against the base of his neck. She tightened her hold on him as well, and he realized he liked the way she tried to get as close as she could to him. He liked the way she sighed in her sleep too. When her guard wasn't up and she wasn't trying to argue with him every other minute, she became sweet and loving. She was beginning to trust him, he knew, or she wouldn't have allowed herself to fall asleep in his arms, and with a smile. He realized he liked that most of all.