"It seems he's been away a long time. I need to talk to him."

He heard the desperation in her voice and decided then that Connor's stepmother must be giving her a very difficult time. He imagined the two women were involved in a minor power struggle and was somewhat surprised that Lady Brenna could become upset so easily. Perhaps her loneliness for her husband was making her anxious. She might even feel as though he had abandoned her. Connor had all but snatched her out of one life and put her down in the center of his.

Time was all his mistress needed to find her way. At least that was what Quinlan hoped would happen.

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Later that day, however, he began to think the problem was more serious than he'd first estimated. Netta caught him on his way up to the soldiers' quarters to tell him Lady Brenna was acting peculiar.

"She didn't hear me knock on her bedroom door, and when I entered, she let out a scream and jumped a foot. 'Tis the truth, she reached for her dagger. She looked terrified, Quinlan."

The cook's friend, Brocca, happened to overhear the conversation and quickly joined in. "Ada told me she's worried mi'lady might be ill. She isn't eating anything at all. It's too soon for her to be carrying a bairn," she added.

Quinlan knew there was a chance both women were exaggerating and decided to wait and see for himself. After observing his mistress push her food around on her trencher and barely eat a morsel, he realized they were right to be concerned. He decided he would take his mistress to see Lady Kincaid the following morning, believing that she would surely find out what was wrong, and if his mistress was really ill, then Lady Kincaid would know how to cure her.

Brenna had no idea Quinlan was so concerned about her. For the first time in several days, she felt much more relaxed. The two soldiers he had chosen to share the honor of dining at the table were older men, who took turns telling stories about the early days. Lady Euphemia was blissfully quiet. She seemed to enjoy the conversation, though. She looked as if she was hanging on every word, and every once in a while she would actually chuckle or nod when one of the guests related a humorous incident she apparently remembered.

Raen acted like an overindulged child who wasn't getting enough attention. He pouted all through the meal and kept his gaze directed on the table. He ate quickly, and when he was finished, he gave Brenna a hard scowl, slammed his goblet down, and went storming out of the hall.

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None of the soldiers seemed at all bothered by Raen's insolence. Quinlan noticed how weary his mistress looked and decided to call a halt to the evening. A good night's rest might be all she needed to get her appetite back.

One of the older soldiers offered her his arm and escorted her up the steps. He stood at the landing until she entered her room. When she turned to call out her farewell at her door, she saw Raen lurking in the shadows behind the soldier's shoulder, but before she could demand to know what he was waiting for, he turned around and hurried into his chamber.

Netta was waiting for her inside the bedroom and called out her greeting before her mistress had even entered so that she wouldn't be startled again. Before Brenna could ask her why she was waiting for her, the servant explained Euphemia had ordered her to light the candles in the woman's bedroom each night and assist her in her preparation for bed, and if Netta was going to serve her laird's stepmother, she sure as certain was going to serve her laird's wife.

"Doesn't your husband mind waiting for you to come home?"

"It's an honor that I've been chosen to work in our laird's quarters. My Deverick is strutting around like a king, he is, telling everyone who will stop and listen how important he is because his wife has been give such a position in his laird's home."

Brenna felt blessed to have such a thoughtful woman serve her.

"You have a good heart, Netta."

"You'll turn my head with such praise, mi'lady. Would you like me to help you get ready for bed?"

"No, I'm safe now… I mean to say, I'm capable of taking care of myself. I do have a quick question to ask before you leave. I was wondering who would be able to make a wooden medallion for me."

"Alan's clever with his hands, and I think he's most qualified to do exactly what you're wanting. I'll be happy to take you to him tomorrow if you like."

Brenna thanked her once again, and as soon as Netta left, Brenna bolted the door. She worked on her sewing for another hour before she went to bed. She had just blown the candles out and pulled up her covers when she heard someone knocking on her door.

She didn't answer it.

Chapter 13

Connor finally returned to his holding. He felt as though he had been away much longer, and it wasn't until he crossed the drawbridge, and the tension in his neck and shoulders began to ease, that he finally acknowledged the reason he had been so anxious to get back home.

He wanted to see Brenna again. Needless to say, he wasn't at all happy with what he considered his own lack of discipline. Admitting that he had been consumed with thoughts about her only increased his agitation. What in God's name was the matter with him? Whenever he closed his eyes to rest for a few minutes, the image of his wife came into his mind. And stayed there.

Although it wasn't much of a consolation, Alec was in much the same condition; but unlike Connor, he didn't just think about his wife, he talked about her as well.

Alec had noticed Connor's restlessness on the last evening they were together. He watched Connor pace around the camp for well over an hour before finally isolating himself from the others near the break in the forest. Alec joined him a minute later. Both brothers rested their backs against tree trunks so they could eventually sleep, with one hand resting on the hilt of their swords.

Alec didn't ease into the topic he wanted to address. "I look at you and I see myself when I first married Jamie."

"And what do you see? You're going to tell me whether I want to hear it or not, aren't you?"

"Of course," he replied. "Learn from my mistakes and save yourself the aggravation."

"You sound like my father. Those were his very words to me."

"Was he talking about your mother?"

"Yes," he answered. "He called her his own sweet Isabelle."

Alec nodded. "You've fought a good battle, but the time has come for you to stop struggling. It's becoming painful to watch."

"Alec? What the hell are you talking about?"

His brother laughed. "You know good and well what I'm talking about. You're trying not to love your wife, aren't you? I understand why, of course. You're afraid."

"God help you, you've turned into an old meddlesome woman."

Alec acted as though he hadn't heard the insult. "I don't think your father's parting words about Isabelle made you more cautious than any other man. Do you remember what you told me he said?"

"I remember every word. He, too, suggested I learn from his mistakes. He loved his own sweet Isabelle and felt she betrayed him by dying. He swore he never forgave her. It was all bluster, Alec. My father was a hard man who found it difficult to speak of such emotions without sounding angry. He was trying to console me, and even as a boy, I understood. I don't understand the need for this ridiculous conversation, however."

Alec didn't say another word for a long while. He knew Connor was considering his remarks and certainly was trying to convince himself he didn't already love his wife. Ah, the foolishness of men who embraced the notion that loving would weaken them.

"I sometimes wonder, if I hadn't come so close to losing Jamie, would I even now acknowledge I love her? Hopefully, I would, because I'm older and perhaps a little wiser now. I didn't know any better back then, Connor; but you do because I have just explained it all to you. Do as I suggest and quit resisting.

You'll find it's less tormenting."

"I have only been afraid of one man, Alec, and God help me the day I realize I'm afraid of a woman. You insult me by suggesting my wife has such power over me."

"Who was the man you feared?" Alec asked, curious about his earlier remark.

"You. I was afraid you wouldn't help me and my friends."

"Your father knew I would take you in. You weren't as certain, were you? Even then, you were quite cynical. Your wife isn't, however. She surprised me the way she put herself in front of you. If I hadn't known better, I would have thought she was protecting you."

"She was trying to protect me. The woman doesn't have many fears. If she lives a full year, I'll be surprised."

"She's strong, Connor, and as intelligent as my wife. There are times I think they could both be more intelligent than we are. I can see from the way you're looking at me you think I'm wrong. Answer a question for me. Where do you think our wives are sleeping tonight?"

"In our beds."

"Where are we sleeping?"

Connor laughed. "In the damp, cold forest. Get some rest, Alec, and stop hounding me with foolish talk."

His brother was in the mood to take the suggestion. "One last thing," Alec whispered after he closed his eyes and let out a loud yawn. "If you ever tell anyone about this conversation, I'll kill you."

Crispin pulled his laird away from his thoughts and back to the present. "Is something bothering you?" he asked as soon as he noticed Connor's frown.

"I'm just bone weary like you are," he answered.

"You're also just as covered with dirt and dried blood as I am. God only knows what we smell like. As soon as I see to my horse, I'm going to the lake. I assume you'll do the same."

"Is there a particular woman you want to impress?"

"Several come to mind, but I was considering how your wife will react to seeing you, Laird. She's bound to run the other way."

Quinlan caught Connor's attention then, for though it was customary to wait for his laird in front of the keep, his friend had altered his routine and was now waiting for his laird in front of the stables. The expression on Quinlan's face was one Connor had never seen before, and had he not known better, he would have thought his friend looked relieved to see him.

Crispin had the very same thought. "Whatever the problem was, it must have been exasperating."

Quinlan waited until they dismounted before coming forward. "All's well, Connor."

"I expected it would be."

"From the look on your face, I thought something was surely amiss," Crispin remarked. "You look relieved to see us."

"Relieved? If I were not a man, I swear I would be overcome with joy."

"Then there was a problem?" Crispin asked.

"I've just informed our laird there were no problems. There were, however, minor frustrating inconveniences," Quinlan added before once again addressing his laird. "Connor, I swear to God, I'm never going to get married."

"I take it, then, my wife was the cause of these inconveniences?"

"Your wife could never cause an inconvenience," he managed to say without laughing, which Quinlan personally felt had to be a rather amazing feat.

Davis and another younger soldier came outside to take the horses. The stablemaster waited until his assistant had greeted his laird and gone back inside before he took his turn.

"It's good to have you home, Laird. Your black is inside his stall, should you be wondering."

"I assumed he would be," he answered, puzzled that the old man wanted to tell him where his horse was.

"Well, now, I quit assuming that over a week ago," he said.

"Did he give you any trouble while I was gone?"

"No, he didn't, Laird, and he sure as certain didn't look me right in the eye and lie to me either."

Before Connor could ask him to explain, Quinlan grabbed hold of Davis's plaid and shook him. "Your mistress didn't lie. She smiled at you. Recognize the difference."

The stablemaster nodded agreement before Quinlan released him, then bowed to his laird and hurried back inside.

"What was that all about?" Crispin asked. "Has Davis gone addled?"

"They have all gone addled," Quinlan replied. "I, however, am a much better man and didn't have any trouble at all figuring out what her game was."

Crispin was trying hard not to laugh. "Are you referring to our laird's wife?"

"I am. She is alive and well, however."

"I sure as hell hope so," Connor interjected.

Crispin lost his battle and burst into laughter.

Quinlan didn't appreciate his friend's behavior. "Laugh all you want now. Just remember, mi'lady didn't kill herself while I was on watch."

Assuming his friend was exaggerating the problems Brenna had caused, Connor shook his head to let Quinlan know he wasn't in the mood to hear about it now and started up the path toward the keep. He seemed compelled to see Brenna for a moment, just to make certain she was all right before he rode to the lake.

"I'm not interested in the paltry problems a mere woman might cause you," he remarked. "Have you anything more significant to tell me?"

"No," Quinlan answered. "As I said before, I handled the inconveniences."

"I'm curious to hear what made our friend whine like a female," Crispin remarked. "You may tell me everything, Quinlan, if it will make you feel better."

Quinlan chuckled. "Mi'lady asked me not to tell her husband, and if I can't tell him, I certainly can't tell you."

"What exactly doesn't my wife want me to hear?"

"Her surprises. She has several waiting for you and doesn't want me to ruin them. Those were her instructions, by the way, but if you insist…"

"No, I'll let her tell me. I'm not going to like the surprises, though, am I?"

"Perhaps," was all Quinlan would allow.

"Where is she now?"

"She's measuring."

"Meaning?"

"Father Sinclair's here for the day. Your wife requested his presence so that he could approve her dimensions for the chapel."

Connor didn't say a word for a long minute. "Where exactly is she measuring?"

Quinlan smiled as he told him. "In the courtyard."

"You're jesting."

"I'm not. She wants to put the chapel up against the keep."

Both Connor and Crispin looked incredulous. Quinlan found their reaction immensely satisfying. They were both finally beginning to understand what he had been up against.

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