"I was just a little older than your Grace is now. I would guess I was going on five or six. Yes, I was about that old when I asked Connor to marry me the first time, but if you'll remember, I asked him three times. I'm not only clever, Laird, I'm also tenacious. I must admit I find your curiosity intriguing, for I seem to recall having this very conversation when I was first introduced to you. I know I mentioned I wasn't forced. I'm very happy to be his wife. How could I not be? I have wanted to marry him for such a long time. Heavens, where are my manners? I should have asked you how Grace is feeling today."
"She's fine," Alec answered.
"She had quite a scare yesterday, and I hope she didn't have any nightmares last night. Do you know, it's really quite remarkable, now that I reflect upon it. God surely has grand plans in store for your daughter."
Alec's curiosity was captured. She couldn't have hoped for more.
"Why do you think so?"
"I know so," she boasted. "God made certain I was inside your home so I could get to her in time. I do believe Grace would have suffered grievous injuries if I hadn't been there to catch her. She came down those steps head first and surely would have broken her neck. You may think I'm foolish to believe God is responsible, but I believe it all the same, and I cannot help but wonder what would have happened if I had married MacNare instead of Connor. Would Grace be feeling well today? My, listen to me going on and on, and you still have business to discuss. I trust the matter of when I proposed and all other questions about my husband's reasons for marrying me have been answered to your satisfaction."
She bowed to the laird and walked away. She couldn't resist adding one last comment, though she didn't bother to turn around. "God does work in mysterious ways. I for one would never question Him."
None of the men uttered a word for a full minute after Lady Brenna left. Each stared at the empty entrance while he pondered what she had just said.
Alec was the first to smile. "Your wife just put me in an awkward position, and do you know what I think? She did it on purpose. How much of our conversation do you suppose she overheard?"
Connor answered without a second's hesitation. "All of it."
"She shouldn't have listened in."
"No, she shouldn't have."
"I should be angry with her."
"Then why am I wanting to laugh? There will be no more talk about defying me, Connor, because I have decided to accept what your wife told me. You were obviously meant for each other."
"I didn't defy you, Alec. You ordered me to stop the raids, and that's what I did. You cannot hold me to my promise now that you know about Brenna's horse."
"I can," Alec argued. "But I won't. Do what you will in repayment as long as it is equal to what was done to the mare."
Alec gained his brother's agreement before leaving the hall. "You're married to a very clever woman.
You'd best keep that in mind."
Connor didn't take his suggestion to heart, and it was only later, when it was too late, that he learned to regret it.
The mistake would cost him dearly.
Lady Brenna didn't take the news that she had been moved into another bedroom at all well. Her husband hadn't bothered to inform her of his decision beforehand, and Quinlan fervently wished the unpleasant duty of explaining it all to her had fallen on someone else's shoulders instead of his. He had suspected she would be hurt and had tried to get her alone before explaining so that they would have privacy in the event she became embarrassed, but his mistress's worry about her missing clothes defeated his plan, and she, therefore, had to hear the news in front of Connor's stepmother.
Lady Brenna wasn't angered by Connor's command; she was clearly devastated. Quinlan felt sorry for the dear lady, of course, and it took a good deal of discipline to pretend he didn't notice her distress. His laird's callous behavior infuriated him to the point that he considered telling him that he would rather be tortured than ever give Lady Brenna such disappointing news again.
The pity she saw in his eyes made her humiliation all the more complete. Euphemia had thoughtfully turned away with the excuse that she wanted to get something from her bedroom. With effort, Brenna was able to gather herself together. "May I fetch something for you, Lady MacAlister?"
She assumed Euphemia hadn't heard her when she didn't immediately answer, and so she turned back to Quinlan again. "Thank you for explaining."
Desperate to say something to make her feel better, he blurted out the first cheerful thought that came into his mind. "So you see, mi'lady, your things weren't thrown away as you suspected. Surely you're relieved."
"Yes, of course I'm relieved. Did Connor tell you why he wanted me to move?"
"Nay, mi'lady, he didn't."
"Where is he now?"
"He went hunting with his brother."
"How long ago did he leave?"
"Both lairds left the hall just a minute or so ago."
"Then I might still catch him?"
"If you hurry."
She ran to the door to open it, but the weight was too much for her to budge without Quinlan's assistance, so he hurried to give it.
Quinlan followed her down the staircase but not across the courtyard. He naturally assumed she was going to try to change her husband's mind.
His assumption was wrong, however, as Brenna didn't have any intention of begging her husband to reconsider. She was simply going to let him know what she thought about his decision. She ran all the way to the stables, calling, "Good day to you, ladies," as she raced past mothers giving their babies a bit of fresh air.
Her pace had made her breathless, and when she noticed Alec mounted on his horse at the bottom of the hill, she waved to him instead of waiting to catch her breath so she could call a greeting.
The inside of the stables was cast in shadows. She forced a smile on her face the second she spotted her husband. Connor was standing next to the horse he'd chosen to ride, adjusting the bridle to his satisfaction, while the stablemaster tried to calm the stallion his laird usually favored. That horse was making quite a ruckus, kicking his hooves up against the back of the stall, and would soon destroy it if he wasn't stopped, but her husband didn't seem inclined to do anything about it.
Deliberately staying in the path of the doorway so he couldn't leave without walking over her, she slowly moved forward. "May I please have a moment of your time, Laird?" she asked in a voice as sweet as honeyed syrup and with a smile to match.
He didn't even bother to look at her when he answered. "Can it wait until I get back?"
"I'm not certain, Laird. Will you be back before nightfall?"
It almost did her in to keep smiling, but the stablemaster was watching her closely, and she was determined not to let him know what she was really thinking. She didn't want Connor to know either, of course, until he was ready to give her his undivided attention. She didn't want him to miss a word.
"Davis, what's wrong with my stallion?" he asked.
"I don't know what's wrong with him, Laird. He was fine until you came inside."
"I think he's upset," she called out.
"We know he's upset, Brenna."
She stiffened in response to his condescending attitude. "Yes, of course you do," she agreed. "He's upset because you aren't paying any attention to him." A reaction, she silently added, she was also experiencing at the moment. "Your stallion doesn't wish to be left behind. If you'll go to his stall and pick up his bridle, I'm sure he'll settle down."
"I would be curious to see if that works, Laird," Davis confessed as he flashed a grin toward his mistress.
"Mi'lady could be right."
"I do hope I am," she replied in such a disgustingly pleasant tone she was sure she was going to be sick.
"Brenna, are you coming down with something?" Connor asked. "Your voice sounds strained."
"I'm feeling fine, Connor, though I appreciate your concern."
Her face was beginning to ache from holding on to her smile, and her only consolation was in knowing that in a few minutes, it was all going to be worth it.
"I don't have time for this nonsense," her husband muttered, which turned out to be bluster on his part because he did do what she had suggested, and just as she had predicted, the stallion immediately stopped fussing and moved forward to nudge Connor's hand for a pat of affection.
"You'll have to take him," she said. "Otherwise, you'll hurt his feelings."
"He needs to rest. Besides, horses don't have feelings."
Did he always feel the need to contradict her? She started praying in an attempt to keep herself from shouting at him.
Connor replaced the bridle on the peg, told Davis to take the horse he'd chosen outside, then leaned back against the stall, folded his arms across his chest, and finally deigned to look at her.
He didn't say a word until Davis had left the stable. "What is it you want?" he asked impatiently.
"I was wondering why you didn't say good-bye to me. Were you going to?"
The tremor in her voice was the first indication she was upset. He thought he knew why. She had expected an apology this morning, hadn't gotten one, and now, because she was an intelligent woman, realized she was never going to get one. Her conclusion would be correct, of course, as he still didn't have any intention of telling her he was sorry he'd come to her like a savage last night. Having her moved into another bedroom was his way of apologizing. A clever wife would have figured that out right away, and been thankful and relieved.
Brenna didn't appear to be either at the moment, which, he concluded, could only mean she didn't know about his magnanimous gesture yet. He wasn't going to take the time now to explain it all to her, because Alec was waiting for him. If she wanted an explanation when he returned, he would accommodate her.
"I don't usually say good-bye before I leave."
"You're married now and should always tell your wife goodbye."
"Any other instructions you wish to give me?"
"Were you planning to come back?"
"I live here, Brenna. Of course I'll come back. Is this your reason for detaining me?"
"No, I wanted to speak to you about another matter. I would appreciate it if you wouldn't interrupt me until I'm finished."
"Will you get it said?" he demanded in vexation.
She gritted her teeth together in response to his stop-bothering-me tone of voice.
"I have only just found out you moved me into another bedroom, and I felt certain you would wish to know what I think about it. I would like your permission to speak freely first."
"You don't need to ask my permission to speak freely when we're alone. Say whatever you want to me, just be quick about it."
"Yes, I'll be quick about it," she promised in a hoarse whisper.
"Can't you wait until I return to say thank you? What the hell's wrong with your eyelid? It's twitching."
She chose to ignore her husband for a moment. She looked over her shoulder one last time to measure the distance to the doorway and safety, saw that the doorway was just behind her, and took a deep, now-you're-going-to-get-it breath. Because she was going to have to flee with all possible haste, she picked up the hem of her skirts in preparation, and only then did she give her husband her undivided attention… and her wrath.
She wasn't smiling now.
"I don't have any intention of thanking you, Connor. However, I do intend to tell you what I think about your decision to move me into another room. I think you are beyond contemptible. You're also a vile, despicable, arrogant, heartless, mean-spirited pig. How could you deliberately hurt me this way? After the passionate, satisfying night we shared together, for you to shame me this way makes me think I must be married to a goat. Well, you've gone and done it this time, because I'll never recover from your insult.
You've broken my heart again, and I will never forgive you."
She really should have stopped while she was ahead. At the very least, she should have stopped insulting him the second she noticed his reaction to being called a pig. He clenched his jaw tight, which was a good indication to her he wasn't taking her comments at all well. She couldn't remember what other insults she threw at him, because once she got started, she couldn't seem to make herself stop, but she was pretty certain she suggested he was a horse's backside too. The hurt he'd caused her made her want to lash out at him, and even though it was childish for her to lower herself to his level, she couldn't seem to make herself care long enough to stop.
Second thoughts weren't going to do her a lick of good now, however; only distance would assure her of living another full day, as Connor's eyes had gone from wide with stunned disbelief—no doubt the mention of "pig" caused that reaction—to half-closed and burning.
He didn't even give her a head start. She turned around only to discover that someone had snuck up behind her and closed the barn doors, throwing off her timing considerably. She had to let go of her skirts so that she could push the doors open, and then Connor had hold of her hand and was pulling her back.
How he'd gotten to her so quickly was beyond her comprehension. One second he was next to the stall, looking fit to be tied, and the next he was dragging her behind him toward the back of the stables.
She said a heartfelt, "God, please have mercy."
"If you must pray out loud, do so in one language. God prefers Gaelic."
Her snort of disbelief wasn't appreciated, she knew, because he tightened his grip on her hand. He dragged her to an empty stall around the corner from the others and closed the gate behind him.
She didn't start edging away from him until she saw the look in his eyes. She stopped when her back was pressed against the wall. Immediately, she realized how cowardly she must appear. She couldn't seem to make herself move away from the wall, but she was able to fold her hands together and managed to look serene while she waited to be throttled. Retreat would have been better, of course, but he blocked the only way out.
Connor seemed to be relaxed now. She knew better. She wasn't going anywhere until he was finished with her. She really needed to get hold of herself. Her husband was furious, no doubt about it, but he wouldn't ever touch her in anger. He would use words to crush her, and at the moment, that seemed to be just as horrible.