"No, it isn't true."
"And you have said you didn't force her."
"No, I didn't force her."
"You left out some rather significant details when you explained you married her."
"Such as?" Connor asked.
Alec didn't immediately answer his question. "Two of MacNare's men have left with three of the English soldiers. They're headed for Baron Haynesworth's holding."
"Who is Baron Haynesworth, Laird Kincaid?" Crispin asked.
"Brenna's father," he answered.
"There were twelve soldiers escorting mi'lady," Quinlan said.
"There are three left. MacNare doesn't like hearing bad news. He holds Brenna's father responsible for raising an independent daughter and is going to demand immediate compensation. I don't know the baron, and therefore cannot predict how he will react to hearing his alliance has been broken, but I know what I would do if I had expected my daughter to marry one man and she ended up with another. I'd go after my daughter and hear the truth from her."
"In other words, you think the baron might lead his troops here."
Connor shrugged. "If it happens, it happens."
"What will you do if her father challenges you?"
"No one's taking her away from me. No one." He hadn't raised his voice, but the force behind each word was just as riveting.
"Would you kill him?" Crispin asked in a voice that sounded only mildly curious.
"It would probably upset my wife if I did," Connor said.
"Probably?" Alec asked. "Of course it would upset her."
"I wouldn't let the retaliation go that far. I'll wait to see what her father does."
Alec nodded, satisfied for the moment that his brother wouldn't do anything rash.
"I wouldn't mention this to Brenna, as there seems little reason to give her such a worry. Though I find it somewhat perplexing, I have learned from watching my wife that women are inclined to worry over every little thing. Jamie was very upset to hear what MacNare had done to Brenna's horse. 'Tis the truth, I was sickened by the vile act as well. Unfortunately, Jamie insisted on hearing every detail from Hugh."
"Laird Hugh came to you?" Quinlan asked.
"He must have ridden through the night," Crispin commented.
"No, he arrived late last evening. One of my sentries led the way. Hugh was in quite a state, but once he'd had enough ale to calm him, he was able to tell me some interesting news. As you know, he has always been against joining MacNare or you. A long time ago, he came to me with his request for protection in the event one of you tried to change his mind for him by force. I assured him that my brother would never do such a thing, of course, and I'm certain I convinced him. I couldn't give him the same assurance regarding MacNare. Hugh wants to live in peace. His grandfather and his father before him both ruled that worthless little stretch of land between you and your enemy, which puts him in an untenable position, because he doesn't have nearly the number of soldiers either one of you have. Hugh has never raised his hand against any man or treated anyone unfairly, and I agreed to give him my assistance. He's an old man who means no harm, Connor, and I won't have him preyed upon."
"I offered him my protection, Alec."
"I know you did, but if he had accepted, his followers would have been slaughtered by MacNare the second you turned your back. The king has a special fondness for the old man and would also be disappointed if anything unfortunate happened to him. I explained all of this to MacNare and told him that as the king's mediator, I will make certain Hugh remains autonomous and is left alone."
"Has MacNare been pressuring him?"
"He has," Alec answered. "Hugh went to MacNare's holding because he'd been invited to attend the celebration after the wedding, but the old man didn't get out of there fast enough and therefore was forced to witness MacNare's unsavory methods in disposing of those who angered him."
"The English soldiers." It was Crispin who stated the obvious. "Were the nine men killed in the same way mi'lady's horse was killed?"
Alec held Connor's stare as he slowly nodded. "Needless to say, Hugh was shaken by what he saw. I hope Brenna never hears about the soldiers. God willing, she'll never find out."
His hope proved false, for Brenna had already heard every word they'd said. She had come in through the back door, heard Alec's voice, and immediately stopped in the hallway to straighten her appearance before she went forward to greet him. She hadn't meant to eavesdrop, until she heard her name spoken.
She deliberately stayed where she was then because she wanted to find out why she was being discussed, and she knew that the minute she joined them, the conversation would stop. Neither Alec nor Connor was whispering, yet their low voices indicated the seriousness of their topic. She knew what she was doing was wrong, but at the moment, she didn't care.
She came close to giving herself away when Alec explained what had happened to nine of her father's soldiers. She was so sickened by the horror she pictured, she doubled over from the pain in her stomach.
Praying for the souls of the men helped her gain a little control, and she vowed that later, when she was alone in her bedroom, she would get down on her knees and ask God to welcome them. As soon as she was finished, she would thank Him too, for sending Connor to her. If he hadn't arrived when he had, she would be married to Satan now. The thought so chilled her, her stomach lurched again.
Concentrating on the conversation in the great hall stopped her from crying out. She forced herself to pay attention by promising herself she could weep for as long as she wanted as soon as she was alone.
"Despite having survived so many years, Hugh's still hopelessly naive," Alec said. "He was in quite a state by the time he returned home, and the very next morning, one of his men came to him to tell him Brenna's horse had been left at his border with a message from MacNare requesting the remains be taken to you, Connor. Hugh felt certain you would wish to see it. Did you know MacNare called it a gift?"
"Yes," Connor answered.
"And then Hugh rode directly to you," Quinlan said with a nod.
"I would like to bring up another matter with you, Connor. It certainly isn't as important as what we've just discussed, yet I find I've been thinking about a comment Hugh made."
"What did he say?"
"Hugh heard from one of the English soldiers that Brenna was a child when she asked you to marry her.
You left that out, didn't you? Now I want you to tell me again you didn't defy my command to leave MacNare alone."
Alec had just slammed his fist down on the tabletop when Brenna called out to him. "Good day, Laird Kincaid. What a pleasure it is to see you again."
As quick as a blink, Alec's expression changed from an intense frown to what she believed was a sincere smile. Quinlan and Crispin looked relieved to see her. She went directly over to Alec, gave Connor a quick glance and saw the speculative look in his eyes, and then turned back to their guest. In her enthusiasm, she grabbed hold of his hand to let him know how happy she was to see him, realized her mistake almost immediately, and quickly let go. Alec was surprised by the gesture of affection, yet pleased all the same. He took her hand in his then. "The pleasure belongs to me, Brenna. How are you feeling today?" he asked, looking at the stitches on her forehead.
"I'm feeling very well, thank you. How could I not? It's such a fine day today."
"It's raining," Crispin reminded her.
"The rain has stopped," she answered. "Please sit down again. Have I interrupted an important meeting? I apologize if I have. Is Jamie with you, Laird?"
Alec let go of her hand before answering. "She's home."
"I'm sorry to hear it. I do hope you bring her next time you come to see Connor."
After a second request that they take their seats, the men conceded. She went to Connor, waited until he was settled, and put her hand on his shoulder. The action wasn't meant to show affection, but to show Alec her loyalty to her husband.
"Is your wife well?" she asked.
"I will have to assume she is," Alec answered, his eyes warmed by the talk of his Jamie. "She isn't talking to me at the moment."
"Oh, dear," Brenna whispered.
"Jamie can be as stubborn as her husband," Connor remarked.
"'Tis the truth, she can," Alec admitted with a grin. "She's upset because I won't let her go attend Mary Kathleen. My daughter's time draws near," he explained for Brenna's benefit. "And because this bairn will be her first, my wife thinks her presence will make the ordeal easier for her."
"Lady Kincaid is known as a healer here," Quinlan told her.
"Laird, I cannot help but wonder why you won't let Jamie go to Mary Kathleen," Brenna said.
Connor was surprised his wife had just asked for an explanation. He knew Brenna wasn't being bold; she was simply curious, that was all. Later he would explain to his brother that she couldn't help being impetuous and certainly hadn't meant to question his decision.
Alec seemed to take it in stride, however. "That is the very thing Jamie said to me. I cannot take the time away from my other duties, and I will not let my wife go without me. She'll try to defy my orders, of course, just as soon as she realizes she can't sway me."
"My wife would never defy me," Connor announced. "Isn't that right, Brenna?"
"I'm certain you would let me go," she answered.
"No, I wouldn't."
"Well, then, for the sake of our daughter, I'm certain I would find a way to do what I needed to do without defying you, Connor."
Alec found her belief amusing. "You are that clever?"
"I like to think I am, Laird. I'm one of eight children and have learned that I must be clever if I am ever going to get anything accomplished. You think my boast is empty?" she asked when Quinlan laughed. "I did set out to marry Connor, and if you will all notice, I am now his wife."
Everyone but Connor laughed. He looked exasperated.
The tension had lifted sufficiently for her to let them get on with their meeting, but as she was about to excuse herself, Alec changed her mind.
"I've just met a friend of yours, Brenna. He was quite taken with you and considers himself your champion."
Quinlan took exception on Connor's behalf, for he felt it was insulting for any other man to think he was worthy enough to be his mistress's champion. "Connor protects his wife. Who is this man who dares to challenge him?"
"Aye, Connor's mi'lady's champion," Crispin muttered.
Brenna didn't even try to hide her vexation. "I'm quite capable of taking care of myself, thank you." For some reason, all the men found her opinion vastly amusing. She decided to pretend she wasn't offended.
"Who is this friend?"
Quinlan looked sheepish. "If you'd mentioned it was the priest, I wouldn't have taken exception, Laird Kincaid."
Alec ignored the soldier. "He sings your praises, Brenna."
"Why did he come to you?" Connor asked.
"He'd been ordered to replace Murdock. I cannot let him stay, of course, as we are still mourning Murdock's passing. I haven't told him yet, because I was in a hurry to leave today, but I will feed him and give him a bed until I return home and then I'll send him away. It's the least I can do," he added with a shrug.
"How can you deny him, Laird?" she asked.
He looked surprised by the question. "It won't be difficult."
"But why do you want to send him away?"
"Why? Because I don't want him. I'm actually being kind. For some reason, he seems ill-at-ease with me."
"He seemed nervous with Connor too," Quinlan remarked.
"I cannot believe what I'm hearing," she stammered out. "Priests are the most powerful men in all the Highlands. Connor told me so."
"Yes, as long as they realize the power they have," Alec explained. "He, like all the other priests here, is protected and left alone."
"Then why would you send him away?"
"Because I don't want him," Alec explained a second time.
"I want him," she blurted out.
"You can't have him," Connor snapped.
"You really want a priest living here?" Alec asked.
"No," Connor answered.
"Yes," Brenna said at the very same time.
Alec grinned. "Your wish is granted, Brenna. I'll send Sinclair over as soon as Connor and I return."
"Alec," Connor warned.
"I cannot deny your wife," Alec said.
Brenna pretended not to notice her husband's frown. She thanked both brothers for giving in to her request and hurried to leave before Connor reminded her he hadn't done any such thing.
"I'll let you get back to your important discussion," she said. "With your permission, I'll go about my duties."
"You don't have any duties," Connor said.
"Oh, but I do," she said. "I have to go outside and find the perfect spot."
"The perfect spot for what?" her husband asked.
"The chapel, of course. Father will have to have one."
Too late, she realized she shouldn't mention her plan just yet. Connor looked as though he was considering throttling both her and his brother now.
He didn't tell her she couldn't go forward with her plans and, in fact, didn't say another word. He probably didn't trust his voice to speak to her yet, and she hoped by the time he finished his meeting, he would forget about it all together. With any luck, the chapel would be completed before he remembered.
"Do you enjoy wielding your power over me, Alec?"
His brother grinned. "Immensely."
"You may leave, Brenna," Alec told her.
Brenna was halfway across the hall when Alec asked her to stop.
"Were you a clever child?"
"I was told I was."
"Were you a child when you asked my brother to marry you?"
She folded her hands together while she pretended to think about it. "I don't recall my exact age."
"Give me an approximation," he commanded.