She was pleased to see his smile disappear. "Now I think you understand," she said. "I would like you to let the soldiers leave unharmed. Let them go to Laird MacNare or back to my father."
The innocent woman actually thought she was saving their lives. Connor knew better. MacNare would surely torture the men before he disposed of them, and although her father probably wouldn't be as twisted with his punishment, Connor assumed he would still kill them because they had dishonored him.
"And if I agree to this difficult bargain?" he asked, trying to keep his amusement out of his voice. "You'll accept this marriage? I want your agreement and your acceptance."
"There's a difference?"
"There is," he replied. "In time, you'll understand."
"Do you expect me to give you my promise without knowing exactly what it is I'm promising?"
"Do you expect me to let twelve cowards live when they poison the air I breathe?"
He was frowning at her now, and she couldn't help but worry he might be changing his mind. She decided not to press her good fortune. She had just won an important victory, hadn't she?
Still, she didn't feel like celebrating. "I'll agree and I'll accept."
"You have a kind heart."
She was astonished by his compliment. "Thank you."
"It wasn't praise," he snapped. "I want you to rid yourself of such a weakness."
He'd rendered her speechless. How could she possibly argue with such opinions?
His followers were just as odd as their leader. When they were ordered to let the soldiers leave unharmed, they didn't even try to hide their disappointment. They pouted like babies. She glared at the Highlanders while she was being pulled along by their leader. Quinlan had the gall to smile back at her.
The man she had just promised to accept didn't speak to her again until they were well away from the others.
"I'm not always going to be this pleasant."
She could tell he was serious, but still she wanted to laugh until she cried. She was fast losing her control and forced herself to calm down. She needed to stay clearheaded so she could figure a way to get out of this nightmare.
Oh, Lord, what had she gotten herself into?
Damn it all, none of this was her fault. She knew the truth, though she doubted anyone in her family would understand, especially her father. On her way out the door to go to MacNare, hadn't she threatened to do something rash? Papa was surely going to think she'd done just that.
"If my father blames me for this marriage, you're going to have to set him straight. I didn't plan this, and you're going to tell him so. Promise me you will."
He didn't answer her. She knew he'd heard every word, though, because she'd shamelessly raised her voice. "Promise me," she demanded again.
He lifted her onto her horse, and while that was very thoughtful of him indeed, she didn't thank him.
She grabbed his hand as he let go of her waist. "Promise me?" she asked yet again.
"'Tis doubtful you'll ever see your family again. Your concern is foolish."
He thought he was very reasonable.
She thought he was deliberately cruel. Tears filled her eyes over the very idea that she might not see her family again.
She pushed his hand away. "I will see them again. You cannot expect me to… Didn't your mother ever tell you it's rude to walk away from someone when she's talking to you?"
Connor couldn't believe what he'd just heard. She had actually criticized him. No one had ever spoken to him with such open disapproval before, and a woman addressing him in such a fashion was simply beyond his comprehension.
Honest to God, he didn't know how to react. If she were a man, he knew exactly what he would do, of course, but she wasn't a man, and that made his dilemma confusing. Brenna certainly wasn't like any of the women he'd known. Most avoided him, and those who had more courage kept their heads lowered and their bearing humble in his presence.
His reaction to Brenna was bewildering. She made him feel like smiling, even when she was frowning at him. In truth, she was such a refreshing change from all of the others, he couldn't even begin to imagine her cowering before him, and though her bizarre behavior pleased him, he knew it would be a mistake to let her think she could always get away with such defiance. It would be a poor beginning at best. He was going to be her laird, and she needed to understand exactly what that meant. Appreciation would come later. He decided to be understanding now, so he put his hand on her thigh, gently squeezed, and stared into her eyes.
"You don't understand yet, and for that reason, I will be patient with you."
"Exactly what don't I understand?"
"Your position in my household. Soon you'll learn to value the great honor I've bestowed on you by marrying you."
Her eyes turned a deep violet blue. Lord, she was pretty when she was angry.
"I will?" she asked.
She put her hand on top of his and began to squeeze. She wasn't at all gentle.
"Perhaps you should bestow this great honor on someone who does understand," she suggested.
He ignored her remark and continued on with his explanation. "Until you learn to appreciate the gift I've given you, I expect you to voice your opinions only when you are asked to do so. I cannot tolerate insolence. Now give me your promise."
She was neither impressed nor intimidated by his gruff commands. A woman could only take so much, after all, and she'd just about reached her limit. Surely she would wake up from this nightmare any moment now.
"I may never voice my opinions?" she asked.
"When others who follow me are present, you may not," he qualified. "When we are alone, you may do whatever you wish."
"I wish to go home."
"That isn't possible."
She let out a sigh. Home meant facing her father, and until someone explained the truth to him, she honestly didn't think she wanted to see him again.
"I'll give you my promise just as soon as you promise you'll explain to my father."
"I won't ever bend to you."
"Nor I, to you."
He ignored her outrageous boast. "However, because you're so obviously afraid of me and fear your future, I've decided to make this one exception. If I ever see your father, I'll explain what happened."
She wanted clarification. "But you won't go into detail about the proposals. Even though I was just a child, Father still might not understand."
"I won't mention your proposals."
Her smile was radiant. "Thank you."
He pointedly looked down at her hand resting on top of his. In her gratitude, she was now patting him.
He couldn't resist teasing her. "It isn't appropriate for you to show me your affection in front of the English soldiers."
She snatched her hand away. "I was not showing you affection."
"Aye, you were."
He liked having the last word. She saw him smile as he turned away from her. What a twisted sense of humor he had. Were all the people who lived in the Highlands as strange as this one? Brenna fervently hoped not. How in heaven's name was she ever going to get along with such peculiar people?
Good Lord, she was already thinking about a future with the barbarian. What was happening to her? She should be trying to think of a way to get away from him instead of wondering what it would be like to live with him.
Her reaction to him was most puzzling. She'd felt relief and true appreciation when he'd promised to speak to her father, and yet she had absolutely no reason to trust he would keep his word.
There was only one possible reason for her odd behavior, she decided. Her mind had snapped. "He's made me as addled as Beatrice… Good God, Beatrice…"
She'd forgotten all about her lady's maid. The poor woman was probably quivering with terror in the bushes somewhere.
Brenna dismounted and went running back to her father's soldiers. They were standing now, silently replacing their weapons. None of them would look at her when she called out to them, and so she moved closer.
Quinlan intercepted her by blocking her path. He didn't touch her, just stood in her way so she couldn't take another step. The other Highlanders had also moved forward to put themselves between her and her father's men.
If she hadn't known better, she would have believed they were actually trying to protect her from her very own escort. The idea was too ludicrous to consider, however, and she decided that they were simply being rude.
"I would like to speak to my father's soldiers."
Quinlan shook his head. "Your laird wouldn't like it."
He wasn't her laird; she was English, for the love of God and king, but she knew she wouldn't get what she wanted if she argued with him. She needed his cooperation, not his anger.
"I doubt your laird will mind at all," she said. "I'll only take a minute. I promise."
Quinlan reluctantly gave in. He moved to her side, clasped his hands behind his back, and said, "You may speak to them from here."
She didn't waste any time. "Harold, please don't forget Beatrice. She's hiding near the stream. I would appreciate it if you would take her back home."
Although Harold wouldn't look at her, he did nod agreement.
"Will you tell my parents not to worry?"
Harold mumbled something under his breath she couldn't quite make out. She tried to move closer so she could hear his whisper, but Quinlan put his arm out to stop her.
She gave the Highlander a good frown to let him know what she thought of his high-handed behavior and then turned back to Harold once again.
"What did you say?" she asked. "I couldn't quite hear you."
The soldier finally looked at her. "Your father will go to war over this atrocity, mi'lady. That is what I said."
Her heart felt as though it had just dropped into her shoes.
"No, no, he mustn't go to war over me. Make him understand, Harold."
She stopped when she heard the panic in her voice, took a deep breath, and then whispered, "I won't have anyone fighting because of me. Tell my father I wanted this marriage. I asked the Highlander to come for me."
"You wanted to marry MacNare?" Harold asked, obviously misunderstanding.
"No, no, I never wanted MacNare. I wanted…"
Dear God, she was so flustered, she couldn't remember the laird's name. "I wanted…"
She gave Quinlan a frantic look. "What is the name of your laird?" she whispered.
"MacAlister," she called out. "I wanted MacAlister. Please remind my father he met my future husband a long time ago."
"It's time to leave, mi'lady," Quinlan advised, for he'd just spotted Connor watching from the edge of the clearing. The laird didn't look at all pleased with what he was seeing.
"One last request," she pleaded.
She didn't give Quinlan time to argue with her. "Harold, tell my father not to come after me. I want him to celebrate my…"
"Your what, mi'lady?"
She could barely get the words out without choking. "My happiness."
She ran back to her horse and was already settled in the saddle by the time Connor reached her side. He sat atop a huge black stallion that looked as mean as his master.
She made the mistake of looking up, and promptly dropped her reins in reaction to the anger she saw in his eyes. She quickly lowered her head and pretended to be terribly busy getting comfortable so he wouldn't know she was deliberately trying to shield herself from his temper.
He wasn't about to be ignored. Did she actually want him to believe she was trying to protect him from her father's wrath? The thought was both insulting and laughable.
He forced his mount closer until Brenna's leg was pressed tight against his, and then demanded her full attention by taking hold of her chin and forcing her to look at him.
She knew what he was asking and didn't even try to pretend she didn't. "War means death," she answered.
He shrugged. "For some men it does," he agreed.
"Even one man would be too many," she explained. "I don't want anyone to fight because of me. Father has a large army, but it would be a hardship and a nuisance for him to come after me. He would insist on leading his soldiers, and I cannot help but worry you might…"
"I might what?"
He was appeased. She wished she had the strength in her to push him off his horse. He was a proud and arrogant man, and she had used both flaws to her benefit by letting him assume she believed he would be the superior warrior on the battlefield. While it was true that he was physically superior—because he was younger, bigger, and obviously stronger—her father would make up for the differences by having staggering numbers on his side. It would be a slaughter, all right, and Connor MacAlister would probably end up on the bottom of the pile of wounded.
Why had she lied to Harold, then? Honest to heaven, she didn't know. She had just sealed her fate with her father, because she knew that as soon as his vassal gave him her message, he would go into a rage.
He wouldn't be at all reasonable or bother to take the time to think it through and realize she couldn't possibly have planned this trickery. Not only did she not have the heart for it, she hadn't had the time.
Papa was going to blame her, and then he would turn his back on her and never acknowledge her as his daughter again. But he would stay alive to hate her. And no one would die.
"I will not inconvenience my father. However, upon reflection, I realize my own wishes won't matter.
Laird MacNare is sending an escort to meet me, and I'm certain his men will kill the lot of you. I expect they should be here any moment now."
"No, they won't be coming after you."
He sounded terribly certain. It would take too much effort to argue, and she was simply too worn out to worry any longer. Her heartache for her family was so intense, she could barely keep herself from bursting into tears.
Unfortunately, she was given a long time to feel sorry for herself. They left the clearing a minute later, and no one spoke to her again until late that evening. She was squeezed in between two stone-faced warriors who didn't even glance her way. Gilly, her sweet-tempered mare, didn't like the closeness any more than she did.