She nodded. "She was indeed. Connor might have ended up married to Rachel. She's the pretty one in our family," she thought to add.
Quinlan couldn't imagine there was any other woman more pleasing to the eye than his mistress. He had already noticed she wasn't vain, and her comment only confirmed his belief.
"Will it be another long day's ride?"
"No, mi'lady. We're very close to home now."
The news thrilled her. Her smile proved to be contagious, for when Quinlan glanced at the others, they were all smiling too.
She excused herself from his company as soon as she spotted Connor leading his horse across the clearing. She ran to her husband, put her arms around his neck, gave him an enthusiastic good morning kiss, and then remembered she shouldn't show him any affection in front of others. Surprisingly, he neither snapped nor growled at her. 'Twas a fact he kissed her back.
He did criticize her afterward, of course. It seemed to be a natural inclination of his, she decided and was, therefore, unperturbed.
"You are without discipline." He then lifted her up onto his horse, swung up behind her, and settled her on his thighs. "Aren't you going to argue with me?"
"It's too fine a day to argue. You are wrong, of course. I have as much discipline as you do."
"I haven't seen any yet. Stop twisting about and lean back against me."
"My rope's twisted." After explaining her problem, she pulled the necklace up, straightened the rope, and then let the wooden disk drop back down under her plaid.
"What in God's name is that thing?"
"Have you only just noticed it?"
"No. I've only just decided to ask you about it."
"The necklace is a gift from my father. I have my very own design to prove it belongs to me, and if I'm ever in trouble, I need only send the disk to one of my sisters or brothers for immediate assistance.
Father had them made for all of his children."
"Get rid of it."
Her gasp was enough to upset the stallion. He reared his head up and let out a snort of indignation. She reached down and patted him. "I'll do no such thing, Connor. I plan to have one made for you too."
"You will not."
"It's a tradition."
"It's an insult to me, wife."
"We shall discuss this matter when we are home."
"We're through discussing it."
She didn't disagree with him. He was wrong about that too, she thought to herself. The man was going to listen to reason and accept the tradition, even if it took her a good week of nagging. "Why are we waiting?"
He knew she was deliberately changing the topic, but he went along just to get her to stop arguing with him. He wanted her cooperation today. She was about to meet Kincaid, and that would be unsettling for her. His brother did have a way of terrifying everyone he met. It was yet another reason why Connor so admired him.
"Owen went to the creek to collect whatever was left behind."
"That was thoughtful of him," she replied. "Still, your men shouldn't leave their things about for anyone to take."
He thought she was jesting, and he waited for her to laugh. She didn't, though, and once he realized she was sincere, he didn't explain it to her. A minute later Owen returned with his mistress's belongings. He put them in her satchel, then tied the baggage to Aeden's horse. She never noticed. Connor wasn't at all surprised, of course, for his wife seemed to walk around in a daze most of the time.
His thoughts returned to Alec then. "You will meet my brother today. He won't hurt you."
She thought his remark extremely peculiar. "I would never worry about such a thing."
"You will when you meet him. You'd best find some of this discipline you boast of having, Brenna. Do not disgrace me by crying or fainting."
She rolled her eyes heavenward. "I shall like him because he's your brother, and it's my duty to get along with all of your family. He won't intimidate me."
"Yes, he will. He isn't as pleasant as I am."
She burst into laughter. He gave up trying to caution her then and turned his attention to more important matters, such as learning how to be diplomatic before it was time to explain his actions to the man who ruled the Highlands.
A full hour passed in silence before she spoke again.
"Have you ever seen me cry or faint?"
"Then please explain your reason for insulting me? I'm most curious to hear it."
He didn't answer her.
If he wouldn't explain, the least he could do was apologize. She knew she would never get him to, though, because he was too stubborn to ever admit he might have misjudged her.
Proving him wrong would be enough to repair the damage he'd done to her pride. It would be easy to accomplish, for she had been properly trained and fully understood what was expected of her. She would let Connor see how unafraid she was when she greeted his brother. Surely, she would like him. He was part of her family now, after all, and God willing, if she could just remember not to speak until she was spoken to and behave with a little humility, he would like her too.
A few minutes later, the fortress came into view. Her breath caught in the back of her throat at first sight of the magnificent structure. A tall stone wall surrounded the fortress that must have taken half a century to build. Two soldiers, wearing expressions as cold and forbidding as the wall they guarded, watched them cross the drawbridge.
She thought it odd they didn't speak to Connor, then decided they were waiting for him to give them permission.
There were hundreds more of the frightening warriors inside the lower bailey. None of them welcomed Connor either.
"Is one of those men scowling at us your brother, perchance?"
"Is it always so quiet here?"
Connor wasn't in the mood to expound. She decided to follow his example and not say another word.
She would have held to her decision too if she hadn't been taken by surprise when they reached the upper courtyard and she saw the beautiful flowers bordering the front of the castle.
"It's lovely here," she whispered. "Who planted the flowers?"
She vowed to keep quiet. "I hope he was well rewarded for his efforts."
"Not he, she ," Connor corrected. "Don't step on them or you'll never hear the end of it."
"Servants may voice their opinions then?"
"Jamie isn't a servant. She's mistress here."
She would have fallen off the horse if Connor hadn't tightened his hold around her waist. "Mistress?"
"You'll like her."
She didn't even try to pray for patience. "I will not like her. You're going to have to make her leave, Connor. There can only be one mistress in my home."
"Jamie is mistress of Alec's home."
"Then why did she plant flowers for you? It was of course very thoughtful of her, but I cannot help wondering why she went to such trouble."
He finally understood what was at the root of her misconception. "This isn't my land. It's Alec's. How could you think it was?"
She felt like screaming but didn't dare speak above a whisper because of the audience watching them like hawks. "I'll tell you exactly why I thought it was your home. I was told we were going home, that's why, and since no one bothered to inform me you meant to pay a call on your brother, I naturally concluded this belonged to you."
"So I now understand," she agreed. "It would have been thoughtful of you to mention our destination."
Connor didn't respond to her veiled criticism.
The courtyard was quickly filling up with warriors. All of them were dressed in plaids with muted colors so similar to Connor's she knew she was going to get them mixed up and not be able to tell a Kincaid soldier from a MacAlister.
They were all staring at Connor and her. She straightened her spine until it felt as though it was going to snap, stared straight ahead, and tried to look serene. The welcome they were receiving was most discouraging. Was everyone who lived in the Highlands always in such a bad mood? These soldiers surely were. Their attitude was also puzzling. Connor was Alec's brother, for heaven's sake, not his enemy. Didn't the difference matter to these heathens?
Her husband dismounted first before turning to assist her. She stared into his eyes, looking for a sign that everything was going to be all right. He didn't blink or give her any indication at all of what he was thinking. She didn't squeeze herself up against him as she wanted to, but walked behind her husband with her hands down at her sides, her head held high, and her gaze fully directed on the center of his back.
Quinlan and Aeden moved to flank her on either side, while Donald, Owen, and Giric followed behind.
When they reached the steps leading up to the entrance, Connor continued on, but Brenna and the others were forced by Kincaid soldiers to stay behind.
His brother obviously wanted to speak to Connor in private before she was introduced to him. She hoped they took a long, long while, as she now dreaded her audience with Alec Kincaid. The possibility that one brother might actually hurt another hadn't entered her mind. Then she heard god-awful shouting coming through the doors and she could think of nothing else.
She assumed Alec started yelling first because she didn't recognize the voice, but Connor quickly joined in, and it was soon impossible for her to understand a word of what the two of them were ranting and raving. She tried to concentrate. If they would slow down their speech or hurl their accusations in softer voices, surely she would be able to translate enough of their garbled Gaelic to understand what Alec was so furious about.
The heated discussion lasted for more than fifteen minutes. The longer Brenna was forced to wait, the more nervous she became. She moved only once in all that while. When the doors had closed behind Connor, Quinlan had deliberately brushed her arm as he turned around to face the crowd. She and Aeden had then turned with him, which she immediately regretted, of course, because she had to suffer the Kincaid soldiers' close scrutiny again.
None of them was glaring at her, though. She tried to take that as a good sign. She was careful to hide her fear from them, guessing that that was what they were all searching for, but the effort was incredibly exhausting.
The wait was finally over. The doors opened, and she was summoned inside. She wanted to shake her head, pick up her skirts, and run as fast as she could in the opposite direction.
She went in instead. She was so rattled, she barely paid attention to her surroundings. The great hall was on her left. She stopped at the stone steps leading down into the huge room and waited to be called forward.
Neither Connor nor his brother had noticed her yet. She looked at her husband first to make certain he was all right. He didn't look any worse for wear, she decided, and he wasn't bleeding anywhere that she could see. He didn't look very happy, of course, but then he rarely did. He didn't look angry either, only mildly irritated.
She had delayed looking at his brother for as long as she could, and finally gathered enough courage to turn to him. She still wasn't prepared. Alec Kincaid was a ferocious-looking warrior with piercing gray eyes and a scowl on his face she was sure would make Satan shiver.
"This isn't over, Connor. I will decide what to do after I speak to the woman."
He sounded as mean as he looked. Brenna gripped her hands together behind her back and tried to get her heart to stay inside her chest. God help her, she couldn't seem to get past her initial reaction to him.
'Twas the truth, he continued to terrify her, even after he'd quit his scowl and looked at her.
She quickly bowed her head so he wouldn't be able to see her fear and hoped he took her behavior as a sign of good training. Smiling would have been impossible, however. She wasn't screaming, though, and surely that counted for something.
Alec suddenly moved toward her, and with such an arrogant swagger, she understood how Connor had learned how to be so intimidating. His brother had taught him.
"Brenna, come here." Connor gave the command in a voice tinged with exasperation. She immediately raised her head, went down the stairs, and hurried over to his side. She kept her gaze on Alec Kincaid with each step she took.
Except for their size, the two warriors didn't look at all like brothers. Connor had dark brown hair; Alec had a good deal of red in his. Connor's face looked more patrician to her, though Alec did have a fine profile too, she grudgingly admitted. The physical differences didn't end there, of course. When Connor wasn't frowning, which in her estimation was a rarity, he was somewhat handsome. Alec, on the other hand, could never ever be considered the least bit attractive.
Still, they were two thorns from the same thistle. Their tactics in terrorizing innocent ladies were identical.
Their behavior was downright sinful, but what made it even worse was the fact that neither warrior seemed to realize the effect he had on others.
Brenna wondered if her hair was turning gray. She'd heard some women's did when they were subjected to a horror. She tried to calm down. He was only a man and no more threatening than Connor.
Unfortunately, that simple truth didn't comfort her at all.
Her husband didn't either. She finally forced herself to stop staring at Satan's nightmare and looked up at Connor. He ignored her. It couldn't get any worse, she told herself. Then Connor shoved her behind his back. She wanted to kick him.
Alec was disappointed in Connor's bride. He couldn't imagine she would ever survive a marriage to Connor if she turned out to be the frightened little rabbit he supposed her to be. Connor would trample all over her in no time at all.
"I'm going to talk to her, Connor. Get the hell out of the way or I'll have you removed from the hall," Alec roared.
Her husband didn't even flinch. She did. She got angry too, as it was atrocious of one brother to speak to another in such a hostile tone.
"You may, of course, talk to her, Alec, but you may not raise your voice. I don't want you to frighten her."
Brenna's anger suddenly switched directions. Her wrath was now fully directed at her husband. Did he have to tell his brother he would frighten her if he raised his voice? Now Alec would think her a weakling, and what kind of a beginning was that? She nudged Connor in his back to let him know what she thought about his comment. He pulled her back to his side and gave her a frown, so she smiled just to bother him.