A woman called out to Laird Kincaid from the entrance. Connor didn't look at her. Brenna couldn't look anywhere else. The woman was so strikingly beautiful, Brenna blinked twice, thinking she might be a vision sent to comfort her through this nightmare. The woman didn't disappear. She wasn't just beautiful.
She was courageous as well because she willingly walked across the hall to speak to Alec.
Laird Kincaid's reaction to the vision was a miracle. His voice turned into velvet when he granted the woman permission to come forward. He even smiled as he leaned down to listen to her. Saints be praised, he was human after all.
Unfortunately, the miracle wasn't long-lasting. Brenna stared at the vision, who bowed to them and took her leave. Brenna knew it was rude to stare, but she couldn't seem to stop, until she began to feel as attractive as last week's leftovers. Alec must think Connor was out of his mind to have married Brenna when he could have chosen one of these Highland beauties. They probably grew like heather around here.
"Connor, is your woman timid?"
"Perhaps," he allowed, wondering what his brother's game was.
"I would like to ask you a few questions, Lady Brenna. I expect you to be truthful in your replies. You have nothing to fear from me. Did you ask my brother to marry you?"
She really was going to kill Connor. How dare he tell Alec about her childish embarrassment. Granted, he had forewarned her, but she hadn't believed him because she was certain he would find it as embarrassing as she did.
"Yes, Laird. I did ask him to marry me."
"Do you have something more to say to me?" he asked, thinking she would surely explain why she'd done such a thing.
"Say it then."
"I'm not timid."
He came close to smiling. There had been a definite note of defiance in her voice when she'd defended herself. Perhaps she wasn't such a mouse after all.
"I thought you were."
"You were mistaken."
"Did you ask Connor before you were promised to MacNare?"
"Alec, we've been over this," Connor interjected. "As I've explained several times now, she asked me three times. Now let it go," he added as he gently pushed his wife behind his back again.
Three times? He had to mention all the details, didn't he? She suddenly found herself wondering how timid Alec would think she was if he watched her throttle her husband.
"I decide when I've heard enough."
"She belongs to me now," Connor replied
"She could still be given to MacNare. Don't push me again, brother. You won't like the consequences."
"Our wedding was blessed. Brenna, stop pushing me."
"Anything can be undone," said Alec.
"You won't go against our church."
"No, I won't," Alec conceded. "There is another way I could give her to MacNare."
"She could even now be carrying my child. Damn it, wife, will you stop trying to provoke me?"
"She can still be free of you."
"I'll kill you."
Connor was about to scoff at his brother's threat when his wife got his attention. She was suddenly standing in front of him.
"You will not kill him," she shouted at Alec.
Her anger caught both men by surprise.
"For God's sake, Brenna," Connor muttered as he moved her behind his back again. "Stay out of this."
"Let her speak, Connor."
She was already standing in front of her husband by the time Alec finished giving his command.
"Why can't I kill him?"
"He's your brother."
"Give me a good reason."
She couldn't think of one. "You have to make the best of it."
Alec leaned back against the table, folded his arms across his chest, and stared at her. "The best of what?"
"Connor. I understand why you want to kill him. Most everyone who meets him eventually feels that way.
Still, he's your brother, and if you'll only think about his virtues, you'll surely let him live."
"Name his virtues?"
"I just knew you were going to say that."
She realized she'd blurted out her thought as soon as the words were out of her mouth, and she hurried on before Connor took offense. "He has hundreds of virtues."
She threaded her fingers through her hair in agitation while she concentrated on trying to come up with another one. "His men seem to like him."
"This has gone far enough, Alec. Brenna, if you continue to defend me, my brother will have me tortured before he kills me."
"I'm doing the best I can."
Alec abruptly ended the inquisition by leaving the hall. It was apparent Connor had gotten his manners from his older brother.
"What the hell just came over you, Brenna?"
"You came over me," she cried out. "You've turned me into a raving simpleton. I want to go home now."
"We can't leave until Alec comes back."
"He won't kill you, will he?"
"No, he won't kill me. I didn't realize you cared."
The laughter in his voice set her off. "I don't care."
"Then why did you try to defend me?"
He would have to turn logical on her. "If anyone kills you, it's going to be me, and I swear to God that if you try to shove me behind you again, I will. Do you have any?"
"I'm pleasant enough."
"I was told not to lie."
"I let you voice your opinion."
"That isn't a virtue."
He finally took mercy on her. "It's over now. I told you he wouldn't hurt you."
"It wasn't sufficient warning," she snapped. "He's coming back," she added in a whisper.
Alec wasn't alone. The vision followed her laird into the hall and waited by his side when he ordered Brenna to come to him.
Connor had to nudge Brenna to get her started. She walked over to the laird, bowed her head, and waited for him to scare the hell out of her again.
"Welcome to the family, Lady Brenna."
Jamie insisted they stay for supper so she could have a nice long visit with Brenna. Connor insisted they leave. Alec wasn't about to let his wife be disappointed, however. He ended the discussion by turning the invitation into a command.
No one bothered to ask Brenna how she felt about it. She was hungry, of course—she always was—but she wasn't about to eat anything at all in front of relatives she wanted to impress. She might do something horrid like spill her drink or eat too much once she got started, and God only knew what they would think of her then.
She'd moved close to Connor's side during the long-winded debate, but didn't realize she'd taken hold of his hand until he had to help her let go of him so he could follow his brother outside.
When he leaned down toward her, she assumed he wanted to kiss her before he took his leave. Her father had often done that when he left his wife's side, and Brenna was so appreciative that Connor was finally going to be thoughtful, she decided to beat him to the task.
He didn't expect it. Before he even had a glimmer of her intentions, her mouth touched his for a second or two, and she was finished.
She looked damned pleased with herself.
He looked thunderstruck.
He didn't make an issue of her behavior, and while he found it puzzling that she didn't seem to understand what was appropriate and what wasn't, he had to admit it didn't bother him all that much.
"Now will you let go of my hand?"
She did as he requested and clasped her hands behind her back.
Alec had already reached the top of the steps and was staring at the tapestry hanging over the mantle.
The look on his face wasn't at all pleasant. Thankfully, his irritation seemed to be directed toward his wife.
"Think I wouldn't notice, Jamie?" He sounded furious.
Jamie didn't look any worse for wear, though. She frowned at her husband and called out, "Think I wouldn't notice my beloved William hanging in the stables?"
Connor nudged Brenna to get her attention, told her to stay out of trouble, and followed his brother outside.
Jamie excused herself a minute later. "Please make yourself comfortable while I go and have a word with cook about the preparations. We'll eat an hour earlier than usual so you can be home well before dark.
I'll hurry back."
The minute Brenna was alone, she frantically tried to make herself more presentable. She brushed the dust off her clothes, adjusted the pleats of her plaid, shoved her hair back over her shoulders, and pinched some color into her cheeks. Unfortunately, once she was finished, she suspected she didn't look any better.
She wished she didn't feel so nervous and unsure of herself. She blamed her condition on Alec Kincaid.
Why, her hands were still shaking from her introduction to Connor's brother, and how in heaven's name was she ever going to be able to sit down at the same table with the man?
She didn't want to draw any attention to herself. She was determined not to make any mistakes or talk about anything one of them might take exception to, and so she listed all the subjects she mustn't bring up. England came to mind first. Alec and Jamie probably felt the same way Connor did about her beloved country, which meant they detested it, and even though she thought such an opinion was both ignorant and foolish, she wasn't about to get into an argument with them.
The list of topics she must avoid went on and on, and it didn't take her long to realize the only safe subject left was the weather. She wanted to be perfect, knew it wasn't possible, and finally concluded her only course of action was to keep her mouth shut, her hands folded in her lap, and to speak only when she was asked a specific question.
She would also avoid standing or sitting near Jamie. Connor and Alec were bound to notice how ordinary she was in comparison to Jamie's flawlessness. Why, Alec's wife was even more beautiful than Rachel, and Brenna hadn't thought such a thing was possible.
She wanted her new relatives to believe she was worthy of Connor. She didn't understand why their acceptance was so important, and if she weren't feeling like such a nervous twit at the moment, she was sure she would be able to reason it all out. Up until the minute she'd walked into the Kincaid home, she'd believed a goat would have been worthy enough for her husband, but she doubted Alec and Jamie would appreciate hearing that opinion. They probably liked their brother, and Brenna wanted them to like her.
She was in need of a friend to talk to, and there had been such kindness and warmth in Jamie's eyes, Brenna knew she would be a good ally.
Feeling inadequate made her miserable. Brenna had been taught to count her blessings and not her sorrows, and so she reminded herself of all the wondrous gifts God had bestowed on her. She had good, straight teeth, a strong back, and feet that never, ever pained her. Those were all fine assets indeed, but far more important than any physical attributes were the hidden treasures she possessed. Her mother had often told her she had a good heart. She was also a hard worker. She used to have a strong mind too, until Connor came along and turned her into a babbling half-wit.
Perhaps she wasn't completely hopeless, after all. Besides, she had a sound plan now, and that made her feel more in control. As long as she remembered to be quiet and demure, she would do just fine.
With any luck, no one would even notice she was there.
She looked about the hall with interest. Her attention was immediately drawn to the huge tapestry hanging over the mantle. She stared at it a long while, trying to figure out what had bothered Alec so much when he'd looked at it. She thought the piece was lovely. Its edges were frayed with age, but the threads were still vibrant with color.
Depicted was the likeness of a man Alec had called William, dressed in a deep royal blue robe and wearing a jeweled crown on his head, who seemed to be looking across the hall. She didn't know who William was, but she decided he must have lived a long time ago because there was a gold halo over his head, which meant he'd already been sainted. She really should have taken the time to memorize all the names and pertinent facts about the saints as her confessor had suggested, she realized, and wouldn't he be gloating now if he knew she was sorry she hadn't paid attention to his lectures? Although she was curious to find out which William it was, she wasn't going to ask Alec or Jamie to tell her, for fear they'd think she was ignorant. She would have to wait until later and put the question to Connor. She made the sign of the cross to show her respect for the saint before turning her back on him so she could look at the rest of the hall.
She was immediately captivated by the arsenal hanging on the walls on either side of the entrance. In the center of the larger wall were two magnificent swords with golden handles encrusted with jewels. The larger one had a jewel missing near the center of the cluster of gems.
It was all very impressive, she supposed, but downright peculiar too. Why would anyone want to hang their weapons in their home?
A door opened behind the balcony above the main entrance, and a little girl no bigger than a whisper came hurrying out. The child had obviously just awakened from her nap, as she was rubbing the sleep from her eyes. She was dressed in an ivory gown and had wrapped herself in a plaid that dragged on the floor around her. The little girl was in such a hurry to get downstairs, she forgot to hold the blanket away from her feet as she walked across the balcony. She had already stumbled once when Brenna started toward her to lend a helping hand.
Brenna started running when the little one tripped a second time. "Pick up your plaid and wait for me to help you down the stairs," she called out.
She didn't understand what Brenna was telling her. She didn't seem to be afraid of the stranger, just curious. She stared down at Brenna between the rails and smiled, but didn't stop.
Too late, Brenna realized her mistake in calling out to the child, because now the little one was busy watching her and wasn't paying any attention to where she was going. The child was headed for disaster.
Brenna started running up the steps to stop her.
She didn't make it. The little girl reached the edge of the top step, tripped on her blanket, and catapulted herself into the air with the force of a pebble hurled from a sling.