"And you will never ride the black again, will you?"
"Not even with a saddle?"
"The horse has never had a saddle on his back, and I assure you, he wouldn't like it. It's out of the question."
"All right then. Was there anything else you wanted to mention…or do?"
"Don't ever call him Willie again."
She could tell he wasn't going to change his mind. "I won't," she promised before blurting out, "Do you know you haven't kissed me once since you've been back? I cannot help but wonder if you've even thought of it."
He hadn't thought about much else, but he wasn't about to admit it. "We haven't been alone. Remind me tonight, and I'll kiss you then."
She didn't realize he was teasing her. "I'll probably forget," she assured him. "It really doesn't matter to me one way or another."
"Yes, it does. Watch where you're going. Some of the holes haven't been filled yet."
"Speaking of holes…"
"I beg your pardon?"
"I don't want to hear a word about a chapel. Not now, not ever. Understand?"
"I understand you're being very stubborn."
She knew he was still a little upset about her plan to hide the keep behind a church. Still, he hadn't told her she couldn't, giving her hope that by tomorrow he would be more willing to listen to reason. Surely by then, she would have come up with a better explanation than the blunt truth. Admitting she believed the front of his home was downright ugly would only hurt his feelings, and for that reason, she would have to think of something else to tell him.
She moved on to a far more important matter. "When we go upstairs tonight, I need to have a serious talk with you. I have something extremely important to tell you," she whispered. "You aren't going to like it."
"Tell me now."
"I would rather wait until tonight. I just wanted to prepare you in advance," she added. "My news will surely break your heart."
His laughter wasn't quite the reaction she anticipated. "It's a serious matter," she insisted.
"I assure you, no matter how serious the news is, my heart's going to stay intact. Why don't you tell me now and be done with it? You sound as though you're dreading it."
"I am dreading it. I'm still going to wait until tonight to tell you, however. You're about to see your surprise, and I don't want to ruin your happiness with bad news."
She suddenly wished she hadn't tried to prepare him, because now her stomach felt as though it were tied in knots. How could she not be upset? She was going to start a war between two brothers, God forgive her, but she didn't really have any other choice, did she?
She had asked Father Sinclair that very question during confession, and while he had firmly agreed she must tell her husband when he came home, he also felt she should tell his soldiers right away. It had taken her a long time to convince the priest how important it was that Connor hear before anyone else. Father finally gave in after she promised him she would remain cautious and avoid ever being alone with Raen.
The priest assured her he was going to come back tomorrow to find out how Connor had reacted. She suspected his real motive was to make certain she was all right, and by then, she fully expected to be able to inform him that Raen had already been banished.
Connor pulled her back to the present by telling her to pay attention to where she was walking.
"Brocca's husband is waiting to find out if you want one of his hound's pups or not," he repeated.
"Why would he want to give me a pup?"
"It's all he has to give."
"It's a gift, Brenna. You've shown his wife kindness and he wishes to repay you."
"How thoughtful of him," she replied. "Would you mind having a hound inside?"
He shook his head. "I'll tell him you'll be happy to have the pup then. Try not to lose him, all right?"
"For heaven's sake," she muttered. "You're really doing your best to put me in a bad mood, aren't you?"
He didn't bother to answer her. He surprised her when he pulled her close to his side and put his arms around her shoulders.
"You aren't disappointed it's a hound?"
She gave him a curious glance. "No, of course not. Why would you think I would be?"
His voice was filled with laughter when he answered her. "It isn't a piglet."
"You do remember meeting me," she cried out.
He opened the door for her before explaining. "Of course, I remember. I also remember holding you in my arms. You weighed less than my plaid. I think you were about Grace's age."
"No, I was much older."
"You smelled like the piglet you had rolled up in your skirts."
"I couldn't have. I had just had a bath. My sister told me so."
"You were trying to tell me what to do even when you were a baby. I really should have known then."
She was having difficulty paying attention to the conversation, for his eyes were filled with such warmth, she really couldn't think about anything else. Lord, he was handsome. "Known what?" she asked him in a breathless whisper.
"That you were going to be trouble."
She thought that was about the nicest thing he had ever said to her, and it wasn't until she had let out a loud sigh in appreciation and told him thank you that she realized he hadn't given her a compliment.
He didn't laugh at her. In fact, he pulled her into his arms, leaned down, and whispered, "You're welcome."
She didn't know he was going to kiss her until he was doing exactly that. She felt as though she was being crushed against his hard chest, so powerful and fierce was his grip, yet his mouth was surprisingly gentle against hers. His tongue thrust inside to deepen the kiss, arousing a response she didn't expect or understand until it had ended and he was pulling back away from her.
Everything was suddenly different. She wanted to hold on to him for the rest of her life, and while she wanted to believe it was only because she was so relieved to have him home again to deal with Raen, she knew there was another reason as well.
She was in love with him.
The realization didn't make her happy. It made her miserable. How had she managed to make such a foolish mistake? He didn't love her; he just put up with her, that was all, so that he could have heirs.
He watched her closely, frowning with concern over the tears he saw in her eyes. "Mind telling me why you're crying?"
"It happened too soon," she stammered out. "I knew better, Connor, honestly I did."
"Brenna, what are you talking about? What happened too soon?"
She finally came to her senses. She wasn't about to admit she loved him and thought she'd rather stand na*ed in front of a church full of strangers than admit her mistake. Being vulnerable was bad enough, boasting of it would be horrible.
He wouldn't understand if she tried to explain it to him anyway. She doubted he could ever love her. So caught up was he in the past, he simply didn't have room in his heart for anything else.
"Will you answer me?" he demanded.
"I missed you," she blurted out. "I didn't want to, but I did anyway. You were gone a long time."
Her answer seemed to satisfy him. He kissed her once again, briefly yet with just as much passion, and then followed her inside and up the stairs to the main floor.
"While you were away, I gathered all the bits and pieces of information from the older men and women here and was finally able to put it all together."
"What did you put together?"
"Your past," she answered. "I know what happened to your father. I just wanted to tell you I understand why the ruins are still standing. You intend to keep them there until you've gained justice in your father's name."
"I would have explained if you'd asked."
"Then I will ask you my questions in future. Don't frown, Connor. I want you to be in a good mood when you see my surprise."
He braced himself for what he was about to see, gave her an abrupt nod to let her know he would try to be pleased, and then said, "Quinlan assures me you haven't done anything . damaging."
"Damaging? For heaven's sake, why would you think such a thing?" she asked before she remembered his reaction to the holes in his courtyard. "I plan to cover the mess made outside," she explained then.
"After the soldiers put the posts down inside to brace the structure I thought to have constructed, and I…"
The warning was there in his eyes and in his voice. "Yes?"
"We aren't going to talk about it now."
"No, of course not. Smile, Connor. This is your homecoming. Besides, Euphemia may be inside, and I won't have her thinking we aren't happily wed."
His laughter surprised her. "Why does it matter what she thinks?"
How could he be so dense? "I must make her like me because she's your stepmother. You did tell me to honor her."
"Yes, or maybe I told you I would. It doesn't matter. She deserves our respect."
"Yes," he agreed.
Connor pulled the door open and waited for her to go ahead of him. She didn't budge. "I have one favor to ask you. Tonight, when we sit at the table together…"
"Yes?" he prodded.
She blushed while she blurted out the instruction to him. "Please look at me often, and don't frown at me.
Try to hang on my every word, all right?"
Fortunately, she didn't require an answer, for she hurried on ahead into the entrance. A crowd of soldiers waiting for their laird bowed to her as soon as they saw her. She greeted each one by name, which surprised and pleased her husband, until he realized he was already looking at her and smiling and surely appeared to be hanging on her every word.
"Brenna, wait for me in the hall while I settle a few matters."
She bowed to him for the benefit of his followers and hurried inside. Her thought was to stand in front of the hearth so that she could see his immediate reaction to her additions.
She was halfway across the chamber before she realized everything was all wrong. She stared in disbelief, for the chamber was once again as stark and forboding as when she'd first seen it. Even the rushes were missing from the floors.
What in heaven's name had happened? Where was the lovely cloth she'd worked so hard to finish before Connor returned?
"Mi'lady?" Netta whispered from the archway leading to the back door.
Brenna gave the entrance a quick glance, saw that Connor was still fully occupied listening to the petitions of his soldiers, and then hurried over to the servant.
"What happened, Netta? Where are all the cushions?"
"Lady Euphemia had a fit when she sat down on one. She declared it was far too uncomfortable for anyone to suffer, and after trying out each one, she ordered them removed at once. She told me to burn them, mi'lady, so you wouldn't be embarrassed in front of your husband."
"The cloth… what about the cloth we put on the table."
Netta shook her head. " 'Twas an accident," she whispered. "At least that is what Lady Euphemia told me. She insisted on having wine with her nooning meal. The color's red, if you'll remember, mi'lady, but she misjudged her reach for her goblet and she spilled it everywhere. She insisted the goblet knocked the pitcher over. Oh, mi'lady, it's ruined now. I know you stayed up half of every night our laird was away so you could finish the stitches, and it looked so lovely too, mi'lady. Why, even Quinlan remarked that it was."
Trying to hide her own disappointment, she patted Netta and tried to console her.
"Accidents will happen," she said. "I hadn't realized the cushions were uncomfortable, though. I tried them all and thought they were… all right, but if Lady Euphemia…"
"She said they were lumpy."
"I see. Well, then, I will try to do better next time. What about the rushes? They were all right, weren't they? And they certainly gave the room a pleasing scent. So did the flowers," she added. "They're gone too, aren't they?"
"Lady Euphemia also thought the rushes were nice, but she tripped as she tried to walk to the table and almost fell to the floor. She explained her eyesight isn't what it used to be and bid me to remove the rushes as soon as possible. She was certain you would understand, mi'lady."
"Yes, of course."
"The flowers she admitted she didn't like at all."
"Did she explain why?"
"She said they reminded her of death because mourners always carry them to the graves."
Brenna's shoulders slumped. What must Euphemia think of her now? "It was thoughtless of me to put flowers on the mantle. I wasn't thinking, Netta. I never once considered she would have such a reaction.
I must find a way to make up for my mistake," she added with a nod.
"Mi'lady, you couldn't have known. The chair Lothar gave you has been sent back to him. I wish now he hadn't spent half the day rubbing a shine in the wood."
"Why was it sent back?"
"Lady Euphemia confessed she was afraid to sit in it because it was so wobbly. I tried to assure her it was perfectly sound, but I couldn't sway her. She seemed to be terrified of falling. I think it's because she's getting on in years and knows her bones won't heal if she breaks one. I couldn't help but wonder if she worried about such things when she was younger. No one's bones heal well, young or old," she added with a nod to let her mistress know she spoke with authority.
"Age must make her more cautious, and we must respect that."
"There's one last thing. I hate to mention it now, after the disappointment you've suffered."
Brenna was afraid to find out what else Euphemia had found unsatisfactory, but forced herself to ask anyway. "Yes?"
"She asked me if there was anything else you meant to add to the chamber. I mentioned that you were working on a banner to hang on the wall. I boasted about how fine it was," she thought to add. "Lady Euphemia wanted to see it, of course. She seemed pleased when I told her how clever you were with your needle and thread, and how you'd labored over your task such long hours."