It was going to be extremely difficult to get the savages to listen to a woman. If she stammered or looked afraid, any chance she might have would be lost. She had to be bold, she told herself. Fearless.
She was finally ready. She kept up her chant to God to please help her get out of this, and if He wasn't in the mood to let her live any longer, then couldn't He please make her death quick? She tucked in the word painless every other second, and all of her pleas were squeezed into "Oh Lord, Oh Lord, Oh Lord." In her heart she was certain God understood what she was asking.
They were waiting for her. She wanted to faint when she saw them. She heard several long, indrawn breaths, knew the heathens had made the sounds, and while the sight of her apparently stunned them—the looks on their faces indicated as much—such a reaction didn't make sense. They'd obviously been waiting for her to appear, because they were all facing her when she walked into their lair.
They weren't too many to count. Beatrice had exaggerated about their number. There were only five savages, standing in a half-circle behind her father's soldiers. Still, the five were enough to make her knees start quaking and her stomach lurch.
She barely spared the outcasts more than a glance, as her first concern was for her soldiers. Harold and the others were down on their knees in the center of the clearing. Their heads were bowed, and their hands were clasped behind their backs, yet when she moved closer, she could see none of them had been tied. She looked them over to ascertain the extent of their injuries and was surprised, and relieved, to see they looked as fit as ever.
She had to force herself to look up at the outcasts again. Lord, they were a sight for future nightmares.
They weren't demons, though. No, no, they were just men, she thought a little frantically. Very large men.
Beatrice had also called them savages, and Brenna was in full agreement with that assessment. 'Twas the truth it seemed to be the only thing the crazed woman had gotten right. Yes, savages. The description fit, given that they had blue paint smeared on their faces. Adorning themselves in such a strange fashion must have been part of some ancient ritual. She wondered if human sacrifice was another ritual they followed, and immediately she blocked the horrible thought.
Their garments were also primitive, yet familiar to her. They wore muted brown and yellow and green wool plaids. Their knees were bare, and their feet were covered in elk boots, laced together with leather strips above their calves.
They were Scots. Could they be enemies of Laird MacNare? They were trespassing on his land now.
Were they going to kill her as some sort of repayment for the sins of her future husband?
She didn't like the idea of dying for a man she'd never met, but then she really didn't like the notion of dying in any case, she reminded herself. Did the reason really matter?
Why didn't they speak to her? She felt as though they'd been staring at her for at least an hour, yet knew probably just a minute or two had actually passed.
Fearless, she ordered herself. I must be fearless.
Oh Lord, Oh Lord, Oh Lord…
"I am Lady Brenna."
She waited for someone to attack her. No one moved. And then, just as she was about to demand that they tell her their intentions and be quick about it, the Scots surprised the breath right out of her. As one, they dropped to their knees, put their hands over their hearts, and bowed their heads to her. Their united show of respect stunned her. No, no, not respect, she thought. Weren't they mocking her? God's truth, she couldn't tell.
She waited until all of them had regained their feet before trying to locate the leader so she could address him. None of them was giving her hints. The blue paint made for more confusion. Their faces were like masks with their grim expressions.
She settled on the biggest of the lot, a dark-haired warrior with gray eyes. She stared directly at him, willing him to speak to her, but he didn't say a word.
Oh, Lord, Oh, Lord…
"Why won't you speak to me?"
The one she'd been staring at suddenly smiled at her. "We were waiting, mi'lady," he explained in a deep, forceful voice.
She frowned over his half-given answer. Since he'd spoken in Gaelic, she decided to accommodate him.
She and her sisters had conquered the language at her father's nagging insistence, and she was thankful he'd gotten his way. This outcast's dialect was certainly different from what she'd learned, but she was still able to catch enough to understand what he was saying to her.
"Waiting for what?" she asked in Gaelic.
The Scot looked surprised. He was quick to hide his reaction by staring into the distance.
"We were waiting for you to finish your prayer."
"My prayer?" she asked, thoroughly confused
"You seem to have gotten stuck on the beginning, lass. Couldn't you remember the rest of it?" another Scot asked her.
"Oh, Lord, Oh, Lord…"
"There she goes again," yet another warrior whispered.
Good God Almighty, she'd been praying out loud.
"I was praying for patience," she announced with as much dignity as she could summon. "Who are you?"
"The name means nothing to me. Should I know him?"
A warrior with a rather nasty-looking scar across his brow and down one side of his nose stepped forward.
"You know our laird very well, mi'lady."
"You are mistaken, sir."
"Please call me by my name, mi'lady. It's Owen, and I would be honored if you would."
She was having extreme difficulty understanding why the heathen was being so outrageously polite to her, given her horrific situation. Were they going to kill her or not?
"Very well, I shall call you Owen."
The warrior looked thrilled by her acquiescence, but she felt like throwing her hands up in despair.
"Owen, are you going to kill me and my father's loyal soldiers?"
They all seemed taken aback by her question. The one with the gray eyes answered her. "Nay, Lady Brenna. We would never harm you. Each of us has just vowed to protect you until the day we die."
The other warriors quickly nodded agreement.
They were out of their minds, she decided then and there. "Why in heaven's name would you want to protect me?"
"Because of our laird," Owen answered.
They were determined to talk about their leader, which was all well and good because she really wasn't able to pay attention to a word they said now. She was overcome by blissful relief. If Gray Eyes had told her the truth, no one was going to die, and all of her fears had been for naught. Thank you, God.
She wasn't about to celebrate just yet, however, because the intruders still hadn't explained why they had come here. They didn't look the sort to be paying a social call, and she knew she would have to find out their real motive before she could ever hope to figure out a way to get them to leave.
She'd best stay on her guard, while she tried to get some answers.
"I know you're Scots," she began, surprised her own voice sounded so weak. "But exactly where in Scotland do you call home?"
Gray Eyes looked appalled. "My name is Quinlan, mi'lady, and we don't consider ourselves Scots. We're Highlanders."
The other men nodded their agreement.
She had just learned an interesting fact. Highlanders didn't want to let go of the old, dusty habits of their ancestors. The way these men were dressed, in such primitive attire, was an indication, and if she hadn't been so rattled, she would have realized how they felt before she'd tried to address them.
She couldn't imagine anyone having such a backward attitude, but she wasn't going to make them angry by telling them so. If they wanted to be savages, she certainly didn't care.
"You are Highlanders. Thank you, Quinlan, for taking the time to instruct me."
He inclined his head to her. "I would thank you, mi'lady, for seeking instruction from your humble follower."
She let out a loud sigh of frustration. "Please don't take offense, but I really don't want you to follow me anywhere."
He smiled at her.
"You aren't planning to leave anytime soon, are you?" She sounded pitiful.
His eyes sparkled devilishly. "Nay, mi'lady, we aren't."
"You really don't remember our laird?" Owen asked.
"Why would I remember him? I've never even met the man."
"You asked him to marry you."
"You are mistaken, Owen. I did no such thing."
"But, mi'lady, I was told you asked him three times."
"Three times? I asked him…"
She suddenly stopped. Three times. Good God, he couldn't be talking about… She shook her head in disbelief. No, no, that was years ago, and he couldn't possibly know what she'd foolishly done.
Only Joan knew about her plan to find a husband, and she would never have told anyone outside of the family. Brenna didn't have an actual recollection of proposing—she'd been too young at the time to remember it now—but her sister had told her the story so many times, she felt as though it had happened only yesterday. Like any sister, Joan had delighted in tormenting Brenna about her outrageous behavior.
She especially loved to linger over the part about the piglet.
Why Brenna had wanted to catch her own husband or steal a pig to raise as her own pet she couldn't guess now, and the only excuse she could come up with was that she had been very, very young.
"It happened a long time ago, mi'lady," Owen said.
They knew. How they'd found out was beyond her comprehension, but then she was so rattled, she could barely think straight at all.
"This man denied my request… didn't he?"
Quinlan shook his head. "Twice he sent back his refusal, but it's our understanding you're still waiting to hear his answer to your last proposal."
"I am not waiting to hear his answer." Her voice was emphatic.
"It would seem to us that you are," Owen insisted.
Neither man appeared to be teasing her. Honest to God, they looked sincere.
What in thunder was she going to do?
"I keep waiting for you to laugh, but you aren't going to, are you, Quinlan?"
He didn't bother to answer her. In fact, all of them were quite content to stand there talking to her. Their behavior was most Peculiar. These warriors didn't seem the sort to want to linger anywhere, but they were lingering now. Were they waiting for something to happen, and if so, what?
Brenna didn't like having to be patient. She had the sinking feeling she wasn't going to find out their plans until they felt like explaining, though.
She refused to believe they had come all this way just to remind her of a proposal she'd made years ago, and they couldn't possibly expect her to honor it now. She didn't believe their nonsense about being her humble followers either.
Though it was probably foolhardy, she decided to catch them in their lie.
"You have said you are my humble followers. Were you telling the truth, Quinlan?"
The warrior looked over her head, into the forest, before he answered. He smiled too.
"I am here to protect you and serve you, mi'lady. We all are."
She smiled back. "Then you will do as I bid you to do?"
"All right, then. I bid you to leave."
He didn't move. She wasn't the least bit surprised.
"I cannot help but notice you're still here, Quinlan. Did you perchance misunderstand me?"
The giant looked as though he was about to laugh. He shook his head and said, "I cannot serve you if I leave you. Surely you understand."
She surely didn't understand. She was about to ask him if she could leave without worry he'd follow her, but Owen interrupted her with yet another reminder.
"Mi'lady, about your proposal…"
"Are we back to that?"
Owen nodded. "You did ask," he stubbornly insisted.
"Yes, I did ask. I have since changed my mind. Is this man still alive? He must be terribly old by now.
Did he send you to me?"
Quinlan answered. "He did."
"Where is he?"
Quinlan smiled at her again. The others were grinning too.
"He's standing right behind me, isn't he?" She thought her nervousness had kept her from hearing him.
Every one of the heathens nodded. "All the while?" she whispered.
"Only just now," Quinlan answered.
And that was why they'd all been waiting. She should have realized. If she hadn't been so busy trying to figure out a way to get them to leave, she would have considered the possibility that their leader might come along.
She didn't want to turn around, of course, but pride prevented her from trying to run. Tightening her hold on her dagger, she braced herself for what she was going to see, and finally turned.
Oh, yes, he'd been right behind her, all right. How could she not have known? The warrior was as tall as a pine tree. If she reached out, she could pinch him. She stared at his massive chest, suddenly too worried to look up. His size was staggering. Why, the top of her head didn't even reach his chin. He stood just a foot or two away from her, and when she took an instinctive step back, he took a step forward.
She really was going to have to look at his face, she told herself. He'd see it as a sign of cowardice if she didn't. Trying to run away would probably give him a hint of how intimidating his size was to her, and why, oh, why, couldn't she find any gumption? She had some just a few minutes ago.
Connor was just running out of patience when she looked directly into his eyes. His own reaction surprised him. The force of her beauty made his breath catch in the back of his throat. He'd thought her pretty when he was watching her by the stream, muttering to herself while she tugged on her braid to get her ribbon undone, but he hadn't taken the time to observe how truly beautiful she was. He hadn't been close enough, or curious enough.
The woman really was exquisite. He couldn't seem to stop staring at her now. The power of her beauty captivated him, and he suddenly realized he wasn't any better than his men. He'd been furious when he'd seen how besotted they were, and now, he admitted, he was in much the same condition.
How could he not have noticed such perfection? Her skin was flawless; her eyes were a clear, sparkling color of blue, and her rosy, full mouth made him want to think about all the erotic doing, he turned his gaze to her forehead so that he could regain his concentration.