"Did you show it to her?"
Netta nodded. "Oh, mi'lady, she looked so disappointed in your efforts. She clucked her tongue like a chicken would and shook her head."
Brenna could feel her face burning with embarrassment. "And what did she say to you?"
"She said the stitches were all lopsided, but she assured me she understood you didn't know any better."
"Where is my tapestry now."
"Lady Euphemia didn't want you to be humiliated in front of your husband and his followers." Tears of sympathy had gathered in Netta's eyes, which only made Brenna's embarrassment all the more horrible.
She felt like such a failure, and yet, at the same time, she felt guilty because she was angry. Hearing that she didn't know any better each and every time she tried to please Euphemia made Brenna feel as though her mother was being attacked for failing to properly educate her daughter.
"It's gone, isn't it?" she whispered, her voice flat with defeat.
"Yes, mi'lady. Euphemia started taking the stitches out at noon, and by the time she went up to her room to wash before dining tonight, only threads were left on the floor."
Connor called her name as he strode into the hall and looked around him with interest.
Brenna let out a weary sigh and turned to go to him. Netta caught hold of her hand. "I thought everything looked lovely, mi'lady," she whispered.
The last thing Brenna needed now was pity. She smiled so that Netta's feelings wouldn't be injured, and then said, "I'll do much better with my next attempt."
The servant bowed to her mistress and then left to tell the servants that the food should be readied to be carried to the table.
"Have you finished your discussion with your soldiers?"
His wife's question made him smile. Every one of his men wanted to ask him if they could have their things returned.
Connor hadn't understood what they were talking about until one of them pointed to the stack of items on the chest with the hint that one of the daggers looked very like the one his wife often used. They didn't dare accuse their mistress of deliberately stealing from them, for they knew she tended to be forgetful when she was in a hurry or having a fine time. Each soldier had actually defended Brenna to him, and for that reason he hadn't laughed.
Emmett had explained it to his laird. "When she's carefree, she forgets to pay attention," he explained.
"She makes our wives feel as important as you do, Laird. They've all taken a fancy to her, of course, and would be very upset if they heard you were to sanction her because of this wee problem she seems to have in forgetting to bring things back. She leaves as many of her own things as she takes," he thought to add in Brenna's defense.
Connor promised not to criticize his wife and suggested that in future, whenever something was missing, they or their wives were simply to come inside the keep and look through the stack on the chest. They needn't ask his permission again.
"I can see from your smile that your meeting went well," Brenna remarked.
"It did," he assured her. "I solved the problem, but not the cause."
"You'll accomplish that soon enough," she replied.
His laughter echoed around the chamber. "I doubt that, but now I find I really don't want to anyway."
"Why don't you want to?"
"Because I like the cause. Don't ask me to explain. Show me your surprise instead. I've made you wait long enough."
"You can't wait?"
"Show you your surprise."
"Why can't you? Have you changed your mind?"
"Yes, that's it," she said. "I've changed my mind."
"Why?" Her mind raced for an excuse so he wouldn't know all her efforts had been found lacking. He was bound to think she was incompetent then, and she wasn't incompetent at all. She'd just been in too much of a hurry.
Fortunately, she remembered the medallion she'd had made for him. She'd meant to leave it for last anyway to give it importance.
"It's up in the bedroom. Would you like to see it now? I could go…"
"What would you like to do?"
"Wait," she decided.
"Then I'll wait."
"Thank you," she answered before asking him if he'd seen his stepmother yet.
"She should be coming downstairs any minute now. Have you spoken to Raen yet?"
"No, but he should be back in another hour or two according to Quinlan, and then he'll stay only one more night before he leaves for good," Connor said.
She didn't mean to sound so blissfully happy about Raen's departure, but she couldn't help it.
He raised an eyebrow to her reaction. "He returns to his laird tomorrow."
"And where might that be?" she casually asked, hoping the man lived on the other side of England.
"A long way from here. I doubt we'll see him again for another five or ten years, Brenna, is something wrong?"
"No, no, of course not."
"Then why are you holding on to me?"
She seemed surprised, which made him shake his head in confusion. Her arms were wrapped around his waist, but she quickly moved away from him. The mere mention of his stepbrother had made her instinctively move closer to her husband. She didn't explain, of course, and ended up reminding him how much she'd missed him.
"You mentioned you did."
"Yes, but I wanted to mention it again. Will you excuse me now while I run to the kitchens and speak to the cook?"
After he granted her permission, she kissed him good-bye.
"What happened here, Connor?" Quinlan called out his question from the entrance and came striding into the hall.
Crispin followed him. "What happened where?" he asked.
"The chamber… it's back the way it was. What happened to all the changes mi'lady made?"
Connor didn't know what he was talking about. He stood with his hands clasped behind his back while he listened to his explanation.
"Did mi'lady tell you why it was changed back?"
Connor shook his head. "She said the surprise was upstairs."
"Why would she take the cushions and the cloth and the chair upstairs?" Quinlan asked.
"Perhaps she changed her mind," Crispin suggested.
"I told you she was acting strange. Did she take the rushes upstairs too?"
"It would seem so," Crispin replied.
"If that isn't peculiar…" Quinlan began
"I would appreciate it if you would stop saying that," Connor snapped. "There isn't anything wrong with my wife. She simply changed her mind, and if she didn't, there was another reason. When she's ready, she'll tell me."
The discussion ended then and there. Quinlan wanted to hear all about Dawson's capture, and while Crispin explained, Connor thought about his wife. He decided he should start paying more attention to her and to the goings-on in his home.
Euphemia joined them a few minutes later. Connor bowed to his stepmother and waited at the head of the table until she was seated before he pulled out his chair. He sat by her side for over an hour, listening to her talk about his father and the past, while Crispin and Quinlan continued their discussion over by the hearth.
Raen came in just as the trenchers were being placed on the table. Brenna and Netta entered through the back door at the very same time.
"Connor," Raen shouted. "It's about time I saw you. It's been a long time."
"It has been a long time," Connor agreed.
Raen embraced him. "You're looking fit these days. Marriage must agree with you."
After kissing his mother, Raen sat down on the opposite seat to face her. Connor was now flanked on both sides by his relatives, and though he was going to ask his stepbrother to move so that his wife could sit closer to him, he didn't make an issue out of it when Brenna hurried to the opposite end of the table, pulled up a stool, and sat down.
"I've been waiting a long time for this reunion and now feel as though my life is complete again,"
Euphemia announced. So overcome was the woman to have her two sons together, tears came into her eyes.
Brenna was also overcome with emotion. She wasn't overcome with joy, however, but with sadness. The affection shown by the two brothers made her want to weep. It was apparent Connor was happy to have his relatives with him, and how was she ever going to tell him what his stepbrother had done to her? Just thinking about the heartache she was going to cause made her stomach upset.
Connor spoke very little throughout the meal. He was pleased with his commanders because they chose to flank their mistress and sought to include her at every turn in the conversation.
Brenna caught her husband staring at her and quickly smiled at him, willing him with her gaze to reciprocate.
For Connor, the evening was full of revelations. Netta, he noticed, showed her affection for Brenna at every opportunity and beamed every time she received a compliment from her mistress. On the other hand, she didn't appear happy to serve Euphemia, and it was apparent she didn't like the woman.
He thought he had it all figured out and almost laughed because it had been so easy. Quinlan had mentioned that Brenna seemed to be having difficulty with Euphemia. The two women were obviously involved in some sort of tug of war as to who would give the orders. The right belonged to Brenna, of course, and while he couldn't understand why she didn't realize it, he wasn't going to interfere. He would let her solve the problem in her own way, and in her own time, because he knew, no matter how he explained it, she would end up thinking he didn't have faith in her ability.
Quinlan had been right about her lack of appetite. As soon as Crispin handed her the dagger she'd dropped in the courtyard, she thanked him because he'd thoughtfully cleaned it for her, and then moved the food around on her trencher, but didn't take one bite.
Raen was relating an amusing story that made everyone but Brenna laugh. Before he could tell another, Connor asked his wife if she was feeling well tonight.
"Yes, thank you. I am tired though. It's been a long day."
Connor suggested she go on upstairs. "I'll join you in a few minutes," he promised.
Raen also stood. "I'll be happy to escort your wife up the steps," he offered. "I understand she fell going up Kincaid's staircase," he added in the event Connor wondered why he would offer.
Brenna didn't shout her denial, but she came close. "Thank you for offering, but I wanted to have a word with Crispin," she explained, choosing him over Quinlan because he'd been so quick to stand. "If I wait until tomorrow, I might forget. Good night then," she added as she latched onto the soldier's arm to get him moving.
Crispin was honored with the duty. He kept waiting for her to explain what she wanted to talk to him about, and when they reached the door to his laird's chamber, he finally reminded her. "You mentioned you wanted a word with me, mi'lady?"
"I did say that, didn't I?" she said while she tried to think of something important to tell him. Her mind, unfortunately, went completely blank, forcing her to either tell him the truth or make him think she was a complete idiot.
"I made it up."
"You didn't wish to have a word with me?" he asked, trying to understand.
"Actually, I didn't want Raen to escort me, so I lied to get you to."
"Will you explain why you didn't want Connor's stepbrother to assist you?"
"No one needs to assist me, but since he offered, I had to think of something so he couldn't. Now do you understand?"
Crispin shook his head as he opened the door for her. "You still haven't told me why."
The soldier was just as tenacious as Quinlan. "Will you promise me you won't tell Connor what I tell you?
I wish to explain it all to him first. It may take me a day or two to get up enough courage," she added.
"Though I do plan to try to tell him tonight."
"Tell him what, mi'lady?"
"That I don't like his brother." She had softened the truth. Raen was as evil as MacNare, as cunning as a demon, and as vile as a snake waiting to slither out of the shadows to strike. "I know Connor holds Raen in high regard. Surely you noticed how happy he was to see his brother again."
"I know Connor's quite good at hiding his true feelings. I will, of course, honor your wishes and remain silent."
"Thank you, Crispin."
"Mi'lady, will you answer a question for me?"
She had already entered the room but caught the door as it was closing behind her. "Certainly," she agreed.
"Quinlan couldn't understand why you removed all the additions you'd made to the hall. He found it very perplexing."
"Everything turned out to be unsatisfactory. That's why it was removed." She didn't give him time to ask her any other questions, bid him good night once again, and then quickly shut the door.
There was much to be done before her husband joined her. Once she'd bolted the door closed, she stripped out of her clothes in front of the fire Netta had already prepared for her, washed her entire body with rose-scented soap, and then put on her robe and slippers. While she waited for Connor, she tried to come up with an easy way to tell him about Raen without breaking his heart.
Now that the vile creature was leaving, did she really need to tell Connor anything? Brenna tried to make herself believe no harm would be done if she remained silent, yet she realized she had to let him know, no matter how much pain she caused him. By daring to touch her, Raen betrayed his own brother, and it would be wrong for her not to let Connor know.
Unfortunately, she couldn't come up with a way that would soften the truth, but she hoped the medallion would prove to him he would always have her loyalty.
The wait was torturous. Leaning against the wall helped her stay awake, though only just barely. She didn't dare get into bed, however, because she would fall asleep then. Relief that her husband was home was surely the reason she was so tired tonight. Because of her worry over Raen, she hadn't gotten any rest at all while he was away. All that was going to change now, of course.
She heard Connor's booming voice and then his heavy footsteps as he came up the stairs. She unlatched the door and moved back to the window to wait for him. She would greet him with a kiss, help him prepare for bed, and then give him his gift.