She promptly turned around. "They're supposed to be in the center of the front, facing the courtyard.
Everyone knows that is the fashion these days. I'm wanting to sleep in a bed tonight and not on the floor, Connor. Do you have beds inside?"
She finally looked at her husband so he would see her frown and realized she wasn't up to hearing any more of his plans about their future. Hearing he would stop by every once in a while was more than enough for her stomach in one day. She noticed Quinlan and Crispin were standing next to her husband and promptly changed her frown into a smile. No doubt about it, Connor was turning her into a shrew.
God only knew how long his soldiers had been observing her rant and rave like a lunatic. Although it was probably too late to change their opinion of her, she decided to give it her best try.
"It's going to be a fine evening, isn't it?" she called out, pretending everything was as right as could be and she hadn't been acting like a madwoman seconds ago.
"If you think so, mi'lady," Crispin called back. "What just came over her?" he whispered to Quinlan.
"We did," he answered. "I believe she only just noticed us and doesn't want us to know her husband offended her."
"I didn't offend her."
"It would seem to me that you did."
Connor shoved his friend aside on his way to intercept his wife.
She kept on smiling, even when she reached the top of the stone steps and noticed there wasn't a landing to stand on. She backed down a step and reached forward to grasp the handle to the entrance.
The door wouldn't open. It was either bolted on the inside or reinforced with iron or steel. She put both hands to her task, added her muscle, and finally got it open a crack. It still wasn't wide enough for her to squeeze through without getting crushed.
Connor came to her assistance. He heard her muttering to herself as he came up the steps behind her. He put his arm around her waist, pulled her back against him, and reached over her shoulder to open the door with one quick flick of his wrist.
She couldn't help but be impressed by his strength. "I thought it was locked and didn't try to force it," she said so that he wouldn't think she was a weakling.
"It's open now."
He continued to wait for her to go inside. She continued to lean against him.
"Aren't you curious to see the inside?"
"Is it as grand as the outside?"
She had been afraid he would say that.
"What are you doing?"
Bracing myself, she admitted to herself before she told him an altogether different tale. "I'm letting my anticipation build. Shall we go inside?"
He rolled his eyes heavenward. She hurried across the threshold and came to an abrupt stop in the center of the entrance to wait until her eyes adjusted to the darkness. She saw a soldier standing in front of double doors on her left, bowed to him, and then looked around with interest.
It was bad all right, but not as bad as she had imagined it would be. There were stone steps directly in front of her, a stone wall on her right. She assumed she was on the main floor and the bedchambers were on the floor above. She was curious to see the hall, of course, but when she turned to go through the double doors, Connor took hold of her arm to stop her.
"You won't ever go in there," he explained as he guided her toward the steps.
"Why won't I?"
"The higher ranking soldiers are inside. Do you want me to carry you upstairs?"
He didn't give her time to decide. He had lifted her into his arms and had reached the door at the top before she could answer him.
Another sentry stood guard on a landing that was so narrow, he had to come down a step in order to open the door.
Connor nodded to the soldier before striding inside. He put her down in the entrance and quickly explained where everything was located.
The great hall was to the left of the entrance and directly above the soldiers' quarters. It was quite large, though it wasn't nearly as large as Alec Kincaid's, and it was sparsely furnished.
Directly across from the entrance was a large stone hearth built into the wall. Though a fire blazed to take the chill from the air, it wasn't proving effective. Three windows covered with ugly brown fabric ran along one of the walls, and there was a long table with twin benches flanking either side.
The hall was as welcoming as a coffin. Brenna knew she was going to have to make some changes as soon as possible. She would start by placing rushes on the wooden floors and hanging several brightly colored banners and tapestries on the stark walls. A pretty cloth would hide the scarred tabletop, and cushions placed on the hard benches would make sitting more comfortable.
She pictured what the hall could look like and was suddenly eager to get started.
"May I add a few touches here and there, Connor?" In her excitement, she clasped her hands together and smiled up at him while she waited to receive his permission.
"This is your home, Brenna. You may do whatever you want to do."
"May I kiss you?"
The question caught him off guard. "Have you forgotten you're irritated with me?"
"No, I haven't forgotten, but my irritation is gone now. You do know why, don't you?"
Her voice had dropped to a whisper. He responded in kind. "No, I don't know why," he replied, a hint of a smile in his eyes.
"Because we're standing together for the first time in our home, and I realize that this is the perfect time for us to start over. You should kiss me now."
"We cannot start over whenever the mood strikes you."
She reached up to cup the back of his head in her hands and drew him down for a kiss. Her lips brushed over his in a quick, gentle caress meant to torment him. She wanted him to kiss her back, of course, and when he didn't cooperate, she brushed her lips over his once again.
"It's a new beginning," she explained in a whisper.
He continued to resist, although in truth he had stopped paying attention to what she was saying. He wanted only to benefit from his wife's arousing methods of trying to sway him.
She wasn't being at all subtle, which of course was exactly why he was enjoying himself, and as she began to tug on his lower lip to get a reaction, he knew he would soon let her win. He pulled her into his arms, pressed her body against his, and slowly shook his head at her.
"No, we can't start over."
Her eyes sparkled with devilment. "Ah, Connor, we already have."
The kiss she gave him then was altogether different from the one before. Her kiss wasn't playful now, but demanding, and the second she opened her mouth for him and began to tease him with her tongue, he took absolute possession.
He might have laughed, he couldn't remember, for this was the first time Brenna had consciously set out to tempt him. She still didn't understand the physical power she had over him, and he hoped to God she never did. She was simply tempting him to take what he would now, and in her innocent flirtation, she was actually showing him the extent of her affection for him.
He heard her low moan of pleasure, felt her tighten her hold around his neck, and was arrogantly satisfied to know that while he was completely in control of his emotions, his wife soon would not be of hers.
Brenna was honest and forthright in everything she did, and in a world filled with deceit, where what wasn't said was often far more important than what was, he found himself drawn to Brenna's simplistic view.
Connor didn't consciously let himself get caught up in the moment, yet that was what happened all the same. Passion was suddenly burning inside of him, and one kiss no longer satisfied him. He wanted it all.
Just as he was making up his mind to take her upstairs and bed her, she abruptly ended the kiss by turning her face away. Her voice was a ragged whisper against his ear as she explained. "We aren't alone."
"No one would dare intrude without gaining permission," he told her as he tried to kiss her again.
"Someone's watching us, Connor. Please let go of me."
He did as she asked and then turned to confront the intruder.
Euphemia was standing on the landing above the steps leading to the bedrooms. Connor's expression changed in the blink of an eye. He smiled with true joy, and Brenna found herself smiling in reaction.
"It's good to see you again, Euphemia," he called out, his great affection for the woman apparent in his voice.
Brenna's knees almost buckled. She couldn't believe what she had just heard. Euphemia couldn't be here.
She was due to arrive tomorrow, not today, but she was here now, and had just observed her stepson's disgustingly undisciplined wife throwing herself at him.
Brenna considered kicking her husband because he hadn't bothered to tell her Euphemia had arrived, but didn't give in to the urge because she wanted the woman to like her, not despise her.
First impressions were often wrong. Brenna tried to keep that fact in mind as she stared up at Connor's stepmother. Euphemia appeared to be as old as the pines. She reminded Brenna of a crow, as she was dressed in black and seemed to be perched on the top step, with her shoulders hunched forward and her gaze intent, penetrating, almost piercing as she watched Connor walk toward her.
Brenna was instinctively wary of the woman, but before she could berate herself for being frightened and having such uncharitable thoughts about the elderly woman's appearance, she witnessed a startling transformation overtake Euphemia. The woman suddenly straightened up to her full height, which surely made her nearly as tall as Connor. She threw her shoulders back and glided down the steps with the grace and elegance one would expect from a queen. The smile she gave Connor softened the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, and no one would have noticed then the maze of deep creases mapping her face.
Brenna was captivated by the sincerity she saw in Euphemia's eyes.
The change in her stunned Brenna. Euphemia was still old, of course, but she wasn't any older than Brenna's own dear mother. Grieving had obviously left its cruel marks on the woman, seemingly aging her far beyond her actual years, and, oh, how she must have loved Connor's father to have been so devastated by his death. Both the gray hair and the wrinkles carved in her face gave testimony to the pain the poor woman had endured.
Brenna's heart went out to her. She wanted to help ease her sorrow in any way that she could. Connor called Brenna's name then and she hurried forward. As soon as he finished introducing her, she bowed low to Euphemia and said how pleased she was to meet her. Euphemia's smile was somewhat guarded, Brenna noticed, but Connor's wife still felt she had been found acceptable.
"The pleasure is mine," Euphemia said, surprising Brenna once again, because her voice was that of a young woman, and now that Brenna looked closely at her, she realized his stepmother had once been a very beautiful woman. She wasn't beautiful now.
"You are the reason I finally came back," Euphemia continued. "For I was quite eager to meet the woman who had at last captured Connor. I have been plaguing him for years to take a wife."
She turned to Connor once again. "Now I must work on getting Raen to marry. He's been even more resistant to the idea than you were. I fear he'll be an old man before he takes a bride."
Brenna stood by her husband's side, listening as the two of them discussed Raen's health and happiness.
Connor wanted to find out who Raen was currently serving because he had heard he was no longer under Laird Ferson's command, but Euphemia skirted the issue by suggesting he speak to her son about such matters.
"Has Raen arrived yet?" Brenna asked.
"No," Euphemia answered. "My son will join me tomorrow."
Connor suggested they sit at the table and continue their conversation. Brenna followed behind her husband, smiling over the way Euphemia put her hand on Connor's arm and smiled so lovingly at him.
Euphemia continued to talk about Raen for several more minutes, and then she looked at Brenna, obviously waiting for her to say something. She blurted out the first thing that came into her head. "I'm eager to meet such a perfect man."
She realized she sounded derisive and was horrified. "You sound like my mother, Lady Euphemia. She also believes her sons are wonderful. She's right, of course, just as you are."
Euphemia nodded. "I am eager to see Raen," she said. "It's been over six months since he last visited me.
He's terribly busy, and I diligently try not to meddle in his affairs."
"Was the journey difficult for you, madam?" Connor asked.
"I cannot lie and tell you it was easy," she replied. "Yet it was no worse than what I anticipated," she added, her gaze directed at Brenna now.
She thought it was sweet that Euphemia was thoughtfully including her. "How long have you been away?"
"Sixteen years, three months," she answered. "Some mornings it seems as though my Donald passed away just the day before, so overcome am I with sorrow."
Connor nodded with understanding. He noticed the tears in Euphemia's eyes and gently turned the conversation to lighter matters.
Brenna was happy to sit by her husband's side and listen. One topic led to another and another, and before Brenna realized it, a good hour had passed.
She would have been happy to sit there the rest of the night, because the look of peace on her husband's face was a worthy reward. She had never seen him this relaxed or content. He obviously loved this woman, certainly honored her, and had missed her terribly.
Her thoughts turned to her own dear mother then, and as she pictured their reunion one day in the future, tears sprang into her eyes. To stop herself from becoming melancholy, she quit thinking about her family and considered instead what she would like to eat for supper.
Euphemia pulled her back to the conversation at hand by calling her name.
"I beg your indulgence, but the journey here has left me weary. I'm not as young as I used to be, and even short rides tire me. I would like to retire for the night, if you will allow me to, and would appreciate a tray of light fare sent up to me."
Connor immediately stood up to assist his stepmother.
"May I help you get settled, Lady MacAlister?" Brenna asked.
"One of Connor's servants has already seen to the duty, child."
Brenna bowed to her and bid her good night. Connor suggested she wait in the hall for him until he returned from escorting Euphemia to her room. Brenna understood Connor's need to have a private moment with his stepmother and didn't mind at all that she had been excluded.