"Thank you, madam."
Managing to get to her bedroom without offending the woman, Brenna leaned against the door and let out a loud sigh.
Netta stood at the hearth, warming herself in front of the fire. "Did Lady Euphemia go along with your plan to try five different cooks?"
Brenna smiled. "Yes, she did. Be sure to remind Ada she mustn't let Euphemia see her until the end of the week."
"She knows, mi'lady, and she's most appreciative of your efforts. She's worried though that Lady Euphemia will know she prepared all the meals through the week. Are you sure you wouldn't rather have someone else…"
"I'm certain," Brenna replied. "Ada's a fine cook. Our laird's stepmother likes to be difficult. I've decided we aren't being disloyal to our laird with our trickery," she added. "We're simply trying to make his relatives happy, that's all."
"None of us feel tricking Lady Euphemia is disloyal. Do you have any idea how long she and her son plan to stay?"
"No, but I assure you, that will be the first question I ask my husband."
"Is there something else bothering you? I noticed you barely touched your food tonight, and when you came inside the room a moment ago, your face was terribly pale."
Brenna wasn't about to tell her about Raen, believing it was up to her, not a servant, to solve this problem. To condemn the laird's stepbrother would have severe ramifications, she imagined; God only knew, she would have been sickened if one of her own brothers' wives cried out against another brother.
As Connor's wife, it was her dreaded duty to tell him, no one else.
"I wasn't very hungry tonight," she said in answer to Netta's question.
The servant left a few minutes later. After bolting the door, Brenna sat down on the bed and worked on her sewing. Ada had given her a bright saffron-colored cloth to put on the table, and Brenna was trying to embroider the colors of Connor's plaid into a square in the center of the material. Because she wanted it to be perfect, she labored well into the night, making certain each one of the stitches was straight, and if she kept to her schedule, she would be finished in just a few more days.
She didn't plan to put it on the table until she had sewn into squares the plaids she'd cut and stuffed with sheep's wool, which meant she would have to sew at least one hour every morning, but if the weather proved accommodating, she meant to sit outside with the other women and get to know them at the same time.
She wasn't going to sit about all day long though, especially when the sun was out, and so she decided to allow one hour each afternoon to go riding. Learning how to ride bareback intrigued her, and as Connor's wife, shouldn't she know how?
Besides, how difficult could it be?
She almost killed herself—several times as a matter of fact—and all in the first afternoon she tried to ride bareback.
Davis swore to Quinlan that he never would have allowed his mistress to even look at their laird's stallion if he had known what she intended to do. She hadn't understood why her husband would leave the horse behind, and Davis was happy to explain that the stallion needed to rest and feed because he'd been ridden so hard. She suggested the beast needed a little pampering as well, and Davis hadn't disagreed with her.
When she asked him if she could take the stallion out for a little stroll, he made her give him every assurance she meant only to walk the black up the hill and back so he could get a little exercise and attention. The stallion had obviously taken to her. Why, the way he let her lead him to the stables on the very first day of her arrival proved he had accepted her, and hadn't her skill handling the horse been apparent to just about everyone?
Watching the docile way the animal pranced up the hill at her side had assured Davis he had made the right decision. His suspicions surely would have been aroused if Lady Brenna had asked him for a saddle, but she hadn't asked, now had she?
"I'm not saying our mistress out and out lied to me, Quinlan. That ain't what I'm saying, or even suspecting. I'm thinking she must have changed her mind once she walked over the crest. The notion must have struck her then, and she couldn't resist giving it a try. Don't you worry though. I won't be so easily swayed again, but I'm not even thinking she might try to lie to me. I'm just saying she might get another one of her notions again. That's all."
Quinlan accepted Davis's explanation. Like the stablemaster, he wasn't concerned his mistress would ever take such a chance again, because he thought she'd finally come to her senses after the scare she had flying through the air like an eagle suddenly deprived of its wings.
And so, the very next day, while he was checking on the progress of the soldiers working on the wall, she took the stallion out for a nice stroll once again. Because she was walking with such a stiff gait, Davis didn't suffer a moment's worry.
But then, he hadn't realized his mistress was completely daft. At least that was the excuse he whispered to Quinlan, begging his forgiveness all the while because he knew he shouldn't criticize his laird's dear wife.
"She tricked me, she did," Davis told his commander. "I'm not saying she looked me right in the eye and lied to me. No, that's not what I'm saying at all. I'm thinking it though, because this time I was real specific with her, firm as I could be, and when I demanded her promise she wouldn't get up on the beast again, she answered me with a big smile, which told me she agreed with my ruling, because anyone with any sense at all knows a woman doesn't smile at you after being given an order unless she means to follow it. You don't have to be worried another minute, Quinlan. I'm on to her now, all right. She won't be fooling me again."
She did exactly that the following afternoon. Davis conveniently disappeared as soon as word reached him his mistress was once again riding the stallion.
He needn't have bothered to hide, as Quinlan finally realized he was going to have to take up the problem himself before his mistress killed herself. Davis simply wasn't up to it.
Determined to prevent disaster, the soldier had every intention of forbidding Lady Brenna to ever take such a dangerous risk again; yet as he strode through the break in the pines at the crest of the slope, he heard her laughter and began to have misgivings. A second later, he saw her sitting upright on the stallion's back. The look of joy on her face made him smile, and he stood there a long while watching her, even though he knew he should put an immediate stop to her dangerous antics.
Saints be praised, Lady Brenna managed to stay upright for several minutes before she was tossed to the ground.
Quinlan waited for her to get up. She didn't move. He started running down the incline, and he swore later to Crispin that his heart had surely stopped when, just he was about to reach her, the stallion came charging back.
He was certain the beast would trample her. The big black nudged her instead, and quick as a wink, she rolled over, grabbed hold of the horse's reins, and burst into laughter.
He took the reins out of her hand, slapped the stallion's hindquarters to get him to move away from her, and then bent down to offer his hand. "When you didn't move, I thought you were dead."
"It's a game we play. If I stay perfectly still, Willie comes right over to my side, and I can grab hold of his reins. Otherwise, he makes me chase him."
Quinlan was too distraught to pay attention to a word she said. He kept telling himself not to raise his voice to her—she was his mistress, for the love of God, not his younger sister. "Have you lost your sense?"
"I don't think so."
"If you insist on killing yourself, do so on Crispin's watch, not mine."
After giving her his order, he pulled her to her feet, then stood back while she brushed the dust off her plaid. He wanted her full attention so there wouldn't be any misunderstandings. "You will not take such a risk again. I want your word you'll never ride without a saddle, and I assure you, a smile isn't going to work on me."
"No, you are far more clever than I am, Quinlan. I would never dare to trick you."
Somewhat placated, he reminded her she still hadn't given him her promise.
"Do you think you could manage to stop shouting at me? You're making my head pound."
Quinlan was appalled by his conduct. "I beg your forgiveness, mi'lady. I cannot imagine what came over me."
"I gave you a scare," she reminded him. "Now, tell me what I'm doing wrong. Why can't I stay very long on his back?"
"You sit too far back on the black's back," he answered. "As for your promise…"
She cut him off. "I certainly could have used your advice yesterday. My grip was off as well, but I have already corrected that problem. Poor Willie. For a while there, he kept tossing his head back at me, and I'm sure he thought I was daft."
The horse had more sense than his mistress did, Quinlan thought. He was still too upset to consider how uncharitable he was being. "It's amazing he didn't trample you to death," he muttered. "Willie… did I hear you call the black Willie?"
"Yes, but I made certain first that Connor hadn't already named him. Davis assured me he hadn't."
"No, Connor didn't name…" His voice trailed off into silence.
"Then I'm certain he won't mind if I call him Willie."
Quinlan's eyelid began to twitch. "Why 'Willie'?" he asked.
"It's short for William," she explained. She took the reins away from Quinlan and turned to walk back to the stables. He happened to notice she left one of her shoes behind, picked it up, and handed it to her.
She thanked him while she held on to his arm so she could keep her balance slipping the shoe back on.
"I'm naming Willie after my brother. If I don't mention it to my husband, I'm sure he won't be bothered.
Connor doesn't like it when I talk about my family."
"Why would you think he doesn't like it?"
"He frowns and tries to change the subject. I'm not certain why he feels the way he does. He can't dislike them, because he doesn't know them. Perhaps he just doesn't care. The topic of my family probably bores him," she added with a nod.
"I doubt that, mi'lady."
She shrugged. "Perhaps," she agreed, but not because she thought he might be right. She was just being polite.
"I would appreciate it if you wouldn't mention my name for his horse. Connor can be peculiar about some things, and even though I'm almost certain he won't be irritated, there's a slim chance he might."
"Mi'lady, are you asking me not to tell him?"
"I won't make a point of telling him, but if he asks, I will explain. Are you going to give me your promise you won't ride bareback again?"
"What would you do if I gave you my promise and then I deliberately broke it? I would never do such a thing, but I am curious about the consequences."
"I would have you locked in your chamber until your husband returns."
"You would do such a thing?"
"I certainly wouldn't want to, but keeping you safe would outweigh your feelings."
"Could you ever banish anyone?"
"I would never banish you," he assured her.
"But do you have the authority to banish someone else while Connor is away?"
"Yes, as long as I have valid reasons to give my laird."
"Do I happen to have the authority? Don't look so stunned. I wasn't thinking of banishing you, even if you dared to lock me in my room, which, by the way, I happen to know you would never do. I was wondering if I could send someone else away."
"If you're having difficulty with someone, then you should tell me about it, or wait until your husband comes home."
She interpreted his explanation to mean she didn't have the authority. At least now she knew what she was up against, and she certainly wouldn't threaten Raen with banishment because he would know she was bluffing. She let out a weary sigh and stared down at the ground while she walked along.
Her disappointment was softened by the recollection that she was only going to resort to such a drastic measure if Raen ever came near her again. Thankfully, she had a plan to keep him at bay.
Quinlan couldn't understand why his mistress looked so disheartened. "Did you wish to hold such a position of strength, mi'lady?"
She didn't answer him and, in fact, didn't say another word for a long while.
"If you have a problem and you cannot solve it on your own, then tell me what it is and I will be happy to take care of it."
She shook her head. "The problem is of a personal nature involving a family member."
Quinlan was relieved, and though he felt like smiling, he didn't, for fear he would injure her feelings and make her think her problem wasn't important to him.
"You're having difficulty with Euphemia, aren't you?" He didn't give her time to answer him but continued on with a suggestion he was certain would solve her worry. "It would be appropriate for you to speak to Raen about his mother. I'm certain he'll talk to her."
She shook her head again, though far more vehemently. "I should be able to solve this problem, and when Connor returns, I'll discuss it with him."
"As you wish, mi'lady."
She changed the subject then. "You know that ever since I arrived, I've been trying to understand how things are done here. There seems to be a set of regulations everyone else understands but me. I constantly fear I'll offend someone because of my lack of education about Highlanders, and I could certainly benefit from your instruction."
"I'll be happy to help in any way that I can."
"Will you and two others you select join me for the evening meal tonight? We could continue our discussion then, and I could learn about the MacAlisters. I'm one of you now and do want to fit in."
"I would be honored to join you at the table, and I'm certain the other two I choose will feel the same way."
And I'll be relieved, she thought to herself.
"I don't want to show any favoritism, however, and so, each night that Connor is away, if you would please select two other guests, then I could also become acquainted with some of my husband's followers."
"Certainly," he answered.
"When will Connor be home?"
"I cannot say for certain."