Netta didn't come inside. "Father Sinclair has arrived, but you needn't hurry to greet him. He's busy hearing confession in the lower bailey now and won't make his way up here for another hour or so."
"You're certain?" Brenna asked. "I wouldn't want to keep him waiting."
"If Fionna goes through with her promise to give her confession, I'm certain. She has enough sins to keep Father busy for the rest of the day."
"Talk like that will get you a long penance, Netta," she replied with a laugh.
"I'm only telling the truth, so it can't be a sin. Would you like my help getting dressed, mi'lady?"
"No, thank you."
Netta looked disappointed. "I'll go on down to the hall then. I'm dreading it though, because you-know-who is sitting at the table, acting like a queen."
"Are you referring to Lady MacAlister?"
Netta nodded. Brenna immediately scolded her. "You must honor and respect her," she said. "She's your laird's stepmother, if you'll remember."
"As you wish, mi'lady."
"I do wish. Please try, Netta. I know she can be difficult."
"Aye, it is difficult, especially since she took away all your nice improvements. The cushions weren't lumpy, mi'lady. They were perfect."
Brenna thanked her for her kind opinion and sent her away so she could get dressed. While she washed, she made her list of things she must do today. First and most important, she would take her husband aside and tell him about Raen. Yes, that was the most imperative duty she had, but if there was time and opportunity, she was also going to try to find out exactly how long Lady Euphemia would be staying.
As was her custom each and every morning before she left her bedroom, she said a quick prayer for assistance in getting Euphemia to like her.
God willing, today would be the day.
Talking to Connor came first, however, and even though she would have died of embarrassment if she'd been caught, she sneaked out so that she wouldn't be delayed listening to Euphemia complain. Luck was on her side; the elder woman faced the entrance and didn't see her.
Brenna wasn't particularly worried she would run into Raen, however, because he went riding every day and stayed away from the holding until nightfall.
By tonight, he would be gone… forever.
Where was Connor? She searched high and low for her husband. He had promised her he wouldn't leave, and she knew he would never break his word to her. He had gone either to the lake or the ruins, she decided, and she meant to find out which from Crispin. Fortunately, she located him in the lower bailey.
She waited by the side of the path for the commander to finish his conversation with two other soldiers, and then called out to him. "May I interrupt for just a moment, Crispin?"
"Certainly, mi'lady," he answered. He hurried over to her and bowed his head.
"I've looked everywhere for my husband. Do you know where he is?"
"He's gone, mi'lady. I'm not certain when he'll be back."
"Gone to the lake?"
"He went to Laird Hugh's holding. He should be away at least three or four days, perhaps more."
Her reaction thoroughly puzzled him. She looked as though she were going to faint dead away, and when she grabbed hold of his arm and gripped him so fiercely, he realized she was actually afraid.
"Where's Raen?" she asked. She frantically looked around her.
"He left early this morning, mi'lady. Three soldiers from Laird Finley's holding rode with him. They also were on their way back north. The higher their number, the better their protection," he added in the event she didn't understand.
She felt like weeping with relief. "Raen won't be back then, will he?"
"No, mi'lady, he won't."
"Thank God. I wanted to tell Connor, but he left, Crispin, before I could, and now I… Why did he leave? He told me he wouldn't."
Crispin patted her hand in an attempt to get her to let go of him. "Hugh died last night. It was important for your laird to pay his respects. Laird Kincaid will surely do the same."
It was suddenly all right again. Connor hadn't lied to her. He simply hadn't anticipated his friend's death.
"I'm sorry for Hugh's family. I hope he died peacefully."
"We were told he died in his sleep. Does this news please you, mi'lady? You're smiling."
She felt like a fool. "I'm pleased because my husband had to leave. He didn't lie to me. I'm not at all happy to hear about Hugh. I shall go and find Father and ask him to pray for his departed soul."
"Sinclair's hearing confessions. I'll send him to you as soon as he's finished."
She finally let go of the soldier. "I don't know what came over me. I was…"
She slowly nodded. "Yes, I was. I'm not now."
She bowed to Crispin and started back up the hill. "Mi'lady? You were afraid of Raen, weren't you?"
She pretended not to hear him, but he followed her and repeated the question to her again. She turned around, smiled, and said, "I wasn't afraid."
He felt a stab of disappointment that she didn't trust him enough to tell him the truth.
"I was terrified."
He blinked. "Why, mi'lady?"
"I feel I should explain to Connor first when he returns, but I assure you, Crispin, if there was any possibility at all that Raen would be coming back before then, I would tell you everything. Do you understand?"
"I do," he replied. "Raen is Connor's stepbrother, and Connor should be the first to hear what you have to say. I'm only sorry you didn't tell him."
"I'm sorry too," she said, admitting only to herself she wouldn't have changed anything that had happened last night.
She tried to leave once again. "Mi'lady, what are your plans for today?"
It wasn't the question that made her laugh. It was the dread she heard in his voice. "Don't worry. I won't be riding the black today."
She stayed outside much longer than she'd intended, visiting with several ladies who had taken their sewing outside, and she didn't return to the keep until midafternoon. As she hurried inside, she rehearsed what she would say when she greeted Euphemia. "She best not call me a child again," she muttered.
Her bluster was short-lived, and with a sigh, she admitted the woman could call her child as often as she wanted, and she wouldn't say a word to her. Criticizing would never win her approval.
Dear heavens, how long was she going to stay? Brenna tried to think of a way to ask Euphemia, but no matter how she phrased the question, it sounded a mite eager.
She put the problem aside when she entered the great hall. "Good afternoon, Lady Euphemia. How are you feeling today?"
"Brenna, I know I've mentioned this to you before, but it seems I must mention it again. I prefer being called Lady MacAlister. I realize you don't know any better—you're just a child, after all—but I want you to try a little harder."
She took a deep breath. "Yes, Lady MacAlister. I'll try harder."
"Did you hear the sad news about Hugh?"
"It's a shame, isn't it? He led such a wasted life. Never did amount to anything or do anything worth remembering."
"I'm certain his family doesn't feel that way," she replied.
"He never married. No woman would have him. Oh, heavens, I wish I had remembered to tell Connor the news Raen gave the other day. It slipped my mind. I'll probably forget again by the time he returns.
Age does that to a body, Brenna. It makes one forget little things."
"Perhaps if you told me, I would remind you if you should forget," she offered.
She stood with her hands folded together, waiting for Euphemia to invite her to join her at the table. She didn't dare sit without an invitation, for Connor's stepmother had berated her for doing that very thing just two days ago. She wouldn't make the mistake again. Getting along with the woman was proving to be her greatest challenge, she decided.
"Come and join me, child, don't stand there making me look up at you. I shall tell you the news Raen heard when he was out riding yesterday. I worry when he goes out alone like that, of course, although I know he can take care of himself. Still, it isn't safe to go anywhere alone. I'm not worried about him today, though. There were three others who stopped on their way north. He'll be safe with them."
"The news, mi'lady? How did he hear news if he was riding alone yesterday?"
Euphemia needed several minutes to think about the question before she finally remembered. "As fortune would have it, he spotted a unit of soldiers on their way south. Raen knew two of the men and of course stopped to speak to them."
Brenna remembered that on her way here, Connor had avoided all of the well-trodden paths in favor of cutting through the forest, because he hadn't wanted to encounter anyone.
"I thought Connor might be interested to hear that Laird MacNare's going to get married after all. I pity the woman."
"I also pity her, mi'lady," she whispered, aching for the poor woman's future.
"I doubt he'll treat her kindly. Still, one can always hope. Now what was her name? I remember she's from England."
Where she was from really wasn't important to Brenna. All that mattered was that the poor woman would surfer a terrible fate if something wasn't done.
"Is it too late?" she asked.
"Do you mean to ask me if she's already with MacNare?"
"I don't believe so. The wedding won't take place for several weeks according to what Raen told me. Of course, there's always the chance MacNare will change his mind and send for her sooner."
"Then there's probably still time," Brenna said. "And MacNare might change his mind altogether and decide not to marry her," she added.
"You shouldn't get your hopes up, child. MacNare sounds like a determined man."
"Did Raen find out who the woman is?"
"Yes, but I can't seem to remember now. Age, you see."
Brenna nodded. "Yes, of course."
"It was a peculiar name. I remember thinking so when Raen told me the name. Perhaps it will come to me," she added with a shrug of indifference. "It's a pity Raen left so soon. He would have wanted to pay his respects to Hugh. My son is an extremely thoughtful man. Word will reach him, of course."
"Would he turn around and come back?" Brenna asked, trying to keep the panic out of her voice.
"Perhaps, depending on when he hears the news," she answered. "He would feel it was his duty to stand by the gravesite with the other lairds, but he might be too late. If the others have all gone back home, what's the point? I do hope he hears in time, because I'm certain he'll be missed if he doesn't go."
"But Raen isn't a laird, is he?"
"He will be laird very soon now," she snapped.
"Yes," Brenna quickly agreed to placate the woman. "If he does hear about Hugh in time, would he stop here on his way?"
"It would be the thoughtful thing to do," she answered. "There wouldn't be time before the burial, but he might make time on his way back north. Do you find this possibility unsettling? You look upset."
"I was just wondering when Connor would be back. I have a problem I wish to discuss with him."
"If something is wrong, Brenna, you shouldn't bother your husband. You should come to me for counsel.
Is this not so?"
She decided to test the water. "And if this problem concerns your son?"
"Then you most certainly must come to me. I'm his mother, for heaven's sake, and I could possibly settle this… dispute… before it goes any farther."
"Mi'lady, I doubt I'll ever be alone with Raen again, so the problem…"
Euphemia cut her off. "Alone with Raen? Explain what you mean, child. Are you afraid of my son?"
Brenna hesitantly nodded. "He has tried to, that is, he tried to take advantage of… by grabbing hold of me and brushing up against my… and when I asked him to let go of me, he wouldn't listen to me. He said very inappropriate…"
"Enough," Euphemia snapped. Her eyes blazed with anger, yet Brenna couldn't tell if the mother's fury was directed at her or her son.
A moment later, Euphemia's attitude underwent a radical change, and she actually looked amused.
Brenna found her smile as unsettling as her anger.
"My son's smitten with you, child. It's as simple as that. Raen was always one to pity the poor unfortunates. When he was a boy, he chose the runt of the litter to raise as his own. I'm not suggesting you are an unfortunate, but Raen and I have both noticed Connor's rather cold attitude toward you. I believe that in time, once you've been properly trained to be a good wife, your husband will soften toward you. I noticed he seemed happy to have you at his table last night."
Brenna wondered what Euphemia would think if she told her she had asked Connor to act affectionate.
She could understand why his stepmother would think he wasn't happy. Connor had been rather distant toward her in the past, but he had already changed his attitude, kissed her several times as a matter of fact, in plain view of all of his followers. Still, Euphemia hadn't witnessed her stepson's change of heart.
"What about Raen?" she asked.
Euphemia patted her hand. "Are you certain you aren't exaggerating this in your mind?"
"Yes, I'm not exaggerating."
Euphemia pondered the problem for a long minute before saying, "I'm sure you realize that because Raen is your husband's brother, he is just as important. I suggest you do whatever my son wants you to do. As mistress, you must see to his every request, for he is master of this keep whenever Connor is away."
Brenna was outraged. "Are you telling me I should…"
Euphemia interrupted her once again. "Respect his wishes at all times," she announced with a nod.
"Surely you realize your value, for I find it difficult to believe women in England are treated any different by their men. You should be honored by Raen's attention. If the king of England favored you, would you turn your back on him? No, of course you wouldn't. I understand how confusing it all is to you. You're very young and tend to overreact.