Brenna quickly shook her head at her, for she feared Grace would innocently say something to prick the men's curiosity and inadvertently sway the outcome in Jamie's favor. Thus far, Brenna was winning their wager, as neither brother had said a word about her injury. She gave Jamie a sinfully gloating look before she devoured all the food that had been placed in front of her.
Alec waited until the trenchers were taken away before turning to his wife. "I've been meaning to ask why…"
Her laughter stopped him. He waited for her to control herself before he continued. "How can you find my question amusing when you've yet to hear it?"
"Pray forgive me, Alec. What were you going to ask?"
"Why is my daughter sitting all the way down at the end of the table? I can barely see her from here."
Everyone turned to Grace. The little girl didn't seem to be bothered by all the attention she was getting.
She smiled for her papa's benefit and continued to stare at him.
"Brenna, would you like to answer Alec's question?"
"You do not deny my brother," Connor explained.
"She just did deny him," Jamie remarked before she laughed again.
Brenna believed Jamie's behavior was a direct violation of the rules they'd established because she was deliberately tempting the men's curiosity with her laughter. She wasn't about to let her get away with it.
"Jamie, I believe you should go to the kitchens and thank Elyne for this meal."
"If I leave, you're coming with me."
"Neither one of you needs to get up," Connor interjected. "Elyne and two other servants are watching us from the back hallway. You can give them your praise from here."
"Will you try to control yourself?" Alec demanded when his wife was overcome with laughter again.
Brenna bounded to her feet. "Thank you for this fine meal. Will you excuse me?"
She didn't wait to gain permission. Jamie jumped to her feet next and hurried after Brenna.
Connor heard his wife accuse Jamie of cheating and almost dropped his goblet. He hoped to God Alec hadn't heard the comment. Then, when Brenna stopped in front of the hearth to make the sign of the cross before continuing, Alec was so appalled he knocked his empty goblet over.
Jamie found Brenna's show of respect hilarious. Her laughter followed her out the front doors.
Alec waited until the servants had skirted their way past the table and had hurried after their mistress before turning to Connor.
"We really should be offended."
"Yes, we should. How do you think Brenna was injured, and why in God's name are the two of them pretending nothing happened?"
"There's only one quick way to find out."
Alec smiled. "Grace?"
"Come and sit with your father."
"When I'm ready, can I come sit with you?"
"You're ready now, Grace."
The little girl kept her head down and walked as though she were on her way to a bath. Connor winked at her as she passed him.
Alec swept her up into his arms, kissed her brow, and sat her down on the edge of the table. He then ordered her to tell him what had happened.
"The lady yelled at Mama."
"Her name is Brenna, Grace. Now tell me the truth."
"She probably is telling the truth," Connor interjected.
"And what did your mother do?"
Alec looked at Connor. "None of this surprises you, does it?"
"Mama yelled too, Papa."
"What did you do, Grace?"
Alec didn't believe that nonsense for a minute. "What more do you have to tell me?"
"The lady laughed when Mama cried again." She was so happy she'd remembered, she scrunched up her shoulders with pleasure.
"Connor, I'm going to have to address Brenna's appalling lack of respect for my wife. I mean to talk to her."
"You will not offend her, Alec."
"The lady didn't cry, Papa."
"Is that so," Alec said.
"Mama put a needle in the lady's head."
"How did Brenna hurt herself?" Connor asked.
"She fell down the steps."
"What the hell was she doing on the steps?"
"Connor, you won't get any answers from my daughter by shouting at her," Alec said. "Remember how young she is."
"I thought you said this would be quick."
"The lady Brenna told Mama she was out of her mind."
"Tell me why she was on the steps," Alec ordered.
"I love you, Papa."
The ploy didn't work. Neither did the child's attempt to wiggle out of her father's arms. "Answer me, Grace."
"She had to catch me."
Alec could picture in his mind exactly what had happened. Connor was at a disadvantage because he'd left Alec's household long before Grace was born and, therefore, didn't know about the child's history of mischief.
"I still don't understand how Brenna could have lost her footing," Connor said.
"Grace, tell your uncle how she caught you," her father instructed.
The little girl was thrilled to have both her father's and her uncle's attention. She put her feet down on his lap, stretched her arms up above her head, and tried to leap up in the air in an attempt to reenact the event.
Alec held on to his daughter and gently forced her to sit back down again.
"You're going to be the death of me, Grace," he muttered with a shake of his head.
"I know, Papa. You already told me before. Lots of times."
"She'll be the death of your dear wife too, Laird," the cook remarked as she hurried back toward the kitchens.
Alec turned to the older woman. "My daughter catapulted herself off that top step, didn't she, Elyne?"
"I didn't see it happen, Laird, but my mistress did tell me Grace came flying down the stairs, and with as much speed as a stone hurling down from the top of a tower. Lady Brenna had to jump up so she could catch her."
"They both could have broken their necks."
"Aye, they could have, Connor," Alec agreed before turning back to the loyal servant. "Explain why our wives don't want us to know what happened."
Elyne couldn't refuse her laird's command and quickly told him about the wagering.
The brothers weren't at all amused by their wives' bet. They were, however, willing to go along with them.
Jamie and Brenna joined them a few minutes later. Both husbands stood up when the ladies entered the hall, but after being ignored for several minutes, they sat back down. Alec poured wine into their goblets.
He downed his drink in one long swallow.
Brenna had already gained Alec's loyalty as soon as she married his brother. She received his devotion the minute he found out she'd saved his precious daughter from a serious injury, and she won his admiration and love when he heard her tell Jamie she must immediately remove the tapestry. Jamie vehemently refused.
"Then at least remove the yellow threads of the halo as soon as possible. You cannot saint William the Conqueror just because you think he should be a saint. It's a sacrilege."
"William will be a saint just as soon as the church gets around to it."
Brenna shook her head. "No wonder your husband looked like he was staring at the devil. Why in heaven's name would you hang the former king of England in the home of a Highlander? Even I know he doesn't belong here. You must take it down, Jamie. Good Lord, I've been making the sign of the cross every time I pass in front of him, and if that isn't a blasphemy, I don't know what is. Are there any of your kings you could hang?"
"Why would I want to?"
"Why? Because you're a Highlander, that's why."
"You don't know, do you? Brenna, I was born in England, raised there too."
Needless to say, she took the wind out of Brenna's argument with her startling revelation. Jamie laughed over the upset she'd just given her new sister.
"You sound like a Highlander, and no one told me you were…" Brenna paused to glare at her husband.
"You could have told me."
"No, I don't suppose Connor would tell you. You might as well accept the fact that men never tell their wives anything without prodding, Brenna. My news should please you, though, not anger you."
Brenna finally managed to stop frowning at her husband. "I am pleased. No wonder I like you so much."
"You'll like Mary too. Alec, do you realize how blessed I am? I have a sister on each side of my land now."
"Aye, you do," Alec agreed.
"Connor, Brenna must meet Mary as soon as possible."
"Could we stop on our way home?" Brenna asked.
"It's too late to make another stop," Connor answered.
Determined not to let him dampen her enthusiasm, she hurried over to the table and put her hand on his shoulder. "Another time then?"
She patted him to let him know how much she appreciated his cooperation. Alec turned as he stood up so Brenna wouldn't see him smile. He was pleased to see she was affectionate toward his brother, but what made him smile was the fact that he knew Connor was trying not to like it.
Connor shook his head at his brother. "Don't make more of this than it is," he remarked as he reached around his back to move his wife so he wouldn't knock her over when he stood up.
Alec nodded. "I would suggest you not make less of this than it is."
Brenna didn't have any idea what the two men were talking about. Alec abruptly changed the subject before she asked him to explain.
"You'd best keep a close lookout on your way home."
"Connor always has his guard up," she said.
"That is so," Alec agreed before issuing a second warning to his brother. "He could be waiting on your land even now."
"Ah, Alec, you do give me hope."
"Your arrogance is going to get you killed. We both know he'll want her back."
Brenna suddenly realized who the brothers were talking about. She let out a gasp, grabbed hold of Connor's arm, and whispered, "The pig MacNare?"
Her husband smiled. God love her, she was beginning to realize how fortunate she was to have married him. "Yes, the pig MacNare."
"You won't, will you?"
"I won't what?"
She leaned into his side so she couldn't be overheard. "Give me back."
His smile vanished. "What do you think?"
His brisk nod told her she'd made the right guess. He put his arms around her shoulders and squeezed her to let her know he approved of her answer.
She tried to hide her exasperation. It was difficult, given the fact that her husband was now trying to defend her behavior to his brother.
"My wife meant no offense to me. She's English, if you'll remember, and therefore doesn't understand."
"What don't I understand?"
Alec answered her. "We keep what belongs to us, and we protect our wives. You don't understand your worth yet, do you, Brenna?"
"No, she doesn't," Connor answered.
"Englishmen also protect what belongs to them." She told them what should have been obvious. "The barons are just as possessive."
"Then why are you here, lass?" Alec asked. "Did your father protect you by sending you to marry MacNare?"
"One has nothing to do with the other, Laird."
"How is it different?" he asked.
Both brothers would think her father had been motivated by greed if she explained his reason, and she knew she would never be able to convince them her dear father loved his daughters.
"I'm here because I wish to be here. When I asked my husband if he would give me back, I only wanted to hear his assurance. I already knew he wouldn't," she boasted.
"Because you received the church's approval with the priest's blessing?" Alec asked.
He was already nodding when she told him no. "Connor would have gotten around to getting a priest to bless us. Many marriages begin without a blessing because there are so few confessors available."
Connor knew she was struggling to be diplomatic, and he smiled. She was about to lose her patience now, and from the way Alec was questioning her, Connor knew Alec was curious to see what she would do.
Alec was enjoying himself, and with each of her frowns and hesitant answers, he was actually finding out far more about her than she could possibly realize.
"Then how did you know Connor wouldn't give you back?" Alec persisted. "Did you understand him so well?"
"No, I didn't understand him at all. I had, of course, noticed how stubborn he was," she added when she remembered how she'd argued with Connor to get him to change his mind, and how he'd refused to listen to a word she said. "However, my parents taught all of their children to stand on their own two feet. My family, you see…"
Connor interrupted her. "We are your family now."
"Yes, but my sisters and brothers…"
He once again interrupted her. "Jamie and Alec are your sister and brother now."
"And Raen," Alec interjected.
Connor nodded. "Yes, Raen," he agreed. "It's been such a long time since I last saw him, I sometimes forget about him."
"Connor, why don't you let me talk about my family?"
"We're your family now," he gently corrected.
Alec understood exactly what his brother was doing and fully supported him. Connor wanted to help his wife become loyal to him and his followers, of course, and let go of the past, and though Alec thought Connor wasn't as subtle as he had been when he'd helped Jamie get over her homesickness, he couldn't fault his brother. 'Twas the truth, Connor still wasn't capable of being subtle.
Disheartened to realize her husband was trying to make her pretend her family didn't matter, she decided to go outside and ignore him for a few minutes and try to figure out his reason for being so cruel. She was going to have to remove Connor's arm from around her shoulders first, of course, but when she tried to do just that, she realized she was holding the Kincaid plaid she'd folded and kept on her lap through supper. She tucked the blanket under her arm with the intention of putting it down on one of the stools as soon as Connor let go of her, and then reached up to nudge him away from her.