He caught hold of her hand and held tight. She tried to pull away, but he tightened his grip. She was quite helpless now, and he knew it. She gave him a quick frown to let him know what she thought about his behavior.
He winked at her.
Alec was trying hard not to laugh. The look she'd just given Connor did amuse him, though. He recognized it too, for it was similar to the wait-until-I-get-you-alone expression his Jamie often cast him when she was dying to voice her opinion and knew she shouldn't.
"You've still to appease my curiosity, Brenna," Alec told her.
She forced a smile for the laird and tried to remember what they'd been talking about. Connor had winked at her. What in heaven's name had come over him?
"Brenna, answer my brother," Connor instructed.
God help her, his eyes had turned so wonderfully warm. Why did such a handsome warrior have to be so difficult all the time? She let out a little sigh while she thought about that.
"I would be happy to answer your brother."
Both brothers waited a good long while for her to do just that. Alec took mercy on her before Connor did. He reminded her of their topic.
"You were about to explain how you knew Connor wouldn't give you to MacNare."
"It's simple, really. I wouldn't let him."
"Of course you wouldn't," Jamie interjected just to show she supported Brenna's belief.
Alec laughed. His reaction puzzled Brenna. Connor didn't laugh; he did smile, though, and she found his reaction just as bewildering.
Connor was still smiling as he pulled her behind him to the doors leading outside. He was just about to dismiss the matter from his mind when she asked him why her answer had amused him.
"I wasn't amused. I was pleased."
"All right," she agreed. "Why were you pleased?"
"Because you believe you're strong enough to enforce your decisions."
Jamie came up behind the two of them and gained Connor's full attention when she told him he was wrong. "She doesn't believe she's strong enough to enforce her wants on you. I believe she realizes she's intelligent enough to find another way to get whatever she wants."
"Our fathers didn't raise ignorant daughters, and it's your mistake to believe otherwise," Brenna said.
"Isn't that so?" Jamie asked her husband, who stood behind her.
Alec knew better than to disagree with his wife, as the issue seemed important to her. "Yes, that is so."
Connor held one of the doors open for his wife. Jamie gave Brenna a farewell hug, then wrapped her arms around Connor, whispered something into his ear that made him smile, and gave him a kiss on his cheek.
"Come home more often," she ordered him before moving away from the door so they could go outside.
Quinlan's eyes widened in disbelief the second he saw his mistress. She noticed his concern, shook her head at him, and pulled her hair down to hide her stitches. Quinlan didn't say anything.
They all noticed how she favored her left side coming down the steps. Connor tried to be gentle with her when he lifted her onto her horse, but she still grimaced in pain.
Connor's farewell to his brother made her forget about her discomfort. She almost laughed out loud, so amusing was his action, for instead of bowing to his brother or grasping his hand to say his good-bye, he slammed the flat of his hand against his shoulder. Alec pounded him back. Once the barbaric show of affection was finished, Connor swung up behind Brenna and put his arm around her waist.
He leaned down close to her ear and whispered, "You've only a short ride before you're home."
Alec patiently stood by their side, waiting until his wife had finished saying her good-byes and gone back inside to find Grace. As soon as the door closed behind her, he turned to Brenna. His expression showed his amusement. "My daughter has a special fondness for her plaid."
"Is that so?" she asked, wondering why he wanted to discuss Grace's blanket now.
Alec nodded. "She can tell hers from another by the scent. At least that is what my wife believes. Jamie must be right, because Grace knows when one has been substituted for another. She likes to wrap herself up in the blanket while she sleeps. She'll have need for it tonight, Brenna, or my wife and I will get little rest."
Connor could tell from his wife's puzzled expression she didn't understand what Alec was asking. "He wants you to give it back, Brenna," he said.
Her face turned the color of a sunburn in less time than it took to blink. She almost dropped the plaid when she moved her elbow away and handed it to Alec. "I can't imagine how I forgot to put it down on the stool. I did have every intention of doing just that, but I became involved in our discussion and must have…"
She stopped trying to come up with a logical explanation for her behavior when Alec put his hand on top of hers. He looked as though he wanted to say something important to her, and she instinctively tensed in anticipation.
"My wife will be over the first of the week to plant your flowers, Brenna."
"Thank you, Laird."
"Alec was thanking you," Connor told her.
"I realize that. I was thanking him for showing me such kindness."
"If I were not so grateful to you for coming to my daughter's assistance, I would have to take issue with you for believing Connor and I wouldn't notice anything was amiss. We notice everything."
"For two intelligent women, you both misjudged us," Connor said.
"Aye, you did," Alec agreed. He removed his hand and stepped back. "You do understand that it was our decision that allowed you to win your wager, but you need not thank us for our thoughtfulness.''
She laughed again. "You believe you let me win? I think not, Laird."
He raised his eyebrow. "We deliberately pretended not to notice."
"That is so," she agreed. "And you would be right to believe you favored the outcome if your observation had been what we wagered about. Jamie and I knew you would notice."
"What was the wager over?" Connor asked, a hint of a smile in his voice.
"Jamie was sure you wouldn't be able to keep silent and would demand to know what happened as soon as you looked at me. I wagered you wouldn't say a word, and if my memory serves me, I do believe that is exactly what happened."
"One is the same as the other," Connor argued.
"Is it?" she asked with an innocent smile and a look that told him she thought he was wrong.
"Admit it, Connor. The victory belongs to Brenna," Alec conceded.
"It does," Connor agreed.
"Will Jamie bring Grace with her when she plants my flowers?"
"No, I don't let my children leave my land. Connor, I'll be riding with my wife. I expect you to be there."
Alec shoved him once again to show his affection, before striding back toward his home. Grace must have been waiting just inside the doors, for as soon as Alec pulled one open, she ran to him and snatched her blanket out of his hand.
Once she and Connor were on their way, Brenna made herself more comfortable by shifting her weight on his lap and wrapping her arms around his waist.
"I was sorry I didn't get to say good-bye to Grace."
"She's busy explaining her conduct to her father now."
"What will he do to her? It was an accident, Connor. Surely Alec won't hurt her tender feelings."
"She and Dillon are not allowed upstairs alone. Alec will simply remind Grace to obey his orders."
"Are the other children as carefree?"
"No. The boys are shy of strangers, but God help you once they get used to you. They're far more devilish than Grace is."
"I fear she will always be my favorite."
Connor was deliberately trying to keep up the idle conversation so Brenna wouldn't notice the number of Kincaid soldiers riding escort. He didn't want her to become concerned about Alec's reasons. She might even assume MacNare was somehow responsible for his brother's outrageously protective gesture.
He knew he was going to have to put up with his brother's interference. He wasn't happy about it, though. Neither was Quinlan, but unlike his laird, he wasn't trying to hide his irritation.
"I would not make a favorite of one of my children," she assured him.
He didn't have anything to say about that. She wanted to keep him talking, in hopes that the conversation would take her mind off the pain nagging her now. Her head was throbbing, and her thigh was once again burning something fierce.
He realized what her goal was as soon as she shifted position in his lap again.
"I had already left home before Dillon and Grace were born," he remarked. "I am closest to Mary Kathleen, as I know her better than the others. Still, I will admit I have a special fondness for Grace, but only because she reminds me of someone else."
She tried to look up at him, but he gently pushed her face against his chest so she couldn't. She pinched him to let him know how much she disliked that and then asked him to tell her who Grace reminded him of.
"A child I once held in my arms."
He wouldn't tell her anything more, but the memory of the child he'd held had pleased him. The warmth in his voice told her so.
"Are you pleased Euphemia is coming to visit?"
"Yes. You aren't, though, are you?"
"Of course I am," she argued. "I'm just a little… apprehensive about meeting her. It's very important to win her approval," she added. "She's your mother, after all, and it would be very upsetting if she didn't like me."
She couldn't believe he needed to ask. "Because there must be harmony in your household, that's why, and it's up to me to see to her wishes. While she's in your home, she's mistress. Surely you understand now."
"You worry about every little thing. She'll like you just fine."
She wasn't as certain as Connor was, but she vowed to win Euphemia's love. Several minutes passed as she thought about different ways she could please the woman, and then she put the worry aside and moved on. She tried to think about the lovely time she'd had visiting with Jamie as a means of taking her mind off the pounding her thigh was taking. It didn't work.
"It's a good day for a walk, isn't it?"
He didn't answer her. She wasn't deterred. "I believe I'd like to walk for a little while. It will be nice to stretch my legs."
"No." He softened his denial by brushing his chin across the top of her head. "Would it help if I carry you facedown across my lap?"
His suggestion horrified her. She pictured herself flung over his knees with her head hanging down on one side of the stallion and her feet dangling down on the other, and she thought she might die of mortification then and there.
What a wonderful way that would be for her to meet his followers. "I cannot imagine what you think to help with your suggestion. I'm perfectly fine, thank you. I merely thought a walk would be invigorating on such a fine day. Forget I mentioned it."
She had placed pride above comfort, just as he had expected her to do. He moved his hand under her skirts to find out for himself the extent of her injury. He considered stopping to take a look, but quickly discarded the idea. Getting her cooperation would take him an hour, and in another ten minutes, they would reach the division between the lands and be home at last.
His touch felt like a caress. Still, she didn't like it. She went completely still and whispered, "Remove your hand."
"You've got a fair-sized bruise, don't you? Does it hurt?"
"It doesn't hurt at all. Please remove your hand. It's embarrassing."
"An Englishman would give his wife a little sympathy," she muttered.
"I'm not English."
"No, you're not," she agreed. "May I ask you questions about your home?"
"First, please tell me when we'll reach your land."
"Look to the rise above you and you'll see my sentries watching us."
She immediately straightened her appearance. She ran her fingers through her hair to get the tangles out, bumped Connor's shoulder as she smoothed her curls behind her, fixed the pleats of her plaid to her satisfaction, and pinched color into her cheeks.
"What in God's name are you doing?"
He told himself not to ask. He did anyway.
"Because I don't want to look pale."
He shook his head. He had never heard of anything so preposterous.
"How long before we reach your fortress?" she asked.
"Do you mean to tell me we live close to Alec and Jamie?"
"Will I be able to visit as often as I wish?"
Her enthusiasm made her forget her pain. He explained he hadn't built his home in the center of his property, but near the edge of his brother's land, instead. She assumed he'd done so to please Alec.
The MacAlister soldiers let out a cheer in greeting when their laird raised his hand.
"Do they always cheer you when you return home?"
"No, only when I've been away a long time."
"How long were you away then?"
"Almost three weeks."
What had he been doing all that while? She was just about to ask him when she remembered the blue paint on his face. She promptly changed her mind. If she found out he'd been raiding, her good mood would be ruined. She'd ruin his as well because she would feel compelled to let him know what she thought about that barbaric pastime.
She noticed how the soldiers stared at her when they rode past, and even though she smiled at them, they didn't smile back. She started worrying in no time at all.
"Will your followers dislike me because I was supposed to marry MacNare?"
"None of the six soldiers we just passed smiled at me."
"Of course they didn't."
"Because you're my wife. They'll honor you."
"And if I'm not worthy of their honor?"
She thought that was a very thoughtful, kind thing to say to her, and since Connor wasn't a thoughtful or kind man, she immediately became suspicious.
"Because I chose you."
"I chose you, remember?"