I wouldn't mention this to Connor, though. He would be furious if you spoke any harsh word against my son. Have faith in… Why, that's the woman's name. Faith. I told you it was odd…" Her gaze slid over to Brenna and her eyes narrowed. "I believe the girl is one of Baron Haynesworth's daughters."
"MacNare plans to marry Faith? Mi'lady, are you certain it was Baron Haynesworth's daughter? For he is my father too."
"I am," she answered.
Brenna vehemently shook her head. "My father would have learned from his mistake by now. He wouldn't send his youngest to such a demon."
"Will that matter?" Euphemia asked. "Once a bargain's struck, it cannot be undone. MacNare won't be denied. It's rather clever of him, isn't it? He must hate you as well as Connor by now, and what better way to get even than to take something that's so precious to you? He'll take Faith by force if he must,"
she added with a nod. "At least that's what I would expect him to do."
"No," Brenna cried out.
Euphemia patted her hand. "It's a pity, but there really isn't anything you can do about it, is there?"
"She cannot marry him. Someone has to…"
"Lower your voice, Brenna. Ladies don't shout," she said, yet with the very next breath she did that very thing to get Netta to come into the hall.
"I believe she's in the kitchens," Brenna whispered.
"No, she isn't. I sent her upstairs to clean my chamber. Ah, there she is. Netta, how many times must I tell you? When I'm in the hall, you must stay near the door in the event I need you. Do you understand?"
"Yes, mi'lady," Netta answered. Her attention was riveted on her laird's wife now. "Is something wrong, Lady Brenna?"
"You can see there is. Fetch your mistress a cloth to wipe away her tears. Really, Brenna, you shouldn't cry in front of the servants. It's most unseemly. There isn't any need to carry on so. Accept that nothing can be done about it."
"Connor will put a stop to this madness," Brenna whispered.
"I doubt that, child. How can he? He's fully occupied protecting Hugh's followers at the moment. He cannot be in two places at the same time, and you cannot expect him to turn his back on defenseless men and women to go to England. Use your head."
"He went to pay his respects, not fight," Brenna argued. She was desperately trying to concentrate on what Euphemia was telling her, but was in such a panic inside for her little sister's safety, she could barely think about anything else.
"It seems MacNare isn't paying his respects. He's waging a war to get Hugh's land before Connor does.
The holding sits between the two and would give one a certain advantage over the other."
"How could you know all this?" Brenna asked.
"I heard some of the soldiers talking about the conflict. All of the MacAlisters know what's happening, even the servants, but you haven't been accepted yet, have you? Perhaps that is why you were left in the dark. Where is Netta? It's taking her entirely too long to fetch a cloth for you. If I were not preparing to leave here, I would have her replaced."
"Netta?" Brenna asked, trying to understand what she was talking about.
"Try to pay attention, Brenna. As for your sister, I think you should simply put her out of your mind.
There isn't anything to be done about her."
"But Connor could talk to my father…"
"How can you want Connor to go to your father? Surely you realize one would have to kill the other.
After all, your husband did start this when he took you away from MacNare. Your sister's fate has been sealed, and neither you nor Connor can stop the marriage. Forget about her," she added. "Or offer a prayer for her if that will make you feel better."
"Yes, I'll offer a prayer," Brenna answered.
She stood up, bowed to her stepmother, and turned to leave. Netta came running in through the back hall with the cloth Euphemia had ordered.
"I hope by the time you return, you'll be in control again," Euphemia said. "I noticed last night everyone enjoyed the food served. Will you admit now that I was right to change the cooks?"
Brenna stared at the woman in disbelief. Why in God's name did she want to talk about food now?
Netta thought Brenna didn't remember her plan to pretend to replace Ada and hurried to nudge her memory before she said something she shouldn't.
"You had Ada replaced, mi'lady. Remember?"
"Yes, I remember," she answered in a strained whisper.
"Go along now," Euphemia ordered. "It distresses me to see you in such a pitiful condition."
Brenna ran outside before she realized she should have gone up to her bedroom so that she would have complete privacy. She wasn't about to go back inside, because she knew if Euphemia said one more word to her before her panic was under control, she would start screaming and never stop.
She reached the seclusion of the trees, fell to her knees, and broke into heart-wrenching sobs.
Connor… Dear God, how she needed Connor. He would know what to do, and he was strong enough and powerful enough to take on the devil himself.
But how could she ask such a thing of him? Others depended upon him now for their survival. She knew Euphemia hadn't exaggerated the threat to Hugh's followers. Brenna remembered what had happened to her father's soldiers and her own sweet Gilly and knew without a doubt that MacNare would slaughter the peace-loving clan without a moment's hesitation.
If Connor was able to go, would she be sending him to his death? Or would he be forced to kill her father?
No, she couldn't send her husband. Who else could she send to stop this madness?
Greed. It all began and ended with greed. Her father had struck this bargain to gain an alliance, just as MacNare had, and neither man had considered what the ramifications would be. Consumed with lust for power, their greed controlled their minds and their hearts, leaving the innocents to be preyed upon.
But not Faith. Brenna would die before she would let MacNare touch her sister. Please, God, help me think of someone to… help me… help me.
Sobbing, she bowed her head and clasped her hands to her heart, and in that dark moment of desolation, her prayer was answered.
There was another she could send, the man who had taken her hand and vowed to do anything she asked of him, who was even stronger than Connor. He wouldn't deny her.
The war had begun.
Connor stood on the rise above Hugh's keep, his gaze directed on the hills beyond, his thoughts centered on the past as he once again searched for the answer that had eluded him for many years.
Quinlan joined him a few minutes later. "MacNare's playing a game with us, Connor. What's his real purpose?"
"He wants to keep us busy defending the border between his land and Hugh's until his allies join him."
"Surely he knows you've done the same thing."
"He knows. He's deliberately sacrificing the small number of soldiers he sends on each attack, knowing full well they'll all die, but this land isn't his immediate goal. He can easily claim it after he attacks me."
"Do you think the soldier was telling the truth about your wife's sister, or was that just another ploy to divide our forces?"
"Dying men usually tell the truth. It doesn't really matter though. I must still make certain Faith is protected from MacNare."
Quinlan silently agreed. "You've waited a long time for this day to come. I have a feeling you'll be able to claim your father's sword from Kincaid and end this once and for all."
Connor turned to him. "But why now? What does MacNare know that I don't? We could destroy him and his allies. He isn't a fool; he knows our numbers. Why would a coward who all these years has only provoked me with small, insignificant attacks, suddenly become so aggressive?"
"I don't have an answer for you, but I do know you can't be everywhere at once. I wish to God we could end it tomorrow. Attack his holding before he attacks us."
"Be patient, Quinlan. I'm not going to put any of the MacAlisters in jeopardy. I'm taking every precaution in the meantime. God willing, any day now I will find out who the others are before I'm forced to kill MacNare."
"You think someone else is controlling MacNare?"
"I do," he answered. "Whoever he is, he's damned clever."
"What about Faith? You can't go into England now."
"No, but you can. Leave at dawn tomorrow and take ten others with you. This could be a trap," he warned.
"Of course," Quinlan agreed. "What am I to do with the woman once I have her?"
"Do whatever you wish to do, as long as she remains safe," he answered.
Connor's smile confused his friend. "What are you thinking?" he asked.
"It's about time you got married, isn't it?"
The border attacks intensified, and even though it took very little effort to maintain his position, Connor was still required to stay away from his holding much longer than he had anticipated.
He slept a few hours each day, and used the cover of darkness at night to move Hugh's followers to safety. If all continued to go according to his schedule, every man, woman, and child would be well-hidden from MacNare's clutches in just two more days. He had met with resistance from some of the older men, and only after he had promised on the soul of his father that they would all be able to return to their land as soon as the conflict was finished, did he gain their cooperation.
The rest was up to his brother, Alec. Connor would wait for as long as he dared while Alec tried to find out who was in league with MacNare; yet as the days lengthened into a full week, it became apparent the truth would continue to elude him.
And it would happen all over again. Whoever was controlling MacNare wouldn't give up, and Connor's greatest nightmare was that he would die without knowing who his enemy was… just as his father had.
For several days Brenna tried to remain calm and keep her mind on the normal activities of the holding.
She was on her way back from visiting with Lothar when Netta caught up with her. The servant immediately noticed her mistress wasn't wearing the leather necklace.
"You aren't wearing your medallion, mi'lady."
"No, I'm not."
"But you always wear it. I wouldn't have noticed if you hadn't worn your hair up today. Have you misplaced it?"
Brenna removed the ribbon from her hair and let her curls fall down around her shoulders. If Netta had noticed, Crispin would too, she reasoned, and she didn't like the idea of lying to Connor's close friend.
"The medallion will show up any day now," she said. "You needn't worry about it."
Netta wasn't quite finished discussing the matter. "I know it isn't in your room. I only just finished cleaning it, and I would have found it for you if it was there. Our laird's medallion is on the chest in the very same spot as yesterday. You never lose yours, mi'lady. Did you look on the chest in the hall?"
"Not yet," she answered before she tried to change the subject. "How did you get away from Lady Euphemia?"
"She's resting. As soon as she awakens, she wants me to pack her clothing."
"She's leaving?" Heaven help her, she couldn't contain her smile.
Netta laughed. "She told me she had decided against waiting for her stepson to come back and plans to leave tomorrow morning. I think she feels she's being ignored by our laird."
"He hasn't been ignoring her. Surely she realizes how busy he is."
"Did he send a message to you today?"
"Yes, he did. He assures me all is well and that he will be home soon."
"But that is the very same message he sends you every day."
"He is being considerate, Netta. That is all that matters to me."
"Mi'lady, may I ask a favor of you?"
"Yes, of course."
"After Lady MacAlister leaves, will you tell me why she made you cry last week? I know I shouldn't ask you, but I worry about you. So does Ada. We've both become very fond of you," she added with a nod.
"I'm very fond of you too, Netta. As soon as I know the problem has been taken care of, I will tell you what she said to me."
"Thank you, mi'lady. Were you going inside?"
"Did you have any duties for me?"
"None that I can think of. You might as well enjoy your afternoon of freedom. I'm going to change my shoes and go riding."
"Have you warned Crispin?" Netta asked with a grin.
"He's occupied for the moment checking the work on the wall outside the holding. You needn't concern yourself that I'll ride the black. Davis hid him from me."
Netta burst into laughter. "Is Davis still closing his eyes every time you go inside his stable?"
"Yes, but he refuses to tell me why."
Brenna watched Netta run across the courtyard. Her own thoughts were on her sister as she went inside and ran up the steps to her bedroom. Waiting to hear that Faith was all right was extremely difficult, and the only way she had been able to get any sleep at all was to put the matter in God's hands. She had done everything she could. The rest was up to Him.
She swung the door open and hurried across the chamber. She spotted her dagger on the chest next to the bed and had to shake her head over her own forgetfulness. She really needed to force herself to slow down so that she wouldn't continue to lose her things. She quickly picked up the dagger to put back in its sheath.
She heard the squeak of the door as it closed behind her, assumed the wind coming in through the windows was responsible. She was just about to sit down on the bed to remove her shoes when she heard the lock clicking into place.
She knew, before she turned around, who was inside the room with her.
And then she saw him. Raen stood in front of the door, and as her scream gathered in her throat, he slowly removed his shirt.
Crispin was informed of Raen's arrival by the soldier in charge of the drawbridge.
"He and three others came back a few minutes ago. Raen's the only one who crossed the bridge, though.
His companions are waiting in the meadow below. I can see them from here," he called down. "Raen told me he had gone to pay his respects to Hugh and wanted only to tell his mother farewell before he left again. He suggested I leave the drawbridge down, which, of course, I refused to do. You'll see his horse is still wearing his saddle, Crispin, so he really means to leave soon."