"You like to argue with me, don't you?"
She didn't believe his question merited an answer. "Will I like your home?"
"I can't wait to see it. Is it as appealing as Alec's home? I won't be disappointed if it isn't," she hastened to add. "I don't need it to be grand. Is it?"
Her enthusiasm made him smile. "Yes, it's just as appealing as my brother's home."
"You're proud of it, aren't you? I can hear it in your voice."
"I suppose I am."
"Is the hall as large as Alec's? I won't mind if it isn't."
"Because you don't need it to be as large."
"I cannot say for certain if it's as large. I've never taken the time to notice."
"What makes your home so appealing?"
What did secure have to do with appearance? "But what does it look like?"
"Invincible," he answered.
She wasn't getting anywhere with him. She would have to wait and see for herself, she decided.
He thought he'd told her everything she needed to know. Although he felt his home was invincible, there was still work to be done on the wall. He was going to reinforce the wood with stone as his brother had suggested, and add yet another platform on the northern peak.
Brenna's excitement mounted as they rode along, and her mood was so improved, she couldn't stop smiling.
Connor's mood darkened as soon as the ruins of his father's home came into view.
"Who lived here?" she whispered as she stared at the charred remains of the vast structure.
"Did he die there?"
"Did you live there with him?"
The coldness in his voice told her he didn't want to be questioned about his past. She had every intention of finding out everything she could about her husband so she would be able to understand how he had become such a hard, rigid man, but she knew she would have to be patient and undemanding, or he would never open his heart to her. She would first prove to him that she could be trusted, and eventually he would soften his attitude and begin to confide in her.
She couldn't stop staring at the destruction. Even after they had ridden past, she leaned into Connor's side so she could look behind him to study it.
She had seen the results of fire before, but there was something puzzling about the MacAlister ruin. It took her several minutes before she finally figured out what was missing. The burned crofter's cottage she'd once seen had quickly been overgrown by weeds. This ruin wasn't. There was a forest on three sides of it, yet not one vine had reached the hollowed-out remains. Obviously it had been carefully maintained, and perhaps that was why it seemed so eerie to her.
Why hadn't Connor ordered it torn down? Had he left it to be a reminder to himself and his followers?
Patience, she reminded herself. In time she would have her answers.
She straightened up and turned around again. She slipped her hand into his free one, leaned back against him, and said a prayer for his father's soul. She added another one for his dear mother.
Her new home came into view a minute later. She started praying for herself then. She closed her eyes too, frantically hoping that what she believed she'd seen she really hadn't seen at all, but when she gathered enough courage to look again, the monstrous thing was still there, looming over her from the top of a hill like an angry gargoyle.
God really must have been furious with her to have put her in such an ugly place. She must have caused her parents far more worry than she'd ever realized, and saying that she was sorry hadn't been enough to appease him.
Get hold of yourself, she ordered. God wasn't responsible for this fortress; Connor was.
She took a deep breath and told herself to find something nice about her new home. She would study the fortress from bottom to top, and when she was finished, by God, she would be smiling with excitement.
It was gigantic. That was nice, wasn't it? It was, if bigger was indeed better, as Connor obviously believed.
It was also tall. The fortress was at least three-stories high, perhaps even four, though it was difficult to tell because she couldn't seem to find any windows to give her hints.
Still, it was big. And tall.
She finally spotted the windows. Relieved to see them, she felt like weeping with gratitude. She wasn't going to have to live inside a tomb after all. The windows were there all right, but they'd been covered with an ugly brown fabric, which actually matched the color of dried mud rather nicely; though why in God's name anyone would want them to was beyond her. She would take them down as soon as possible, and then it wouldn't look so bad, would it?
Of course it would. Flowers weren't going to help. She would need a miracle to turn this thing into a home.
She felt ashamed of herself. She wasn't concerned only about appearances, and she must adjust her attitude at once. She would start by calling the hideous monstrosity her home.
"Brenna, is something wrong?"
"Why would you think something was wrong?"
"You're panting, like you can't catch your breath."
She said the first thing that came into her mind. Thankfully, it wasn't a lie. "Your home has taken my breath away."
She probably should add a compliment or two so that Connor would know she appreciated his efforts.
He was proud of his fortress, and a good wife would at least try to feel the same.
"It's very big."
He didn't have anything to say about that.
"Why, I don't believe I've ever seen one as big. It's also tall, isn't it?"
He didn't have anything to say about that either.
"Have you finished it then?"
"Are you asking if the back of the fortress is finished?"
No, she hadn't even thought about the back of the keep. She wanted to know if he'd finished the front.
"I see," she replied for lack of anything better to say. "Your rampart is very impressive, isn't it?"
"It's at least fifteen feet high. Odd that the wood turned such a brownish color, isn't it?"
He tightened his hold around her waist, pulled her back against his chest, and leaned down close to her ear. "Brenna?"
"It's going to be all right."
It took her a full minute before she could nod her agreement. She added a silent prayer next for strength and endurance and vowed to make the best of her circumstances. She had never walked away from a difficult task before, and although the idea held a certain appeal now, she wouldn't give in to her hopelessness. Nothing was impossible to achieve if she worked hard enough and used the mind God had given her.
She felt better once her resolve was back in place, and after they'd crossed the drawbridge, she looked at her new home with renewed interest. She smiled for the benefit of his followers. Like the sentries, they didn't smile back. They didn't frown or turn their backs on her, though. Perhaps they didn't quite know what to make of her, she thought. She would have to convince them through her good works that she was worthy of their respect.
"You've enclosed half the mountain, haven't you?"
"It isn't a mountain, but a hill, wife."
"Why, there must be thirty huts inside the lower bailey alone, yet room for thirty more. Do your soldiers train inside the walls?"
"Sometimes," he answered as he led the way to the upper bailey.
Brenna tried to see everything at once.
Just before they reached the courtyard Connor called a halt. He dismounted and turned to assist her while he tried to answer the questions the men called out to him.
He had only just let go of his wife when the crowd surrounded him. Holding the stallion's reins behind his back, he started up the last of the incline. He assumed Brenna was right behind him, and when the reins were taken out of his hand, he thought Quinlan or Owen had taken over the duty of leading the horse to the stablemaster, for they were the only two soldiers the temperamental stallion would let near.
Men and women pushed forward to speak to their laird. Brenna kept backing away so she wouldn't get trampled. The stallion didn't like the crowd pressing in on him any more than she did and reared up in protest. She grabbed hold of his reins before he did any damage to anyone, and forced the animal to back up with her. She was nearly lifted off her feet a couple of times, then was pushed backward as the disgruntled beast tried to charge her. The training her brothers had forced on her came to her assistance now. She refused to give in to the animal's intimidating antics, and she tightened her hold on his reins and jerked his head down hard. After one last moment of struggle, the horse understood she meant to get her way.
She patted him to let him know she appreciated his cooperation and led him toward the stables.
A soldier stood on the steps leading up to the entrance until his laird beckoned him forward.
"All's well, Connor."
An immediate hush fell over the crowd as they listened to the conversation. "I expected it would be, Crispin. 'Tis the reason you were given command while I was away."
The two warriors stood eye to eye as they faced each other in the center of the courtyard.
"I have good news for you. Your stepmother is waiting in the great hall to greet you."
Connor smiled. "That is good news."
"Lady Euphemia's curiosity to see your wife must have been the motivation she needed to come back to MacAlister land."
"I would assume so. Perhaps she sees this as a new beginning, though in truth, I thought completing a new fortress would bring her back. Is she well, Crispin?"
"She seems to be well," he answered. "Connor, do I address her as Lady MacAlister?"
"You do. She was my father's wife and hasn't married again."
"She's still mourning him, for she's dressed in black," Crispin told him. "There is one more matter I wish to tell you about."
"Can it wait until later?"
"You'll want to hear this news now," he insisted. "Laird Hugh is sending something that was left on his border. He insists you'll want to see it. Whatever it is should be here within the hour."
"Hugh sends you a gift?" Quinlan asked his laird.
Crispin answered. "It's more of a message than a gift. I wasn't able to get anything more specific out of his soldiers. They were worried, however, and insisted several times that their laird is not responsible. It was extremely important to Hugh that Connor understand this."
"This makes little sense," Quinlan muttered. "Why wouldn't they tell you who it was from?"
"They wouldn't explain," Crispin replied.
"Then we'll wait and see," Connor replied.
He then smiled at his friend and, as Connor passed him on his way inside, pounded him on the shoulder to let him know he was pleased with him. Quinlan shoved Crispin in the hopes of getting him to lose his balance. Crispin held his ground and pretended boredom, but the glint in his brown eyes gave him away.
"You missed a fine time, Crispin. Aye, you should have been there to watch me wield my sword. It was a sight to see, and you would have learned a thing or two."
Crispin laughed. "I wouldn't have needed to touch my sword, for my hands are just as effective. Besides, I taught you everything you know. Isn't that true, Connor?" he called out.
"I do not involve myself in petty disputes, though I will admit I don't understand either one of your empty boasts. 'Tis a fact I trained both of you."
Crispin fully appreciated his laird's candor. He watched Connor slowly make his way through the clan to the side of the keep so he could go up the steps. The two soldiers were expected to follow their laird, as it had become a ritual for them to sit at the table with Connor while he caught up on the latest happenings within the clan. They stayed back now so that the other followers could have a turn greeting him.
Both Crispin and Quinlan kept glancing over their shoulders every now and again. Crispin was puzzled, for he had been on the walkway above the wall when his laird rode up to the drawbridge and had seen that he wasn't alone then. Why was he now?
Quinlan couldn't stop smiling. He knew exactly why his laird was alone.
Crispin's curiosity finally got the better of him when Connor started up the steps to go inside the keep.
"Was your journey successful, Laird?" he shouted.
"It was," Connor called back.
"Then you did marry?"
"Where might your bride be?"
Connor had assumed his wife was following behind him and was now being delayed by the clan. Honest to God, he hadn't give her another thought since Crispin began his report.
He scanned the crowd, looking for his wife. He spotted Owen smiling like a simpleton at the women surrounding him. Brenna was nowhere in sight, however.
"Why aren't you at the stables tending my horse, Owen?" Connor was halfway across the courtyard by the time he finished bellowing his question.
"Another took over the duty for me, Laird," Owen explained with a nervous glance toward Quinlan.
Connor turned to his friend. "Where is my wife, Quinlan?"
"I believe you left her in the lower bailey."
The crowd scattered in every direction as their laird came striding toward the path. The look on Connor's face suggested he didn't wish to be delayed. Crispin and Quinlan followed, but unlike their laird, they weren't scowling.
"Quinlan, how were you able to tend to my stallion and return to the courtyard in such a short time?"
"I didn't tend your stallion," he answered.
"Did Davis?" Connor asked just to make certain the stablemaster had come forward to take over the duty.
"Another more capable than Davis led your stubborn beast away."
Connor heard the laughter in Quinlan's voice and knew there was something more to be told. He stopped worrying about Brenna being left alone with his stallion because he knew Quinlan wouldn't have been so damned happy if she'd been in any real danger.
"You forgot her, didn't you, Connor?"
"I did no such thing, Quinlan. Who was more capable than Davis? No more jests," he warned. "I'm not in the mood."