A moment later, he spotted the MacAlisters gathered on the side of the hill. Mothers sat on the ground with their babies perched on their laps, while fathers stood behind, talking to one another. The older women had carried along their sewing work, but they, like everyone, were too busy watching Lady MacAlister to pay any attention to anything else. All of them, from the youngest to the oldest in the crowd, were thoroughly enjoying themselves as they watched, transfixed.
Every one of them was clearly demented.
Connor finally reached the crest, a good distance away from his enraptured clan, then came to an abrupt stop and stared down in amazement at the sight before him.
Nothing could have prepared him for what he was witnessing. Not only was his wife riding the black, she was also riding bareback, and saints be praised, she seemed to be doing a fair job of it. No, no, not fair, he realized, she was actually quite remarkable. Her back and shoulders were as straight as a staff; her head was held high, and she was riding with the skill and expertise of a MacAlister warrior, yet with the grace and elegance of a deity at the same time. Her golden hair flew out behind her as she and the beast glided over the landscape, and when he heard the sound of her laughter, his heart swelled with pride over her amazing accomplishment. He knew the truth then; he was just as demented as everyone else.
He noticed the piles of hay strewn about, knew Quinlan had tried to avert disaster by putting down the cushions to ease her falls, and though Connor thought that was clever of him, he was still going to tear him limb from limb. The crowd was cheering her now, urging her on, and it wasn't until he noticed Quinlan frantically waving his hands at Brenna and vehemently shaking his head that Connor was able to pull himself out of his stupor and put an end to this madness before disaster struck.
He didn't understand, or even suspect, what she was going to do until it was too late. Connor started down the hill just as the black jumped the first mound of hay. Brenna didn't even appear to be jarred by the first leap, but she nearly went crashing to the ground with the stallion's second jump.
Connor simply couldn't take any more. He stopped, braced his legs apart, and let out a piercing whistle.
The black's head immediately came up. He'd heard the command above the roar of approval from the crowd and swiftly changed directions.
Brenna couldn't understand what had come over Willie. No matter how she tried, she couldn't get the horse to turn back. He raced across the hill, turned, and began to climb.
She understood why a moment later. Connor was standing near the crest, his hands on his hips, his legs spread apart, wearing an expression that didn't leave any doubt at all as to what he thought about her performance. She immediately redoubled her efforts to go the opposite way. Heaven help her, she even begged Willie to take mercy on her.
The stubborn horse refused to obey her no matter how much she pleaded with him and pulled on his reins. He came to a rather jolting stop directly in front of his master just as she was leaning down close to the horse's ear to let him know what she thought about his behavior. "Traitor."
Connor heard. He knew better than to say a word to her now, because in his present condition, once he got started, he wouldn't be able to stop himself from crushing her feelings.
Brenna knew from the stark look in her husband's eyes, she'd given him quite a scare. She wanted to tell him everything was all right. She didn't dare. There was something in his expression that suggested she'd better not try to calm him down just yet.
She decided to pretend she didn't notice his anger. It was a bad plan, but then, she couldn't think of a better one now.
She straightened up and tried to look cheerful.
"Are you pleased with my surprise?" she asked, knowing full well he wasn't pleased at all; he was furious, and that was that. Still, there was always a hope, faint though it was, that she could bluff her way through the storm brewing inside her husband.
She expected him to pull her off Willie or start shouting. He didn't even touch the reins. He simply turned around and started walking back toward the stables.
Willie meekly followed him. Crispin suddenly appeared on her right side, looking very pale, as though he'd just seen a frightening vision; if he'd spared her a glance, she would have asked him what had happened. Then Quinlan appeared on her left side, panting from his run, but looking very, very smug. He wouldn't glance up at her either, so she couldn't ask him why in heaven's name he was so complacent.
It wasn't until they reached the stables that Connor finally spoke. He ordered Crispin to remove his wife from his stallion's back and wait by her side while he had a word with Quinlan inside.
The second the doors were closed behind them, Connor shouted to Davis. "Stay right where you are," he ordered.
"Would you like me to take your stallion off your hands?" Davis asked. "He seems a might agitated by your tone of voice."
He allowed Davis to take the reins before turning to Quinlan. "Start explaining."
"Nothing I can say can possibly justify my conduct. You have only one recourse open to you, Laird. You must remove me from this position with all possible haste."
"I'm angry, not stupid," Connor snapped. "Can't you control one woman? You damn well better learn how, because you're staying in charge when it's your turn. Now tell me, were you out of your mind to let my wife take such a risk? Everyone else seems to be. How could you let this happen?"
"Let it happen, Connor? You've got to be jesting. I would have had more success getting the rain to stop than making your wife cooperate. I've done nothing but second guess her and try to outwit her for the last two weeks, and all my efforts were wasted."
Connor raised his hand to get Quinlan to stop when he noticed Davis was trying to stroll out the back door yet again.
"Davis," he roared. "If you go out that door, you won't die happy. Come here."
The stablemaster quickly obeyed. "I was just giving you some privacy, Laird, that was all. Did you want something more?"
"I do. I want you to answer some questions for me."
"I wouldn't ask him anything if I were you," Quinlan suggested. "You'll only end up more angry than you already are."
"That isn't possible. Now, Davis, as you know, I listen before I act."
"I do know it for a certainty," he agreed.
"Did my wife go inside the black's stall and put the bridle on him?"
"No, she didn't."
Connor's eyelid began to droop. "I see. Did you know my wife planned to take him out?"
"I did," he answered. "She's the reason I went inside with the bridle in the first place."
Connor happened to notice Quinlan's grin, shot him a hard look to let him know what he thought about that, and then directed his attention on Davis again.
Quinlan couldn't possibly stop smiling, for he knew what was coming.
"Explain why you would do such a thing so that I won't continue to believe you're demented."
"Her smile, Laird, and that's the sorry truth of it."
Connor blinked. "Her smile?"
Davis nodded. "Her smile was my reason from start to finish. It's plain trickery, I'm thinking, but I'll never say it out loud because it would sound disloyal, and I'm not at all disloyal, only honest. And her heart," he thought to add with a nod.
"Her heart is as pure as an angel's, and so is her smile, but it's her mind, you see, that's giving me trouble.
I'm thinking there's something wrong with it, but I'm not coming right out and saying there is. Mi'lady isn't like all the other ladies hereabouts. She thinks like a man, a clever man, and how was I to know? She never once lied to me. No, Laird, she didn't."
"Then why did you allow her to take the black?"
"You'll go around and around again the more you ask Davis. It always comes back to mi'lady's smile,"
"And her heart, of course, because when she smiles, I can see she's as pure as an angel…"
Connor cut him off. "Davis, I suggest you leave the stables immediately. Come back after I've left, not before."
The old man didn't have to be told more than once. He moved with the speed of a man who had just noticed the back of his pants were on fire.
"Am I supposed to order my wife to stop smiling?"
"It might help," Quinlan suggested with a straight face. "You'll also have to order her to stop thinking like a man."
"What in God's name does that mean?"
"She's more intelligent than Davis."
"Is she more intelligent than you, Quinlan?"
The soldier let out a sigh. "I'm not certain. She is definitely cleverer, however."
"She scared the hell out of me."
"I'm familiar with the feeling."
Neither man knew who started laughing first, but within seconds, they were overcome with amusement.
Connor thought he was laughing because he was so relieved his wife hadn't killed herself. Quinlan knew exactly why he was laughing. Crispin was going to get stuck with their mistress the next time their laird left the holding, and he couldn't wait to find out what she would do under his watch.
Brenna and Crispin both heard the noise. She couldn't help but think she was the cause of their amusement, yet just as soon as Crispin noticed how crushed she looked, he casually said, "Don't be concerned, mi'lady. Neither Connor nor Quinlan would laugh at Davis, or anyone else for that matter. It would be beneath them."
"Were you worried I thought they were laughing at me? I was," she admitted before he had time to answer her. "But, it would be beneath me to think my husband or his friend would behave in such a fashion. I think I know why they're having such a fine time," she added.
"And what might that be, mi'lady?"
"Even though Connor won't admit it to me, I think he enjoyed my surprise. Just wait until he sees the other ones."
"The other ones?" Crispin asked in a hoarse whisper.
"The other surprises, of course."
For some reason she didn't understand, Crispin found her comment hilarious. She patted his arm to let him know she didn't mind and then decided that perhaps it was all the laughter coming from inside that tickled his bones so and got him started.
Of all the men, Connor was the first to gain control of himself. "I'll have a word with my wife later," he promised his friend. "Answer one last question for me before we go outside. Are there any more?"
"Any more what?"
"Only one that I know of."
Connor looked as if he was going to drop to his knees. Quinlan quickly explained. "It's nothing to worry about. She made a few minor improvements in the great hall that are harmless. I saw the room this morning," he added with a nod.
"You'd better be right," his laird muttered before he reached for the door latch.
"It's going to take me a week to get over seeing my wife on the black. Every time I think about it, I shake like an old man. I keep picturing her flying across the meadow…"
He couldn't go on. He shook his head as if to rid himself of the thought, realized his hand was shaking even now, and let out a loud sigh in frustration.
Quinlan also pictured his mistress riding the stallion, and though he also knew it would take him a long time to recover, he also recognized the skill she'd shown.
Connor was just pulling the door open when he whispered to Quinlan, "She's good, isn't she."
She was in for it now.
The very first words out of her husband's mouth when he came outside the stables indicated she had crossed that imaginary line inside his mind that separated what could be touched and what couldn't.
Apparently he believed the black stallion belonged to him, and only him.
She would, of course, beg to differ, but she was intelligent enough to wait until he'd gotten over his fury.
"I would like to have a word with you in private, Brenna."
"Certainly," she replied, trying her best to look mildly interested and curious, and not at all concerned.
She realized almost immediately she hadn't taken the right approach, and changed her attitude to one of indignation.
"I'm glad of it, Connor. It's about time you gave your wife a private moment. When exactly would it be convenient for you to speak to me?"
Her ploy didn't work. "If you don't want me to know you're nervous, you shouldn't back away from me.
I would also suggest you stop looking over your shoulder for a means of escape."
She glanced at Crispin to see how he was reacting to his laird's intimidating tactics and was thankful the soldier didn't seem to be paying any attention at all. His gaze was directed at the bottom of the hill as if he were absolutely fascinated by something he was watching there.
Quinlan, however, was hanging on Connor's every word. He still looked a little too complacent to suit her. Not only did he know she was about to catch Connor's thunder, he was glad of it. Didn't the man have anything better to do than follow her around and report her every action to her husband?
Apparently he didn't. Although it was probably unkind of her, she made note of the similarity between the soldier and her old nursemaid, Elspeth, who also took delight in telling on Brenna.
"I want this private moment alone with you now," Connor announced.
He waited for her agreement before instructing Crispin and Quinlan to join him for the evening meal, then started back up the hill toward the keep with Brenna at his side.
"My surprise didn't make you happy, did it?"
His snort was all the answer she required. "Are you upset because Willie belongs to you and you don't want anyone else riding him?"
"How many times did you fall?"
Since she was almost certain Quinlan gave him a detailed accounting of her activities, she decided to be completely honest. "So many times I lost count."
"What do you think would have happened if you had been carrying my son?"
She looked thunderstruck, for the possibility had apparently never entered her mind.
"I'm not. I only just finished… I'm not."
"Finished realizing I can't be carrying your child yet. I would never deliberately put our baby in jeopardy."