He was gone a long while. By the time he returned to the hall, her stomach was growling for food and she was so sleepy, she could barely hold her head up.
Her husband's manner was brisk now, and she noticed that though he'd had no difficulty whatsoever lingering during his reunion with his stepmother, he couldn't show his wife half as much consideration.
"There are four chambers upstairs, Brenna. The kitchens are in a separate building behind the hall, should you ever feel the need to go there."
He clasped hold of her hand and led her up the staircase. She was thankful the steps weren't nearly as steep as the ones leading up from the soldiers' quarters.
"Why is there a banister here and not below? Was there a reason for not building one?"
"Yes," he answered. "Are you really hungry?"
"I could eat a little something. I'm still waiting for you to tell me why there isn't a railing."
"It's easier to push soldiers down, that's why."
She thought he was jesting. When he didn't smile, she changed her mind. "That's rather impolite, isn't it?"
He didn't understand she was teasing him and apparently didn't feel her question merited an answer.
When they reached the landing, he motioned to the dark hallway behind her. "There are three chambers there. Our bedroom is on the other side of the landing, straight ahead of you."
She didn't move fast enough to suit him. He pulled her along and stopped only after they'd entered the chamber. The door slammed shut behind him with a resounding thud. It was completely dark inside.
Connor crossed the chamber and pulled back the covering over the window to let the light come in.
Brenna let out a sigh of relief because the room wasn't nearly as bad as she thought it would be. There was a nice-sized hearth at one end of the chamber and a bed at the opposite end. Two low chests flanked the sides, with several candles on top of each. Other than a few hooks placed high up on the wall beside the door, there wasn't anything more to be noticed.
She hurried over to the window to see the view and immediately wished she hadn't bothered. Straight ahead was the courtyard and then the ruins, a gloomy picture to be sure, and since she didn't want to dwell on the past now, she went to the bed to find out if it was lumpy or soft.
"It's a very nice bed," she remarked. "And so is the room. You live like a peasant, don't you, Connor, without any unnecessary luxuries?"
"Does that bother you?"
"No," she answered. "May I have a bath?"
"Tomorrow I'll take you to the lake."
"Tonight, if you please?"
He relented. "I'll have a bath prepared. You'll have to wait while the water is heated in the kitchens and carried up."
She shook her head. "I would not put your staff to such trouble. I could bathe in the kitchens, couldn't I?"
He wasn't surprised by her thoughtfulness because he'd already noticed she put the concerns of others before her own, no matter how much she was inconvenienced. Or injured, he thought to add, for she had put Grace's safety above her own.
"Yes, you may bathe in the kitchens."
"May I also eat there?"
"If you wish."
He opened the door to leave, but hesitated at the threshold, frowning as he noticed once again the dark shadows under her eyes. In the soft light they seemed more pronounced. He felt responsible for her exhaustion because he'd pushed her too hard, and while he regretted putting her through such a difficult ordeal, there really hadn't been any other choice. MacNare and his soldiers had been gaining on them, and getting her to safety far outweighed her need for sleep.
"I want you to rest."
"Will you rest beside me?"
"Now that Euphemia is here, are you still intent on leaving tomorrow?"
"Do you think she liked me?"
"Of course she liked you. You shouldn't need my reassurance."
"Will she stay with us a long while?"
"I hope so," he answered on his way out the door. "I haven't asked."
"Please don't forget to send one of your men to find Gilly."
"I won't forget. Any other questions?"
Neither his gruff attitude nor his frown deterred her. She hurried over to the doorway, leaned up on her tiptoes, and kissed him. She was very thorough. Connor put his arm around her waist, hauled her up against him, and kissed her a second time, far more passionately than he'd intended to and not nearly as long as he wanted. She ended the kiss by pulling away from him. She saw the bewilderment in his eyes, turned around so he wouldn't see her smile, and then thought to tell him he could now take his leave.
He was halfway down the stairs before he realized he'd been dismissed.
Quinlan had to tell him he was smiling. The soldier wanted to know why his laird was happy, leaving Connor no choice but to admit he didn't have the faintest idea.
Although it wasn't possible, the ruins of Connor's father's home seemed to have moved closer, and no matter where Brenna stood in the room, whenever she looked outside, the destruction was all she could see.
She couldn't stop staring at the depressing sight. She knew his father had died there, but had Connor witnessed his death? She hoped he hadn't because she couldn't even begin to imagine how painful it would be to watch her own dear father die.
A knock on her door was a welcome intrusion to such sad thoughts. A soldier carried in her baggage, and the minute she was left alone again, she pulled out a change of clothing, her brush and two ribbons, and hurried downstairs.
There wasn't a soul on the main floor, and not a sound could be heard coming from outside. She didn't like the silence at all. She was used to being surrounded by family, servants, and visitors, and she knew it was going to take time for her to adjust to the change.
The cook was coming to fetch her and had pushed the back door open just as Brenna was reaching for the handle. It took the woman a moment to recover from her surprise. She backed down the steps, bowed low, and introduced herself in such a low voice, it was as though she were confessing her sins to a priest and didn't wish to be overheard. Her name was Ada. She was twice Brenna's height, extremely rounded in her middle, and had enough gray in her braid to suggest she was getting on in years.
Both her gentle manner and soft voice reminded Brenna of her mother, and she took to the woman at once. Ada was just as bossy as Brenna's mother, too. Once she assisted her mistress into the steaming water, Ada refused to give her any soap until Brenna promised not to wash her hair.
The two women conversed with one another using a combination of Gaelic and gestures. Ada spoke with a brogue so thick and garbled, Brenna could catch only a word or two out of her long, rambling explanations. She finally pointed to the stitches on her mistress's forehead, frowned, and vehemently shook her head. Brenna concluded she didn't want her to get the stitches wet.
Ada didn't notice the bruise on the back of her thigh until she helped Brenna get out of the wooden tub.
The older woman clucked over her like a mother hen, and in her attempt to show how sympathetic she was, she pounded so roughly on Brenna's shoulder, she very nearly sent Brenna sailing across the kitchen.
After wrapping the laird's new wife in a blanket, Ada demanded to know the story behind Brenna's injuries. Brenna tried several times to explain the circumstances, but the only words the woman understood were those conveying the fact that she'd fallen down the steps.
Brenna tried to put on the clothes she'd brought down from her baggage, but Ada wouldn't let her. She snatched the garments out of her hands and handed her new clothing instead. Brenna knew Connor was responsible for the thoughtfulness because Ada kept bowing her head and saying "Laird MacAlister"
over and over again.
Ten minutes later, Brenna was dressed in a pale gold gown with a MacAlister plaid overskirt.
Ada insisted on helping her get to the kitchen's table. Telling the woman she didn't need her assistance proved useless. The woman's mind was already made up, and it was futile to argue.
Brenna didn't have any idea what it was she had been given to eat, but the flavor and the aroma were so wonderful she had to have a large second helping. Both the food and Ada's companionship invigorated her. She wasn't ready to go to bed after all and decided to explore outside until dark.
The minute she stepped outside the kitchen door, she heard men shouting. The noise seemed to be coming from the courtyard. It sounded as though quite a crowd had gathered, with everyone trying to be heard at the same time, and Brenna was curious to find out what was happening. She saw some men running up the slope toward the front of the keep, their expressions grim. Instinctively, she proceeded more cautiously.
By the time she reached the side of the keep, the courtyard was silent. She thought the soldiers must have continued on toward the crest, but when she turned the corner and saw them standing in a wide circle, she came to an abrupt stop.
As one, the soldiers stared toward the center of the circle. They seemed transfixed. Brenna noticed that three of the men were wearing plaids different from the MacAlister's. They were the only ones who moved at all. She saw their fearful expressions each time they glanced up to look at her husband. Connor was on the far side of the circle. Had he looked up, he would have seen her standing there, watching, but like the others, his attention was on the ground.
The collective mood of the men told her something was terribly wrong.
She kept her gaze on her husband as she walked forward, and hoped he would look up at her so she would know whether to come forward or turn away. His rigid stance should have been sufficient warning, yet she was still unprepared for what she was about to see.
She found an opening between two MacAlister soldiers, moved closer, and stood up on her tiptoes trying to see over the shoulders of the men standing in front of her. Just then one of the men moved over a bit and suddenly she was able to look down at the ground and see what the others were staring at.
She saw the bloody remains of an animal with a knotted rope twisted about its neck, and at first glance she didn't understand the significance. Then she noticed what was left of the braided mane and the pretty pink ribbon tied into a perfect little bow.
The impact struck her like a blow. Bile rushed up to her throat, and with it came her low whimper of pain.
She was looking at her own sweet Gilly.
Connor faced his wife in the circle and waited for her to look at him. He could tell she didn't immediately understand what she was looking at. He hoped to God she wouldn't recognize the horse, even though he knew in his heart she would. Why hadn't he taken the time to remove the damned ribbon the second he'd seen it? Surely that was the only way she would ever have known it was Gilly.
He ached for her. The pain he saw in her eyes at the moment of recognition made him come close to losing his control. It took all his willpower to stand perfectly still. She made a low sound. He was certain Hugh's soldiers would think it was just the whisper of the wind, for one man looked up at the sky before turning back to Connor.
Brenna put her hand to her throat, took a step back, and frantically sought out Connor.
He wanted to go to her, but he didn't move and, in fact, knew he couldn't show her any compassion until after the soldiers had taken their leave. Hugh's men would return to their laird to report the MacAlister's reaction, and Connor would be damned for eternity before he would let any outsider know what he thought about the message MacNare had sent him.
He was worried his wife would scream or break down in front of the witnesses. He wouldn't blame her, for she felt great affection for her pet, but he prayed she would walk away first. He tried to help her, holding her gaze for a long moment, willing her with his silence and his mask of cold indifference to follow his lead. He knew he was asking too much of her and honestly didn't know if she could give him what he wanted. Yet, just as he made up his mind to order her back inside, he saw her hand drop down to her side and the color rush back into her face. She straightened to her full height, shuddered once, and gave him a barely perceptible nod.
She gave him far more than he'd expected. She looked at Hugh's soldiers, and honest to God, there was a faint smile on her face as though she wanted to welcome them to her home but knew she shouldn't until her laird introduced her.
Dear God, he was proud of her. She appeared to be only mildly curious as she studied each man's face, and when she finished her inspection, she glanced at Connor one last time, bowed to him, and then turned around and walked away with all the dignity and regal bearing of a princess.
Everyone watched her leave. Several servants waited by the side of the keep for their mistress, and as Brenna walked past them, one called out to her.
"Mi'lady, what are the men looking at?"
"Just a dead horse," she called out. "Nothing more."
She continued on at a leisurely pace, and only when she had disappeared around the corner did Hugh's soldiers turn back to Connor. They were staggered by the grin they saw on Laird MacAlister's face.
The senior of the emissaries addressed the laird. "Hugh is concerned you'll decide he had something to do with this."
Crispin stepped forward to answer for his laird. He towered over the soldier, forcing the man to take a hasty step back.
"Hugh has no reason to be concerned. Our laird knows who sent the message."
"You've completed your errand," Quinlan announced. "Leave now and let us get back to important matters."
Several of the MacAlister warriors nodded their agreement, and the messenger noted they were all smiling like their laird.
"Do I report your laird was inconvenienced and nothing more?"
"Report what you will," Connor answered. "It makes no difference to me."
"Do you want us to take the remains with us?"
"Leave it for our dogs," Crispin suggested.
Connor nodded before he walked away.
The messenger wouldn't forget what he had witnessed, and when he stood before his laird, he would report only that Laird MacAlister had been vastly amused by the enemy's message.
Brenna made it to the bedroom before she started gagging. She was able to keep the food in her stomach by taking deep breaths and forcing herself to block the image of Gilly.
When her nausea slowly subsided, she sat down on the side of the bed, gripped her hands together in her lap, and tried to make sense out of the horror. She didn't weep, for mourning, she believed, should be reserved for men, not animals, and it became a measure of her control that she not give in to the desire.