She would never forgive him. Why should she? He'd used her shamelessly, done things to her that must have terrified her, had taken her not once but twice, and in ways she wouldn't understand. He knew exactly why he'd needed her so much. He'd been living with rage for such a long time, and she was such a gentle, loving spirit. He'd needed her to breathe, to feel…
"Connor, you're choking Peter." Crispin came up behind his laird and put his hand on his shoulder.
Connor shoved the soldier away. Peter staggered back, took several deep, gulping breaths, and straightened up again.
"You almost killed a man, Peter," Connor said, his voice harsh. "Had I not knocked the sword out of your hand, one of my loyal followers would be dead. I will not tolerate stupidity."
"Laird, I…" Peter began.
Connor silenced him by raising his hand. "Don't give me your excuses. Quinlan will decide what's to be done with you."
He waited until the soldier had taken his leave before discussing the matter with his two commanders.
Crispin and Quinlan flanked his sides.
Crispin felt the soldier was hopelessly inept and should be sent home. Quinlan was in agreement, but promised he would wait until his anger had abated to make any decision.
Crispin changed the subject. "Have you decided how you're going to retaliate against MacNare?"
"I have. You and I will leave late this afternoon. Select eight or ten soldiers to ride with us."
"Will you go to Kincaid first? He did make you promise not to continue the raids."
"I should go to my brother and explain, but I'm not going to. He'll be furious, of course. However, as soon as he hears about MacNare's message, I'm certain he'll realize I should send the bastard a message of my own."
"Don't confront MacNare or kill him until it's my duty to ride with you," Quinlan requested.
"You make this same request each time we alternate responsibilities," Crispin reminded. "I'm certain Connor knows how you feel about our enemy now."
"And you put the very same request to Connor each time I ride with him, Crispin."
Connor stopped the rivalry by telling the soldiers they would both ride with him when the time came. "I won't kill him until I've found the evidence I need. The promise I gave my father comes above all others.
Crispin, go and choose your men and be ready to leave before the sun sets. Quinlan, walk with me back to the courtyard so that I can explain the duties I want the men to complete while I'm away."
He finished outlining the soldier's responsibilities before they'd reached their destination and added one last request. "See that my wife is moved to another bedroom. Do it today."
"Did you and Lady Brenna disagree about the measures you're going to take against MacNare?"
"No, I haven't discussed the matter with her. Why would you think I would?"
"She's your wife, Connor."
"I'm aware of that fact."
"And it was her horse that was butchered."
"Yes," Connor agreed. "And for those reasons, you believe I should explain my intentions to her?"
Quinlan laughed when he saw how puzzled Connor was. Explaining his intentions to his wife had obviously never occurred to him.
"Most wives would like their husbands to tell them what they're feeling."
"Is that so?"
"Then your reason for moving her to another chamber was due to something else?"
"The matter doesn't concern you."
"That is so," he agreed. "But as your friend, I feel I should advise you that your wife will be injured by this decision. She won't understand. Surely you've noticed mi'lady has feelings for you."
"Of course she does, and that is precisely why I'm moving her to another room. I assure you she'll be relieved."
Connor refused to say another word on the subject. He ordered Quinlan to get started on his duties and went inside the hall.
Netta, the servant in charge of cleaning the first floor, dropped the cloth she'd been wiping a table with as soon as she saw her laird. She jumped back, bowed, and stammered out her greeting.
The servant was a jittery woman who trembled at the mere sight of him. Connor couldn't understand why. The woman had served him for over a year now, and in all that time, he'd never once raised his voice to her.
"Netta, go upstairs and tell my wife I wish to speak to her."
"Should I wake her if she's still sleeping, Laird?"
Connor shook his head. "No, it's early yet. If she doesn't immediately answer you, leave her alone. Try to be quiet," he added. "My father's widow may still be sleeping."
The servant stumbled twice in her haste to leave the hall. Connor paced about the empty room while he waited, his mind on the explanation he was going to give Brenna. He knew he should probably apologize for his conduct the night before. He wasn't going to, however, for the simple reason he knew he wouldn't make any sense. He had never, ever told anyone he was sorry, and he wasn't about to learn how to now.
Connor had only just started a fire blazing in the hearth when Netta returned with the news that Lady MacAlister wasn't upstairs. He ordered her to send servants outside to look for her and resumed his pacing again. Quinlan's remark about sharing information with his wife had surprised him, and he found himself wondering if Alec ever told Jamie how he felt about worrisome matters. No, of course he didn't.
Men wouldn't… would they?
He shook his head with disgust. Being married complicated his life. He should have realized that before he married. It was a little late for second thoughts, however, and now that she belonged to him, he was honest enough to admit he would never give her up, and thinking about her with anyone else made him angry. Did that mean he liked being married to her? Who was he trying to fool ? He liked her all right, more than he'd ever thought possible. Even now, he was tense in anticipation of the moment she would come into the hall.
His own admission was somewhat appalling to him. He was acting as eager as a young soldier trying to impress his commander. He had already softened toward his wife, and if he wasn't careful, he was going to fall in love with her. He was certain he knew exactly what would happen then. She would die on him.
Loving Brenna wasn't worth the heartache.
Crispin had come inside to announce Laird Kincaid's arrival. He was a little late, however, as Alec was already standing by his side. The two men watched Connor pace. When Quinlan joined them a moment later, he bowed to Laird Kincaid before turning his attention to Connor. He was amused his laird hadn't noticed his brother yet. It wasn't like Connor to be so preoccupied, but Quinlan was certain he was thinking about Lady Brenna.
Alec didn't find his brother's inattention amusing at all. Connor redeemed himself in his older brother's eyes a few seconds later. "Are you going to announce my brother or not, Crispin?"
"He was waiting for you to look at me," Alec snapped. "Turning your back on a man can get you killed."
"Turning my back on a family member is rude, Alec, not dangerous." He came forward, formally bowed to Alec, and said, "You honor me with your presence, Laird."
"Your manners still need improvement."
"I learned everything I know from you. Someone's angered you, I see. You're wearing your sword."
"I am angry," Alec replied. "My men are waiting in the lower bailey. We're going on a hunt for a man who dared to defy me, and I want you to ride with me." •
Alec nodded, pleased that Connor had agreed without knowing the name of the man they were going to drag out of hiding. The older brother arrogantly assumed Connor's unquestioning loyalty was due in large measure to the way he had raised him.
Striding into the hall, he slapped his brother on his shoulder on his way to the table and sat down in the only tall-backed chair available. He motioned for Connor to take the adjacent bench.
"Dawson doesn't seem to understand I mean what I say. Lass, fetch me a drink of water," he called out to the servant hovering near the archway.
The servant frantically looked about her. Connor thought she was looking for a spot to place the items she was holding in her hands. Before he could tell her to put them on the steps, she came rushing across the chamber, bowed to him, and put them on the tabletop next to him.
He knew what they were before she explained. "I've sent three servants from the kitchens to search mi'lady out, Laird, but all they've found thus far are the things she dropped behind her. They're still on her trail, Laird, and after I serve Laird Kincaid, will you please tell me what I'm to do with the mistress's belongings?"
Connor was clearly exasperated with his wife and shook his head in bewilderment. "Leave them here, Netta," he instructed.
She bowed again before serving his brother. Connor noticed her hands shook when she put the goblet and pitcher down in front of Alec and he wasn't at all surprised. Women were even more intimidated by his older brother.
"You've misplaced your wife?" Alec inquired blandly.
"Of course not," he answered.
Alec wasn't through teasing his brother. He reached over and picked up a yellow ribbon. "What have we got here?"
"You can see it's a pouch, a ribbon, and a dagger. Honest to God, Alec, I don't know how she does it.
Brenna can't even seem to keep her feet in her shoes as she walks along. She's constantly discarding her things and picking up others. I don't know how I will convince her to pay more attention."
Alec found Brenna's forgetfulness vastly amusing. He had a good laugh at his brother's expense before suggesting he simply put a chest in the hall for his followers to place the items that she left behind in.
"With your permission, I'll see to the task," Crispin called out from the entrance.
"Would you like me to search for your wife?" Quinlan asked.
"I'd rather both of you join us," Alec ordered. "What I have to discuss will concern both of you as well."
He waited until the two men were seated across from Connor before he began.
"We'll be away for a week or two. Dawson and his soldiers are hiding up in the mountains, and it's going to take time to drag him out."
"You don't seem to be in any hurry to get started," Connor remarked.
"Dawson isn't going anywhere. The fool thinks he's safe from me," he added with a shake of his head. "I cannot imagine where he got such an idea."
"How many are with him?" Crispin asked.
"I'm not certain of the number. Quinlan, is it your duty to guard the fortress while your laird's away?"
"Post double the number of sentries along the perimeter and on the walls."
"I've already given the order, Alec. You needn't concern yourself," Connor said.
"Do you expect trouble?" Crispin asked.
Connor answered the question. "Alec always expects trouble, and so do we."
"Word has it MacNare went into a rage when he found out you had taken his bride away from him. He's been convinced by her escort that she willingly went with you, and now he blames your Brenna as much as he blames you."
"She wasn't responsible," Connor said.
Quinlan looked incredulous. "Her soldiers went to MacNare instead of returning to their baron? I'm staggered by their stupidity."
"They were assisted in making their decision to go to him," Alec explained. "You can imagine MacNare's predicament. There were at least a hundred relatives and guests waiting to celebrate the wedding with him. He had expected his bride the evening before, and when she didn't arrive on schedule, he dispatched additional troops to hurry her up. I was told he was humiliated in front of the gathering. Damn it, Quinlan, don't you dare find this amusing."
"I find MacNare's humiliation humorous," Quinlan admitted.
"So do I," Connor said.
"And I," Crispin said.
Their loyalty to one another was absolute. The three of them were brothers in the heart, and while Alec understood the bond between them, he knew he should sanction them for their attitude; yet to criticize them for enjoying MacNare's embarrassment would have made him a hypocrite. He'd had a good laugh at the laird's expense, but he wasn't about to admit that to his brother. He wanted to squelch a little of the antagonism between Connor and MacNare now, not encourage it.
"I understand how each of you feels about MacNare. I've little liking for the man, I'll admit, yet you've still to convince me that he and his father were involved in the death of your father, Connor."
He raised his hand to prevent Crispin from interrupting him before continuing. "I will remind you that until you give me adequate proof, Donald MacAlister's sword remains on my wall where I put it the day you entered my home, and none of you will kill MacNare. Have I made myself perfectly clear?"
"You have," Connor answered. "You are my laird and we will honor your wishes at all times."
"Damned right you will."
Connor was having difficulty keeping his anger under control. Although he could have given his opinion whenever he felt like it, to openly disagree with his brother in front of Quinlan and Crispin would have been wrong, as it would undermine Alec's position.
"Are you finished reminding us of our duty to you?" he asked.
Alec gave him a hard look. "I promised you a long time ago that I wouldn't kill MacNare, because if and when you find what you need to prove him culpable, that right belongs to you. However, I haven't promised to let you live, Connor. Don't push me again."
Alec waited for Connor's nod before continuing. "God has given me the impossible duty of keeping the three of you alive, and I accepted the responsibility the minute I carried each one of you inside my home.
You were all half dead at the time, and kept my wife up a full week fretting over you. I still haven't forgiven you the inconvenience you caused me."
"I remember," Connor said. "You told me you wouldn't let me die."
Alec laughed. "And you ordered me to go and get the others."
He let out a long, dramatic sigh. "You've been trying to give me orders ever since. Do you remember making me promise you that Quinlan and Crispin wouldn't die either? No, of course you don't. I cannot undo the past for you, Connor, but I can do something about the present. I have some information you might find useful. One of the English soldiers told MacNare that Brenna planned your arrival. That isn't true, is it?"