"Care to repeat what you just said to me?" he drawled out in a deceptively calm voice.
"No, thank you."
"I really insist, Brenna. I want to hear every word again." He let her know he was willing to wait, no matter how long it took, by leaning against the stall and draping one arm over the top of the gate.
She didn't like the way he was intimidating her, which, under the circumstances, was the least of her problems, and she really couldn't blame him for being angry with her since she'd said such unforgivable things to him. She wasn't about to apologize, though; for while she wasn't totally convinced he was completely heartless, he had still wounded her deeply.
"I'm afraid I won't be able to accommodate you because I seem to have forgotten most of what I said. I do recall mentioning you disappointed me," she added with a nod to prove her sincerity.
He wasn't buying it. "I remember being called a pig."
"You know good and well, I do. I was called a pig in two languages."
"I might have spoken in haste. Yes, it is possible I might have."
"You spoke in anger."
"You gave me permission to speak freely."
His tone sharpened. "I didn't give you permission to insult me. You will never speak to me like that again, will you?"
"Will you hurt me again?"
"This is not a negotiation, woman."
She flinched in reaction to his anger and tried to think of something she could say that would appease him but not be an outright lie.
"If I remembered every word I said, I would want to take back most of what I…"
He interrupted her. "I remember every word. In which language would you like for me to repeat them?
Yours or mine? You couldn't seem to make up your mind during your tirade."
"I really don't wish to hear…"
She stopped protesting as soon as he began reciting, flinched when he repeated certain words, such as
"pig" and "goat" and "horse's backside," and by the time he finished, she'd lowered her head in shame and embarrassment.
"I shouldn't have said those things to you."
"No, you shouldn't have."
"Why did you make me leave your bed?"
"Did you want to stay with me after what I did to you last night?"
"Why would you think I wouldn't want to stay?"
"Will you stop answering my questions with questions?"
"Yes, I want to stay," she cried out. "I'm your wife, not one of your camp followers."
"I hurt you." He was furious with himself now, for that reminder had once again made him realize how out of control he'd been.
"Yes, you hurt me. I already told you so several times. Haven't you been paying attention? I know you have a strong memory because you didn't have any trouble repeating every insult I gave you. How could I not be hurt? I had only just realized how much I…"
"How much you what?"
She shook her head. She wasn't about to admit that she was beginning to care for him, and so she substituted another remark for the one she had almost blurted out.
"It was humiliating for me to find out about your decision from Quinlan."
"What are you talking about now?" he demanded in frustration.
Her hands became fists at her sides. How dare he pretend he didn't understand? Did he think she was so naive she would be fooled so easily? Or was she so unimportant to him he had already forgotten what he'd done?
"You're deliberately trying to provoke me aren't you? Oh, I know the truth now. You've figured out I'm falling in love with you and you're trying to make me stop by hurting me this way. Well, it won't work.
One way or another, I'm going to make you care about me. Yes, I am, unless your cold attitude kills me first. It's only fair, Connor. If I'm going to be miserable, by God, so are you. I am not a common wench, and I will not be treated like one. My mother would weep for a month if she knew about my humiliation.
You didn't even bother to tell me; you let Quinlan do it for you, and now you're leaving and you didn't give me any warning at all. I wanted to have a medallion made for you to wear so you could send it back to me if you needed me. You wouldn't have worn it, though, would you? And all because you've gotten it into your head that needing me would be an insult. Yes, I remember exactly what you said when I showed you my medallion and told you about my family's tradition. You ordered me to throw it away because it insulted you, and what breaks my heart is that you made it quite clear that what's important to me means nothing to you."
She vowed she wouldn't say another word, yet contradicted herself less than ten seconds later. "I have only one more thing to say to you before I go back to the hall and pretend I'm not married to you.
Husbands tell their wives good-bye before they leave, and they always give them proper farewell kisses."
It wasn't until she felt the tears on her face that she realized she was crying. Her own lack of control sickened her, for not only had she shamed herself by saying such terrible things to her husband—God forgive her, she'd really called him a pig—but she had also broken down in front of him.
How could she ever make him care for her if she acted like a shrew one minute and a weakling the next?
She couldn't, of course, she'd already done the damage, and now nothing was ever going to be all right.
Alec's shout saved her from further disgrace if such a thing was possible. His older brother had grown weary of waiting and had commanded Connor to hurry up.
"I've detained you long enough," she whispered.
He didn't agree or disagree with her and, in fact, didn't utter a single word. He didn't leave either; he simply stood where he was and stared at her. His expression made her imagine she had suddenly grown a pair of red devil's horns on top of her head and he didn't have the faintest idea what he was supposed to do about it.
Dear God, she'd put him into a trance. Her mind raced to remember every word she'd just said to him.
She knew she'd gotten a little carried away, but she was certain, well, almost certain, she hadn't called him a pig or a goat again. Had she called him something even more offensive? She fervently hoped she hadn't; but if she had, God help her three brothers, Gillian and William and Arthur, because it was all their fault, and the next time she saw them, she was going to blister them for using crude language in front of her. They'd done it on purpose, of course, and for their own enjoyment, because they knew she was too young to understand, but old enough to repeat almost everything she heard. She was making herself crazed worrying about her possible transgression.
"Connor, if I've said something obscene to you, it must have popped out of the back of my mind where I stored it from the time I was a little girl and my older brothers…" She stopped as soon as she realized she was rambling and gave up her attempt to appease him. "Why don't you leave? You're looking like you're about to pounce on me, and if that is your inclination, then please get on with it. The wait is making me daft."
"You don't remember what you said?"
His question made her feel worse. "I remember some of what I said, but not all of it. I know better than to let my anger control my words, and yet I allowed it to happen anyway. I assume I said something I shouldn't have. Did I?"
Lord, that had to be an understatement. From the moment she'd walked into the stables and opened her mouth, everything she'd said had been inappropriate.
"I have to go."
"Yes," she agreed with a heartfelt sigh of relief.
After opening the gate, he motioned for her to go ahead of him.
She could feel his gaze on her as she brushed past him, but she deliberately kept her head down so she wouldn't have to look at the anger she was sure was still lingering in his eyes. And his wariness. Whatever she'd blurted out in the heat of the moment had caused that specific reaction.
She didn't want to watch him leave the fortress, knowing she would lose what thin threads of control she still had left and wail like a sinner. Wouldn't that be a fitting way for her husband to remember her?
"Good-bye," she whispered as she stopped in the center of the stables. "God keep you safe."
He didn't have any last words to say to her. He simply walked on past her and went outside. He glanced back over his shoulder once, his expression still wary. Surely he noticed how desolate she was and was probably pleased to know he was fully responsible for her misery.
And then he was gone. She stayed inside the stables while she listened to the grinding sound of the drawbridge being lowered. It was followed by the clanking noise of swords striking against their metal sheaths and horses clip-clopping across the wooden pathway to the outside. She pictured her husband taking the lead by his brother's side, smiling and laughing now over far more pleasant matters than a bothersome, never-knew-when-to-keep-her-mouth-shut wife.
After taking another minute to say a prayer to God to please watch over him while he was away from her, she made certain there weren't any tears clinging to the corners of her eyes, slapped a smile on her face, and went outside. She tried to act as though she was in a hurry so no one would bother her.
She was halfway up the gentle incline, headed toward the courtyard, when she heard the sound of thunder behind her. She glanced up at the sky, instinctively quickening her pace, but slowed down almost immediately because there wasn't a dark cloud hanging down anywhere. She was too distraught to really pay attention to what was going on around her, for she realized she had just destroyed her chances of ever living happily ever after with a husband who loved and adored her, and how could she possibly think about, or care about, anything else?
Soldiers shouted a warning to her to move out of the way, while those strolling ahead of her hurried to get off the path without being told. The thunder was still behind her, but lower to the ground now, and getting closer. If she weren't certain it was an impossibility, she would have imagined the ground was shivering under her feet.
Brenna assumed one of the horses had gotten away from Davis and was now galloping out of control up the path. She hurried toward the cluster of pine trees to get out of danger, and just in the nick of time, as the wild beast was bearing down on her now.
She didn't make it. She was taken by surprise and actually let out a startled yelp as she felt herself being plucked from the ground.
Connor swept her off her feet. He had leaned down to the side, wrapped his arm tight around her waist, and lifted her up onto his lap without bothering to slow his horse's galloping stride.
He scared the hell out of her.
He heard her cry of alarm when he lifted her off the ground, but knew the precise second she recovered.
It was when she landed on his lap and realized she was in his arms. Her fear vanished. She didn't even hold on to him. With her hands at her sides, she leaned back, a carefree look on her face as enchanting as her innocence. His hand was splayed against her back. If he lightened his hold, she would be thrown to the ground. Her trust in him was absolute, however, and she left her safety up to him.
His uninhibited wife couldn't be bothered. She arched back, lifted her arms, and stretched them out as far as they would reach. With the palms of her hands facing the sun, she tossed her head back and closed her eyes in blissful surrender.
Connor was stunned. He yearned to have such sweet abandon, to take such delight in living each and every moment. And as he watched her, the laughter welled up inside him, catching him by complete surprise. Oh, how she pleased him. He slowed the horse to a walk and came to a stop at the top of the incline.
Lessening his grip around her waist, he waited for her to give him her full attention.
She wrapped her arms around his neck and leaned into him. Whispering his name, she placed a kiss near the base of his throat, her lips as soft and sweet as a butterfly's wings. He was shaken by her expression of affection. His smile disappeared, his thoughts protected by his guarded expression as he stared into her enchanting blue eyes.
A full minute passed without a spoken word. The tension and anticipation radiated between them. His gaze lowered to her mouth and stayed there as he whispered his farewell. And then he pulled her up against him, tilted her head back, and kissed her long and hard and thoroughly. It was a kiss he wanted her to remember, and one he would never forget. He made love to her with his mouth, telling her with his passion that he had forgiven her, and letting her know with his gentle touch that he meant to have her forgiveness as well.
It took Connor a considerable amount of discipline to remember Alec was waiting for him to catch up.
He raised his head and realized an audience had gathered to bear witness to their laird's astonishing behavior.
None of them had ever seen him exhibit such open affection before. Most of the men were stupefied by their leader, while all but one of the women were clearly delighted because their laird was acting like a husband now. His action would surely change their own husbands' attitudes. If their laird kissed his wife farewell, the married men under his command would surely follow his example.
Connor's gaze scanned his audience, and when he noticed that Donald and the other soldiers who'd gone hunting were back and watching with ridiculous expressions of disbelief on their faces, he decided that now was as good a time as any to introduce Brenna to his clan.
He demanded their silence by raising his hand.
"Lady MacAlister is your mistress. You will take her into your hearts, protect her with your lives, and serve her as you have served me, for she is my wife."
He lowered his hand, nodded with satisfaction as the cheers of acceptance roared through the crowd, and then assisted Brenna back to the ground.
The kiss had left her dazed. She staggered back and surely would have lost her balance if two of the women hadn't steadied her.
Connor left her there staring after him and stopped again only once, to speak to Quinlan, who was waiting for him near the stables and grinning like a lunatic.
Brenna couldn't stop sighing. For the first time in a very long time, she was content.
Everything, after all, was going to be all right.
Life became a living nightmare for Lady Brenna, and it all began and ended with Raen.
Euphemia's pride and joy arrived at the holding just a few hours after Connor had made his departure to go hunting with Alec.
Because she was in the kitchens, Brenna didn't hear the drawbridge being lowered and was therefore the last to be given the news of Raen's arrival.