"I won't jest, but you still won't believe me. Your wife took over the duty."
"I don't believe you."
Quinlan nudged Crispin. "He did forget her," he whispered.
As soon as they reached the stables, Connor pulled the doors wide before either one of his soldiers could get ahead of him to see to the duty.
The stablemaster came running. He bowed to his laird and was about to welcome him back to the keep when Connor interrupted him.
"Davis, is my stallion in his stall?"
"He is, Laird, and as content as I've ever seen."
"Then you didn't have your usual difficulty getting him to settle down?"
"I was saved from the task by your lady. She certainly has a way with animals, Laird, but I'm sure you already knew that. She soothed the anger out of the beast in no time at all. Your stallion was happy to let her lead him to his quarters."
Connor knew Davis was telling him the truth, as difficult as it was to believe.
"Where is Lady MacAlister now?"
"She spotted Ewan's wife giving their bairn the afternoon air. I'm thinking that was where she was headed."
Connor nodded and walked away. He paused once when Davis called out, "You've chosen well, Laird."
Brenna had already left Ewan's cottage, however. While the blushing mother explained she'd been thrilled to have her mistress's undivided attention, she seemed far more interested in praising Brenna than in telling Connor where she'd gone.
"She insisted on holding the baby and didn't mind at all that he hadn't had his bath yet. She has a special way with children, Laird. My little one is usually suspicious of strangers, but he took to her right away.
Your wife's a dear lass, and from England, of all scandalous places. She's thoughtful as can be. She hurried over to meet Brocca when she noticed her staring out at her through the window."
His patience was nearly gone by the time he finally caught up with Brenna. She had already left Brocca's cottage and was just about to knock on another door when he stopped her.
She didn't look especially pleased to see him. He couldn't believe she dared to trown at him after she'd caused him so much trouble.
"You forgot me, didn't you?" She folded her arms and continued to frown at him.
Connor wasn't at all impressed with the way she tried to intimidate him. He moved closer so that she was forced to tilt her head back in order to look up at him, and then said, "You will not take that tone with me."
She didn't back away as he expected her to do, but she did soften her voice when she next spoke to him.
"May I speak plainly, Connor?"
"No, you may not. You may follow me back to the keep now, however."
He turned to leave. She stood her ground.
"Are you defying me?" he asked.
"No, Laird, I'm not defying you. I am waiting."
"Waiting for what?"
"For you to admit you forgot me."
"I did no such thing."
"Then you do not plan to apologize?"
She saw the incredulous look that came over his face and knew the thought had never entered his mind.
Dear heavens, changing Connor from a barbarian into a considerate husband was going to take every ounce of her patience. But, she had pushed him far enough today, and she didn't dare add another word of criticism until he'd recovered. In her estimation, it was a fair start.
Connor was considering tossing his wife over his shoulder and carrying her to the keep when she suddenly smiled at him and took hold of his hand. He didn't understand what had caused the transformation, but he didn't question her. He had pushed her far enough for one day, and now that he'd made her realize she must not challenge him or contradict him, he believed he'd made a fair start. He knew it was going to take him a long time to help her learn to be more disciplined.
As soon as he moved back toward the path, she noticed again the soldier standing next to Quinlan.
"Brenna, in future, don't make me chase after you."
She nodded agreement because her husband seemed to require it, then looked at Quinlan. "He did forget about me, didn't he?"
Connor squeezed her hand to let her know what he thought about her question.
"It would seem he did, mi'lady."
"Thank you for reminding him."
"I didn't," Quinlan replied, nodding to his left. "Crispin did."
She smiled at the soldier. "Thank you, Crispin." She would have officially introduced herself to the soldier, but he looked rather dazed, and she decided he was busy thinking about something more important.
Quinlan laughed at the expression on Crispin's face. His friend was looking quite stunned. "She takes your breath away, doesn't she, Crispin?"
The soldier nodded. He motioned to Quinlan to wait so that they could have a moment alone and follow at a more discreet distance.
"I've never seen Connor act this way. He doesn't usually allow any woman to make him lose his patience."
"She isn't just any woman. She's his wife. I think he likes having her around."
Crispin smiled. "I'd like having her around too, if I were married to her. She's very beautiful, isn't she? I don't think I've ever seen a woman so bonny."
"Connor doesn't notice."
The two men shared a laugh. Brenna glanced back over her shoulder to smile at them.
"Our mistress isn't easily intimidated." There was admiration in Crispin's voice when he made the remark.
"If she were the least bit timid, Connor would walk all over her. Do you remember what he told us about Isabelle?"
"He told us very little. He doesn't remember his mother."
"That is so, but he remembers every word his father said to him before he died."
Crispin nodded. "Donald called his wife his own sweet Isabelle. He loved her."
"But Donald cautioned his son not to make the same mistake."
"Connor knew he was only warning him to be careful. If you had seen the way the Lady Brenna and he looked at one another when they first met, you would conclude what I have."
"And what is that?"
Quinlan stared at Brenna as he gave his answer. "She's going to be Connor's own sweet love."
Crispin clasped his hands behind his back while he considered what Quinlan had just told him. Like his friend, he also wanted his laird to find peace and contentment. But love? He didn't know if Connor would ever let himself feel such an emotion.
"I've never heard you talk like this."
"I've never seen Connor act like this."
Quinlan shrugged. "There have been sparks flying between the two of them from the very beginning. It's as though Connor were struck by a bolt. He's going to give his heart to her because he won't be able to stop it from happening. Quit frowning, Crispin. She has a good heart."
The two soldiers continued to follow behind the couple at a leisurely pace while Crispin caught Quinlan up on the latest news. Brenna didn't realize she was being discussed by the men, and she certainly didn't know she was being watched so closely. Connor was forcing her to run in order to keep up with him, and she soon decided she had had enough. She suddenly stopped. Connor was either going to have to drag her behind him or let go of her. She would leave the choice up to him.
"Why did you stop?"
"I got tired of running."
A smile softened his expression. "Why didn't you tell me to slow down?"
"I wanted to keep up. I didn't realize I was so weary this afternoon. I'm sure I'll recover after we have our supper. Could we sit a spell until then?"
He moved back to her side. "We already ate our evening meal, remember? You cannot still be hungry."
She shrugged. There really wasn't any use in pretending with her husband that she had a dainty appetite.
"I could eat a little something," she admitted. "I was a bit nervous meeting Alec and by the time we sat down at the table, I couldn't concentrate on food. I barely ate a thing. I can't imagine why you're laughing, Connor. I haven't told you a jest."
He didn't apologize, of course. She doubted he ever would. He stopped laughing, though, and she was most appreciative.
"Would it help if I carried you?"
His suggestion didn't sit well with her. "And have your followers think you married a weakling? I'll crawl first."
She straightened her shoulders, tugged her hand away from his, and tried to hurry past him. She didn't get very far. He caught her around her waist and forced her into his side. He didn't have to tell her to lean against him. She was too weary to even consider struggling. She sagged against him and let out a little sigh. She didn't dare close her eyes for even a second for fear she'd fall asleep on her feet if she did. God only knew, she'd done it before.
"You've had a difficult day."
"No, I haven't."
"Do you have to disagree with everything I say?"
"I was simply giving you my opinion. We've yet to argue, Connor. Once we do, you'll know the difference. Please let go of me as soon as we reach the courtyard. I don't want your followers to think I can't stand without assistance."
In frustration, she threaded her fingers through her hair, then grimaced as she touched her injury. "I never seem to say the right thing to you. Everything's so different here. I don't like chaos, and it seems to me that my life has been extremely chaotic since I met you. I want to live in peace."
"It's going to become much easier for you now."
She didn't look as though she believed him. "Do you promise?"
He smiled. "I promise."
She managed to smile back and relax. He didn't know if it had been his calm voice or his promise that had soothed her.
"I don't like surprises," she remarked as she moved closer to his side again. "Unless, of course, I know about them in advance."
She sounded sincere enough for him to think she didn't realize she'd just contradicted herself. "If you know in advance, it isn't a surprise."
"Exactly so," she reasoned. "Tell me how it will become easier."
"You won't have to worry about pleasing me. I'm rarely here."
"I don't worry about pleasing you now. But I don't understand why you're rarely here. This is your home."
"And I'm here."
"I realize that. We'll see each other now and again."
They had finally reached the courtyard proper. It was deserted.
"You mentioned you would only be here every now and again?" she asked, sorry her voice sounded so strained.
His mind was on an entirely different matter. Crispin's report that their ally to the south wanted Connor to see something that had been left at his border had made him curious, and he was guessing what the something might be. Because of the life he'd led, he was naturally suspicious and had already concluded the surprise wasn't going to be welcome. He wasn't an impatient man when important issues were at stake, and so he once again decided to wait and see before he contemplated his response.
Brenna's question pulled him away from his thoughts. "Exactly how often is 'now and again'?"
"Once or twice a month."
The more he told her, the less she wanted to hear. "A husband should be home with his wife more often than twice a month."
"I have other more important duties."
She felt as though he were abandoning her. Worse, she believed he was eager to do just that.
"Why bother to come back at all?"
He decided to ignore the anger in her voice. "Several reasons come to mind. The most compelling one is you."
A little of her irritation eased away. "Me?" she whispered, hoping he would redeem himself by giving her some praise.
"I want children."
She wanted to throttle him. "You mentioned you did."
"I'm pleased you remember."
"I remember everything you said to me: you married me to insult MacNare, and you'll be happy to take me back to England as soon as I give you a son. I doubt I'll ever forget those two important facts. Your reasons make me feel so very worthy."
"Would you rather I lied to you?"
She shook her head. "I would rather we never, ever talk about this again. You may explain your duties and your expectations the next time you happen to pass by the area. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'd like to go inside."
"I will call my followers together and introduce you to them as soon as Donald returns with the younger soldiers."
"You needn't go to any trouble, Connor. I already have one black mark against me; I might as well have another."
"What black mark?" he called out.
He stood in the center of the courtyard, his attention fully on his wife. Her behavior was most perplexing.
She'd hurried on ahead of him, but hadn't gone to the steps leading inside the keep. No, she'd gone to the center of the wall and was now pacing back and forth along the front of the keep.
It was obvious he'd upset her, and while he knew he was fully responsible, he couldn't understand how it had happened. His goal had been to soothe her, yet one word had led to another, and before he realized what the outcome would be, she was getting teary eyed. He believed he'd been thoughtful by telling her he wouldn't be home very often. Yet she acted as though he'd just betrayed her. How in God's name would he ever make sense out of her?
"Explain this black mark," he ordered when she didn't immediately answer him.
"I'm English, for the love of God, and everyone knows I was on my way to marry MacNare. Surely you understand what I'm up against? Oh, and I'm clumsy too," she told her husband. "I forgot about that.
What have you done with your steps? I can't seem to find them."
"They're on the side of the keep," he answered.
"I fell down Alec's steps, remember?"
Crispin had just caught up with Connor and turned to his laird. "Mi'lady fell down steps?"
"It seems she did," he replied.
Connor would have taken the time to explain if he hadn't noticed his wife was about to go around to the wrong side of the keep. "The steps are on the opposite side, Brenna."