She turned her wrath on Connor. She was so furious with him, tears filled her eyes. "I won't have it."
The priest's mouth dropped open. He'd never heard anyone speak to Laird MacAlister in such a manner, except Alec Kincaid, of course—but he could speak to him any way he chose—and for a slip of a woman to show such open hostility was both astonishing and courageous. If he lived through this ordeal, he must remember every word he had just heard so he could repeat the tale to his friends.
Connor intended to put the fear of God into her to get her to calm down, but the tears swayed him. Why the war paint upset her was beyond his understanding, but upset she was, and he knew he wouldn't get the ceremony over and done with until he found a way to make her cooperate.
Lord, she was a nuisance.
"Brenna, you will not raise your voice to me." He deliberately tried to sound reasonable. Mean, but reasonable too.
"You will not wear war paint to our wedding."
Honest to God, she sounded as mean as he did. He couldn't help but be impressed. "I want to get this done."
She let go of his arm and crossed her arms in front of her. "We'll wait."
"If you think…"
"I won't ever ask anything more of you."
Damn it all, she looked as if she was about to start wailing. Didn't she realize she was about to become his wife? It was an honor, not a death sentence.
His bride didn't seen to understand, however. One of them was going to have to be reasonable, and he guessed it would have to be his duty.
"This really matters to you?"
She couldn't believe he needed to ask such a ridiculous question. The sacrament of matrimony was a blessed event, everyone knew that, and coming to a priest dressed for war insulted God, the church, the priest and her.
"It's very important to me."
"All right then, but this is the last time I'll ever concede to your demands."
Connor paused to glare at his followers when he noticed they were all nodding agreement. Then he turned back to his reluctant bride. "Have I made myself clear?"
"You have, and I am most appreciative."
She suddenly felt like smiling, but she maintained her somber expression until Connor walked away from her. He let out a sigh that sounded like a deep growl. She did smile then; she couldn't help herself. For the first time in a long, long while, she didn't feel afraid of her future, but then her mind had already snapped, she reminded herself, and she couldn't be reasonable about anything now. Connor was cooperating, which meant he wasn't a complete barbarian. It wasn't much to base a marriage on, but she was going to be stuck with the man for the rest of her life, and she was a desperate woman, after all. She would take what she could get, even if it was just a single thread of hope.
She kept on smiling until she remembered the blue-faced pagans who rode with the groom.
She was frowning with indignation by the time she turned to them. "Were you expecting to attend the wedding?"
She didn't have to say anything more. Quinlan and the others bowed to her before hurrying to catch up with their laird.
They didn't balk the way Connor had. Several, in fact, glanced back to smile. They seemed to want to accommodate her. She didn't dare trust any of them, of course, and she decided to follow along, just to make certain they didn't change their minds at the last minute. She believed they'd done just that when they all lined up along the edge of the bank and stood there procrastinating while they talked to one another.
Because she'd been so concerned about important matters, it hadn't occurred to her that the men would have to remove their clothes before entering the water. Admittedly, she'd been too occupied gloating over her insignificant little victory to think about anything else.
Their belts fell to the ground first. She came to a dead stop and closed her eyes. She still wasn't fast enough, for she saw every one of their na*ed backsides before they disappeared into the lake below.
Their laughter followed. She didn't mind, even though she was certain they had known all the while that she was there and were now laughing at her.
The priest came up behind her. "We haven't been introduced, mi'lady. My name is Father Kevin Sinclair, son of Angus Sinclair of the Neatherhills."
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Father. My name is Brenna. My father is Baron Haynesworth, though I doubt you've ever heard of him. I come from England."
"I had already surmised as much."
"My clothing and my speech are both sure indications, aren't they?"
"Yes, they are," he agreed with a smile she thought was as charming as his brogue.
The priest radiated warmth and kindness, and for the first time in a long while, she began to relax.
"I must compliment you, Lady Brenna. Your command of our language is quite remarkable for a beginner."
"But, Father, I've been studying Gaelic for years."
Horrified, he stammered out a hasty apology. "Do forgive me. I meant to praise you, not insult you."
"I wasn't offended, just surprised," she assured him.
His smile returned. "Did you know you alternate between both languages when you're angry?"
"No, I didn't know. When did you notice this peculiar behavior?"
"When the war paint irritated you. I was also irritated, but not for long. The way you stood up to Connor impressed me… and him, I would wager. I don't believe anyone has ever spoken to him before with such passion and fury. It was something to see, all right."
"I shouldn't have been difficult. It wasn't ladylike, and I do know better. My temper got the best of me and is a fault I must try to overcome. If there were time, I would beg you to hear my confession before I married."
"I would be happy to make the time, mi'lady."
"Then there is a chapel close-by?"
"We have few chapels here, but as long as we don't face each other while you confess, the rules of the church will be guarded."
The priest was already wearing the stole he used to hear confessions. The tasseled strip of material was draped around his shoulders. As soon as they reached the clearing, he pulled the ends loose from the rope belt he wore around the waist of his brown robe and turned to find a suitable spot.
He finally settled on a tree stump, sat down, and then instructed Brenna to kneel on the ground beside him.
She bowed her head and closed her eyes. He stared across the clearing, made the sign of the cross with a wide sweep of his hand, and told her to begin.
She quickly listed her transgressions, and when she was finished, she began to ask him questions in an attempt to stall the inevitable.
"Is it sinful for me to fear my future? I don't know Connor very well. He frightens me, Father. Am I being foolish?"
The priest wasn't about to admit that Connor terrified him. He wasn't ashamed of his reaction, as everyone he knew felt much the same way. Still, he was supposed to offer solace, and telling her the truth would only make her more fearful.
"I don't know him very well either, but I have heard enough about his background to understand why he's such a hard man. His father died when he was very young, and he was then raised by Alec Kincaid, who finished what his father had begun. The two men consider themselves to be brothers."
"I'm certain I shall like his brother," she whispered, hoping to God she was right.
The priest was just as certain she'd be terrified of him. Lord knew, he was, though he didn't think it would do her any good to hear him admit it. "I have never felt the need to guard my words in his presence or walk twenty paces behind him. Age has taught Kincaid to listen before he retaliates—at least, that is what I've been told—and for that reason he doesn't intimidate me the way…"
"The way Connor does?"
"Now, lass, don't try to guess what I'm going to say. The way the men I was with reacted to Connor made me… catch their caution. Try to remember that God will look after you. His plans are often too complicated for us to understand."
Was she supposed to be comforted by his comments? If so, why did she want to weep?
"I will be all alone, Father," she whispered.
"Nay, lass, you won't be alone. God will be with you, and I shall be close-by. I've been assigned to serve Laird Kincaid, for his confessor passed on three months ago, and there is a great need of my services in the region. I will never be too busy to serve you, mi'lady, and if you should ever need me, all you have to do is ask."
His promise comforted her, and she quickly assured him that she would welcome his friendship and his counsel.
Connor and his men watched from a short distance away. Quinlan paced throughout the wait. Connor leaned against a tree with his arms folded across his chest and a hard frown on his face.
"It doesn't appear they'll be finished anytime soon," Quinlan remarked. "I think we should go ahead and eat. It's been a long day."
"We wait, no matter how long it takes. Honest to God, my patience is gone. No one can have that many sins. Hell, she hasn't lived long enough."
"Perhaps she's confessing some of your sins," Quinlan suggested with a grin. "If that be true, we could be here a full month." me warrior was so amused over his own jest, he laughed out loud. The sound drew a frown of disapproval from Father Sinclair. "Laird, could your lady be having second thoughts?" Owen asked. "She might even be deliberately taking her time."
Quinlan rolled his eyes heavenward. "Of course she's taking her time."
After a few more minutes, Sinclair finished. He was about to give Brenna absolution when she stopped him. "May I ask one last question?"
She was wringing her hands together while she waited for his reply. Sinclair noticed the action and hurried to calm her. "You may have all the time you require. I'm in no hurry."
"Are they watching us? They are, aren't they?"
"Yes, they're watching."
"I've kept my eyes closed as you instructed, but I know Connor's frowning, isn't he?"
"Why, he's barely paying us any attention at all," the priest lied. She let out a sigh. "I will make the best of it. I'm determined to be a good wife. Thank you, Father, for your instruction. I appreciate the time you've given me. I'm finished now."
Father Sinclair tucked the ends of the stole under his belt once again and finally stood up. He turned to assist Brenna, but he needn't have bothered. Connor was already by his bride's side, pulling her up toward him.
"Would you be wanting to confess your sins, Laird?"
His frown made Father Sinclair flinch. He hastily walked away, using the pretense of greeting the men.
Connor wasn't aware of how abrupt he'd sounded. He kept his attention directed on Brenna while he waited for her to look up at him. He thought he'd scare a little consideration into the woman. God only knew, he'd feel better once he'd given in to the childish urge, and he would have done just that, if she hadn't looked up at him with such a surprised expression on her face.
"Connor, you're not homely."
"Why do I need to hear this?"
"You don't, but I felt like telling you. It doesn't matter. Homely or not, I still would marry you. When I make a promise, I keep it. I'd like you to promise me something too."
Her eyes widened in disbelief. "But you haven't even heard my request yet. How can you say no?"
"The priest's waiting."
She forced herself to be patient because there were more important concerns to address now. "Once the priest has blessed the marriage, will you please explain why you are determined to marry me and no other?"
He didn't see any harm in satisfying her curiosity, though he found it odd that she would be interested in knowing his reasons. "Yes," he agreed. "Are you always going to be this stubborn and willful?"
"I didn't realize I was." She hurried to change the subject before he found something else about her to criticize. "Thank you for allowing Father Sinclair to hear my confession. He and I both appreciate your patience."
He looked surprised by her gratitude. "Our priests are the most powerful men in all the Highlands, lass. I would not dare to interrupt, even if I'd wanted to."
She noticed the priest was waving to them and put her hand on Connor's arm. "Father would like to get started. Are you ready? I confess I'm very nervous," she added in a whisper.
"There isn't any need to be nervous. You will stop it at once."
"I will?" she asked, wondering how in heaven's name she could possibly manage that feat.
"Yes, you will, because you will finally realize you'll be much better served with me. No woman in her right mind would want to be married to the pig MacNare."
He sounded as though he knew what he was talking about. She decided to believe him for the simple reason that she really didn't have any other choice. She did wish she had some of his confidence, though, and wanted to lean into his side just to be close to his strength. She didn't give in to her urge, however, because she thought it would make her appear weak to him, and she wasn't weak at all. No, no, she was just nervous. That was all.
As soon as she realized everyone was staring at her, she forced a smile and straightened her shoulders. "I hope I don't make a mess of my vows. I haven't had time to think about what I should say to you. I was wondering…"
"No, we aren't going to wait. You'll do fine."
Responding to the worry he heard in her voice, he reassured her again before she could get even more worked up. "It will be over and done with before you know it."
She knew he thought she was talking about the ceremony, and she didn't correct him now. She had been concerned about making a muck of her vows, but she knew she'd get them said one way or another. It was the future that still made her apprehensive. It was all so irrevocable. Connor was an unknown. So was MacNare, she reminded herself. Wouldn't she have been apprehensive with him as well?
She stared straight ahead and stood where she was for a full minute without saying another word while she once again considered all the ramifications of what she was about to do.
In the end, she decided she would have to put her destiny in God's hands.
"There's no going back now, Connor MacAlister."