He nodded, for he'd heard the conviction in her voice and knew her mind was finally made up. "Nay, lass, there isn't."
She walked ahead of him now, her head high, her determination strong. "This had better be simple."
It would be simple, for he believed she had finally come to her senses and was going to be reasonable.
He should have known better.
Nothing was ever simple with the woman. They were eventually married, but honest to God, it took forever to get from the beginning of the ceremony to the end. His bride was entirely responsible, of course. She became so obviously distraught during the priest's long-winded dissertation on the merits of the holy sacrament of matrimony, she simply couldn't stand still. Connor forced himself to be patient and didn't get the least bit angry, or even disgruntled.
He did get dizzy, though. So did all the others. Two of his men had to close their eyes so they could maintain their balance. Sinclair was in much the same condition, and all because he made the mistake of trying to keep up with the bride.
It all started out simply enough. When the priest instructed the couple to stand side by side and face him, Brenna hurried to obey. She seemed eager to cooperate, and Connor naturally assumed she was in as much of a hurry as he was to get it done.
He really should have known better.
"Laird, if your followers would form a half-circle behind you, they may all be witnesses to this joyful event."
"There, now," he said once the men were where he thought they should be. "Lady Brenna, are you ready to begin?"
The priest smiled. "You look radiant, lass," he whispered. He simply couldn't stop himself from blurting out a bit of praise, but he was quick to catch the men's frowns of disapproval, remembering then that Highlanders were known to be prickly about their women being given any attention by other men, and he realized too late that the peculiarity must also extend to men of the cloth.
He hurried to repair the damage he might have done. "Your bride realizes her good fortune, Laird, and that is why she looks radiant. I meant only to remark upon that fact."
Connor couldn't imagine why the priest had suddenly become so agitated. He nodded just to placate him so he would proceed with his duty of blessing the union.
Sinclair cleared his throat, made the sign of the cross, and then began his sermon on the responsibilities each would accept once they were truly husband and wife.
Brenna started out looking serene and somewhat relaxed with her hands down at her sides. Connor quickly tired of listening to the priest. She hung on to the man's every word. When she started shifting from foot to foot, Connor thought she was as bored as he was. Then she started wringing her hands together, a telltale indication that trouble was coming.
"Lady Brenna, please turn to your laird while you proclaim your vows."
She didn't hesitate in complying with the instruction, but Connor saw the panic in her eyes the second she looked up at him. The color had left her face, and he hoped to God she wouldn't faint before the priest finished.
He waited for her to speak, but after a long minute of silence, he decided he would. He made quick work of the duty with a brisk promise to protect and honor her.
Several of his men grunted their approval.
It didn't take him any time at all. It took her the rest of the evening.
"It's your turn now, lass," the priest coaxed when she remained silent. "You must proclaim your vows.
Your hesitation makes me think you might be changing your mind. Could that be true?"
She frantically shook her head. "I mean to marry him, Father. I am searching for just the right words," she explained. "It's important that I get it right."
Those were the last coherent words she spoke for a long, long while. She started pacing while she worried over each and every word she would say. She circled the priest several times, then widened her circle to include all of them. No one was left guessing what she was thinking about, because she spoke each confusing thought out loud as she paced. Connor knew she wasn't aware of what she was doing, and as soon as he gave up watching her, he stopped being dizzy.
Around and around she went, until Sinclair was visibly reeling from turning so she would have his full attention. She explained she, too, meant to protect and honor Connor, just as he had promised her, but unlike the man she was marrying, she felt the need to expound at length upon those two vows with one qualification after another; yet she never quite finished any one thought.
It was apparent she wasn't going to stop until she had it all worked out, and Connor didn't even try to intervene. He relaxed his stance, folded his arms across his chest, and closed his eyes.
The priest thought the laird looked bored, but every once in a while a quick smile would appear on his face, and Sinclair knew Connor had found something amusing in what his bride was saying.
She finally stopped. Connor opened his eyes then, and honest to heaven, he almost laughed out loud. His gentle bride was now standing next to the priest looking quite pleased with herself.
Sinclair seized the opportunity. He latched on to her arm to keep from falling over, but even after the dizziness left him, he didn't let go of her. He meant to keep her from taking another evening stroll.
"Are you finished, lass?" he asked.
Sinclair cast the laird a bewildered look. "Did she get her vows said, then?"
"Would you like me to repeat them, Father?" she asked.
Everyone but Connor shouted no at the same time. She was so startled by their enthusiastic reply, her eyes widened and she took a quick step back.
The priest was the only one who felt the need to apologize. "Do forgive me for raising my voice to you, dear lady. I can't imagine what came over me. I'm certain your laird will answer my question."
Connor wouldn't give her time to protest. He held her gaze steady while he summarized her promises.
"She will honor me, protect me, obey me only when she believes I'm being reasonable—but I shouldn't hold out hope that that day will ever come—try to love me before she's an old woman, and I'd better get it straight in my mind that she will respect me until or unless I do something to prove I'm not worthy, and God save me then. Have I left anything out, Brenna?"
"Nay, Connor," she answered. "You made better sense out of my vows than I did."
The priest paused to mop the sweat from his brow, for the task of getting the couple married had already proven to be a most strenuous undertaking. He then tried to figure out how he could bless them with the bride standing a foot behind him and the groom a good distance ahead of him. He finally gave up on the dilemma, waved his hand about in a wide arc, and ended up blessing everyone.
"You are now man and wife," he announced.
He waited for the resounding cheer to end before suggesting to the laird that he might wish to kiss his bride. He then wondered which one would go to the other. It was the bride's responsibility to go back to her husband's side, of course, but she was still looking quite dazed by it all, and Sinclair doubted she was capable of realizing her duty.
She surprised him, however. She seemed to come to her senses and hurried back to Connor.
The priest was so blissfully relieved the ordeal was finally over and the laird hadn't gotten angry enough to injure the sweet lass's feelings, he added a second blessing just for the two of them.
Connor leaned down to give her a proper kiss and put his hands on her waist to keep her from pulling away from him.
She didn't resist him. In fact, she put her arms around his neck and met him halfway. The look on her face made him think the angels must be smiling, for it was filled with such joy. Was she happy, then?
Connor stared into her eyes while he tried to figure out this dramatic turnabout.
She was about to remind him of his duty when he kissed her. She felt the warmth of his mouth on top of hers for the barest of seconds before he lifted his head and told his men they could eat their supper.
The kiss was nice enough for her to want another, and since Connor was still holding on to her, she thought he might feel the same way.
She was mistaken, however. He gave her his full attention for an altogether different reason. "Now it's going to get simple. Isn't that so, Brenna?"
Though she wasn't at all certain what he was asking her, she agreed just to make him happy. "Yes, it will.
I'm going to be a good wife, Connor."
He didn't look as if he believed her, but she wasn't offended by his attitude. In time he would realize how fortunate he was to have married her.
"There aren't going to be any more complications, are there?"
"No more complications," she agreed. "Will you try to be a good husband?"
He shrugged an answer. She decided he meant he would and deliberately thanked him so he would know he had just agreed.
"What happens now?" she asked.
"Are you hungry?"
"Then we eat."
He finally let go of her. She thanked the priest and invited him to dine with them. Sinclair declined the offer, explaining that because the moon was bright enough, he felt it was his duty to ride to his father's home and spend the night there.
She tried not to feel as though she'd just been abandoned by an old friend. She held her smile, thanked him again, and then stood where she was until he'd taken his leave.
Connor never left her side. She turned to him and, only then, realized she'd taken hold of his hand. She let go immediately and followed him across the clearing.
His men hadn't waited for them. So much for a proper wedding feast, she thought to herself. The Highlanders weren't even sitting down while they ate. They stood in a circle around a jagged boulder, laughing and talking while they enjoyed their food. One of them had placed the supper on a coarse cloth draped over the top of the stone.
It was a dismal affair at best. The second she joined them, a thick silence fell over the group. None of the men would look directly at her either, which only increased her awkwardness.
She felt like a leper. How she wished she could go back home for supper. She pictured her family seated at the great long table, smiling and jesting with one another while they shared their meal. There would be pigeon and fish and perhaps some leftover mutton stew too, and there were always fruit tarts.
Brenna knew she'd soon be wallowing in self-pity if she didn't stop thinking about people she loved and cherished and begin to concentrate on the present. She was hungry, she reminded herself, and if she didn't eat something now, she probably wouldn't get another chance until tomorrow.
Unfortunately, there wasn't much of a variety for her to choose from. There was yellowed cheese, brown bread, and oat cakes. The Highlanders hadn't left any room for her, so she squeezed in between Connor and Quinlan. Her husband hadn't bothered to introduce the rest of the men to her yet. Because she didn't know if it would be considered proper for her to ask their names, she followed their example and didn't speak to any of them. She kept her attention centered on the food and tried not to think about how miserable she felt.
The oat cakes tasted bitter. She wrinkled her nose and took a large drink of water to rid the taste from her mouth, and then, because it would have been unladylike for her to put the remainder back or throw it away, she made herself finish it.
She was so nervous, she took another one before she realized what she was doing. She had to eat the thing, of course, and odd, but the taste did improve considerably, especially when she added a piece of sweetened bread to it.
Brenna didn't notice when the others finished. She ate four large helpings before her hunger was appeased. When she looked up to find out what was going to happen next, she found she had an audience intently watching her.
She was taken aback by their attention… and their smiles. "Is something wrong?"
Quinlan answered with a quick shake of his head. "Would you like the rest of the bread? There's one last oat cake as well. You're welcome to it, mi'lady."
Brenna nodded. "If no one else wants it," she agreed. She took the remaining bread and cake, broke both in half and offered some to Connor first, and after he refused, she offered it to the other soldiers.
Everyone declined. They continued to stare intently at her while she ate the food, and she found she didn't like being the center of attention any more than she appreciated being completely ignored.
"Whom should I thank for this food?" she asked when she'd finished.
No one answered her, but several of the men shrugged indifference. Their grins were beginning to bother her. She felt as though she were the only one not included in some jest.
She thought about telling the men it was damned rude to gawk, but quickly changed her mind. She shouldn't be using words like damn anyway, she reminded herself, or she'd end up with a day's fast as penance. She couldn't think of anything more atrocious.
"Please tell me why you're smiling," she requested.
"You've impressed the men," Connor answered.
"How have I impressed them?" she asked, pleased that Connor had finally spoken to her.
She straightened her shoulders and waited for the compliment. They'd probably noticed how she'd joined right in, and had been impressed with her because she'd tried to become one of them. Perhaps, too, they'd finally realized how polite she was being. Yes, they'd surely noticed her proper behavior.
"You ate more than Quinlan. In fact, you ate more than all the men."
It wasn't the answer she'd expected. Telling a lady she'd eaten more than a soldier wasn't a compliment; it was an insult. Didn't he understand that? "Quinlan and the others must not have been very hungry," she argued in her defense. "Besides, how much I ate shouldn't be impressive… or noticed by anyone."
He smiled. Lord, he was really quite attractive when he wasn't glaring at her. "We think it is."
She could feel herself blushing. She considered lying so they wouldn't think she was a glutton or a pig, then decided to be honest instead. She was going to have to eat with the rude barbarians again and again, after all, and they'd surely notice if she lied now and then ate until she was full at the next meal.
"I didn't eat as much as usual," she finally admitted.
"You sometimes eat more, mi'lady?" a soldier asked.
He looked incredulous. She gave him a reproving look to let him know what she thought of his behavior.
" 'Tis the truth I do."