Connor weighed the damnation of his soul for eternity against the temporary pleasure he would get if he throttled a man of the cloth.
"With your permission, Laird?" Niell asked.
"What is it?"
"I don't think the priest knew she was following him. He went out first, riding his speckled gelding, and pulling the reins of a packhorse behind him. The second priest walked well behind the horses."
"And you didn't think this was peculiar behavior?" Alec roared.
"He was small, Laird. I thought he was yet to be ordained and that he was required to walk as penance."
"Now all we have to do is find out where the priest was going," Alec said.
"Dunkady Abbey," Jamie blurted out.
"You're certain?" Connor asked.
"Yes," she answered.
"If he was telling the truth," her husband said.
"For heaven's sake, Alec. He's a man of God. Of course he was telling the truth."
"I'll leave immediately," Connor said.
"I'm going with you," Alec and Jamie both announced at the same time.
Connor shook his head. "I have to do this alone."
"Not without your men, you don't," Alec warned.
Because he didn't want to waste time arguing with his brother, he told Quinlan to go to the keep and get the others. "You can catch up with me," he told him.
The monastery was only a short day's ride away by his measure. If Brenna was riding the packhorse, God only knew how long it would take her to get there.
He forced himself to block all thoughts but one. He had to get to his own sweet Brenna. He was lost without her.
Brenna was inconsolable. She couldn't eat, couldn't sleep, and couldn't stop crying long enough to make any sense to her sister.
Faith soon threw her hands up in despair. After she handed Brenna a dry cloth to wipe away her tears, she tossed the soaked square in the laundry box with the others, and then sat down next to her sister on the narrow cot in her bedroom. For what she swore was going to be the last time, she tried to get her sister to listen to reason.
"You really have to stop this mourning. We've already been thrown out of chapel because you were making so much noise."
"We weren't thrown out. We were just encouraged to go back to our rooms."
"What about dear Father Sinclair? He can't pay attention to his daily vespers, thanks to you. Why won't you listen to us? You told me you love your husband."
"Don't you understand? He made his choice when he left me. He doesn't want me or my love. He never did. She's part of his past, and he's never going to let go of what happened. No, I can't go back. It would hurt too much."
The need to blow her nose ended her protests. Faith still didn't understand. "You never used to cry. If loving someone makes a woman miserable, I swear I'm never going to fall in love. I wish I never had to get married either. For the love of God, will you stop crying? Perhaps if you went back and tried once more… If you told him how you feel…"
"He knows how I feel even though I didn't give him my declaration. He's intelligent, Faith. And so am I,"
she added. "I know when I'm not wanted. I can't talk about this anymore."
"What if he comes for you?"
She shook her head. "He won't."
"But what if he does?"
She let out a sigh. "I would think his pride forced him to come here. I wouldn't go back with him. Can't we talk about something else?"
Faith ignored her suggestion. "Gillian might not let you come back with us. Then what will you do? Stay in the abbey for the rest of your life, making these poor monks miserable?"
"My brother won't deny me. Did I tell you Connor doesn't even know how many brothers and sisters I have?"
"Yes, you've mentioned that fact to me about a hundred times now. You want children, don't you? If you go back…"
"I do want children, but I'm not about to leave them with Connor."
"Now what are you talking about? Go back to him, Brenna. Please, before it's too late. He's your husband."
"Must you nag me?"
Faith decided she had pressed enough for the moment. "Perhaps some fresh air will make you feel better.
Let's go outside and stroll about the gardens."
"If we stray from the path, we aren't on sacred ground anymore."
"I don't understand."
"The path in front of the abbey. There's a wooden cross where it ends on the south side and another on the north side. If we step off the path, we aren't safe. I think we should just stay here. Besides, Gillian should be here any time now if Father Sinclair's estimation was right."
"If you insist on hiding here, then we'll hide. At least pull the fur coverings off the windows so the sun can come inside. It's like a tomb in here." Faith didn't wait for her sister to agree or disagree with her. She ran to the window, unhooked the cotton loops, and pulled the thick fur down.
Closing her eyes against the bright sun, she reached behind her head and lifted her hair away from the nape of her neck. "The breeze feels wonderful," she whispered, her face aglow with pleasure. She stayed silhouetted against the light until her arms began to ache. And then she looked out at the landscape.
"Oh… my… God… they're… they're… huge."
"Is something wrong?" Brenna asked.
Mesmerized by the sight before her, Faith couldn't even manage a nod. At the northern end of the abbey were giants for as far as the eye could see. Faith guessed at least forty men rode with the fierce-looking warrior who had separated himself from the others and had ridden closer to the path. Every one of the men was bare-kneed and would have been bare-chested as well if it weren't for the wide strip of material that was pulled up from one side of his waist and draped over his opposite shoulder. Some of them were scarred; others were not. All of them were in dire need of a good scrubbing, haircuts, and decent clothes.
Saints above, they were savages.
Faith whirled around. "You can't possibly go back. Thank heavens you came to your senses. No, no, you can't go back to your husband. You should live with Gillian. He'll be happy to have you. He loves you dearly. Why didn't you tell me they were… they were… Oh, Brenna, how did you ever manage to stay alive all this while?"
"What are you rambling about?"
Worried she might come to the window and see who was outside, Faith frantically shook her head. Her sister had had enough upsets to last her a lifetime. The proof was there for anyone to see. She had a scar on her forehead, and another on her arm.
In her haste to make amends because she hadn't had any idea what Brenna had been up against, she stammered out her apology. "I'm so sorry. I didn't know… until I saw them, I didn't know. No, it's out of the question."
"What's out of the question?" Brenna asked. She stood up to join her sister at the window.
Faith ran over to her and shoved her back down on the cot. Then she raced to the door and threw the lock into place.
"It's out of the question to… to go outside. Yes, it's out of the question. My, but it's gotten chilly in here. I believe I'll put the fur back up."
She went back to the window and peeked out, hoping she had only imagined the savages were there.
No, they were there all right, looking just as frightening as before.
Her hands shook while she tried to rehook the loops. "Brenna, tell me what your husband looks like."
"I'm curious, that's all," she answered. She stared at the leader and tried to finish rehanging the fur at the same time. He really was scary.
"No, I'm not. He is handsome."
"But what exactly does he look like? Describe him for me."
"Dark hair and eyes, a straight nose. He's tall, and very strong. Does that satisfy you?"
"All the MacAlister men have long hair. What are you looking at?"
"Father Sinclair," she answered, which wasn't a lie, because the priest was running down the path toward the warrior in front of the other savages. Father should have been running the other way, shouldn't he?
Surely he noticed they were all armed for battle.
Brenna went to the water basin to wash her face and hands. "If Father's outside, it's safe for us to go out.
He won't let you wander off the path."
"Was it safe for the two of you to come here without an escort?"
"No, but it was necessary. It isn't now. Besides, I was dressed as a monk, and all the Highlanders respect men of the cloth. None would harm them. Right now, however, you are the one I'm concerned about. Once you make up your mind to do something, you do it, no matter what the risk, and if you decide to pick flowers up on the hill, I know Father won't let you."
"You taught me how to take a risk," Faith protested. "Oh, dear, the fur just fell out the window."
Leaning out, she watched the covering drop down with a shush to land on the stone path just a step away from the priest. Startled by the near miss, Sinclair glanced up at the window.
"I'm so sorry, Father. It slipped," she called out before she jumped back so he wouldn't lecture her in front of the savages. Besides, she knew she was going to laugh, and she really didn't want to hurt the priest's feelings.
He heard her, of course, and so did the MacAlisters. Everyone but Quinlan pretended not to notice. He grinned with obvious approval.
Curious, Crispin turned to him. "You find her amusing?"
"I find her enchanting."
Crispin shook his head to let his friend know he thought he was demented. Quinlan nodded, and then declared his intention, "I mean to have her."
"She'll run from you."
"I hope so. It wouldn't be any fun if she didn't. She's bonny, isn't she?"
Connor suddenly raised his hand. His friends thought he wanted them to be silent so that he could hear what the priest was telling him. Then their laird gave the signal to let them know the enemy was near. He simply put his hand on the hilt of his sword. Englishmen were approaching.
Gillian and his soldiers were coming up the hill. From the sound their horses made, Connor estimated approximately sixty soldiers rode with their baron. Crispin and Quinlan immediately moved to flank their laird to protect him from an attack from either side.
Father Sinclair didn't notice the MacAlisters were tensed to fight. He was explaining once again that he hadn't helped Brenna leave the Kincaid holding, hadn't had the slightest inkling that she had such a plan in mind, and it was only after they had entered the forest and she called out to him that he knew she was chasing after him.
"Don't you ever look behind you?" Connor asked.
"Not when I'm on your land or Kincaid's, because I know I'm safe. I assure you I took every precaution once your wife alerted me to her presence. I tried to talk her into going back, but she wouldn't listen to me, Laird. I couldn't let her go on without me, could I?"
Connor shook his head. "You have assured me she's all right, and that's all I care about now. Tell her to come to me."
"She'll deny the request," he said. "I'll try, of course."
"She won't deny me." He took his dagger from his belt and cut the threads Jamie had used to sew the medallion to the side of his plaid. "Give her this."
The priest accepted the medallion with a nod. "And your message?"
"The medallion is my message. She'll understand. She can't deny me, Father."
"If you leave your sword at the door, you could come inside," he offered.
Connor's answer was to suggest the priest look behind him.
"Oh, Good Lord. Gillian's here. I'll hurry," he whispered. "Don't do anything rash before I return."
"We won't," Connor assured him, "unless, of course, we're provoked."
The priest picked up the hem of his robe and went racing back toward the abbey.
"You might as well stop brushing your hair, Brenna. Father's coming back inside. He's running, as a matter of fact. I wonder…Uh oh."
Brenna dropped her brush and sat down on the cot. The time had come for her to leave the Highlands forever. Oh, God, why did it hurt so much?
Tears gathered in her eyes. She bowed her head in surrender and began to pray. "Why is this so hard?"
she cried out. She doubled over and rocked back and forth, acting as though the pain were physical now instead of inside her heart.
Faith didn't know what she could say to her. "I don't know, Brenna. If I could help you, I would. Your husband might be able to make you feel better."
"He's here, Brenna."
Other than straightening up again until she was rigid, she didn't say anything or show any other reaction.
"Surely that means…"
"He's here because of his pride."
"I knew you'd say that," Faith said. She leaned back out the window and waved to her brother. Gillian and his men all looked so shiny and new in their hauberks and helmets. She turned then and looked at the MacAlisters again. They looked… "Like savages."
"Come away from the window."
"I think I should wave to your husband. It would be rude to ignore him. I already waved to Gillian, and I shouldn't slight him."
"I assure you he won't care."
She waved anyway. "He didn't wave back. Gillian did."
"Get away from there," Brenna demanded.
"Come and look."
A knock sounded at the door, followed by loud panting. Father Sinclair had run up the steps to get to Brenna's room.
Faith let him in. "She won't go out to him, Father. I tried to convince her, but she refuses to have anything to do with him."
The priest nodded before he rushed over to the cot. "Your husband told me you would come to him, mi'lady. He was certain this would force you to," he added as he dropped the medallion into her lap.