Raen pressed against Brenna's back, and when she tried to move away, he put his hands down on her shoulders to keep her there. "Mother, Brenna isn't a child. One look at her and anyone can see she's a woman."
"Now, Raen, don't criticize me," Euphemia pleaded.
The son ignored his mother and leaned down close to Brenna's ear. "Sit by me at the table and tell me all about your wedding."
If she turned around to answer him, she knew she wouldn't be able to hide her repulsion, and so she directed her remarks to his mother instead. "I mustn't intrude upon your joyful reunion with your mother."
"Nonsense, I only left her side a week ago."
"I don't know why I assumed it had been a much longer separation," she lied, for she remembered quite well that Euphemia had insisted she hadn't seen her son in a long, long while. "But a week is still a long time to a mother, isn't that so, Lady MacAlister?"
"Not really," Euphemia answered. "Raen, you're standing entirely too close to Brenna. I'm not about to be ignored any longer. Come over here and sit with me."
"I hadn't realized I was standing close," he said with such a tone of surprise that his mother obviously thought he was sincere. Brenna wasn't so easily fooled, however. She resisted an urge to sigh with relief as soon as he let go of her and strolled over to the table.
"Brenna, you have my permission to go about your duties. Raen, I have some interesting news to tell you."
Brenna hurried toward the entrance before Euphemia could change her mind.
Raen stopped her. "We heard thunder. Wasn't it raining when you came inside?"
"Yes, it was."
"Then why aren't your clothes wet?"
She wasn't about to admit the truth, that she had been inside several minutes before the downpour started, for then she would have to explain what she'd been doing, and they'd know she had deliberately listened to their private conversation.
"Two very thoughtful servants held cloaks over my head."
His nod indicated he accepted her lie. "I hope to God the rain lets up soon. I hate being cooped up inside."
She thought that it was rather peculiar that the rain would keep him in. Connor's soldiers went about their duties regardless of the weather. Raen wasn't at all like the other men, however. He had been overindulged and pampered by his mother and probably didn't realize what a weakling he appeared to be.
How in heaven's name was she ever going to get through supper tonight? She hoped to God she didn't have to sit next to Connor's stepbrother. The mere possibility made her lose her appetite.
She avoided the hall for the rest of the day until it was time to join her relatives for the evening meal. To her surprise, the evening turned out to be quite pleasant. Not only was Euphemia less abrasive, Raen was also somewhat charming. He sat across from her at the table, entertaining both his mother and her with amusing stories from his past. By the time she went upstairs, she was actually looking forward to sharing her next meal with him.
After spending another lovely evening with him the following night, she began to feel guilty for initially judging him so harshly. She had thought the worst of him and now realized how wrong she'd been.
Granted, Raen had been overly enthusiastic at their first encounter, but not because he had lecherous intentions she decided. Perhaps he just didn't know any better. And maybe he was trying to counter his mother's uncertain attitude toward her son's wife by showing Brenna she had his complete approval.
She went to bed that night feeling she had simply overreacted and vowed to never let that happen again.
Everyone deserved a second chance.
On the third morning of Connor's absence, Brenna awakened to sunshine and laughter. She threw off her covers and went to the window to look out at the glorious day. Servants were hurrying about below, and from the joy in their faces she knew they loved being outside as much as she did.
There were at least a hundred things she wanted to accomplish today, and while she knew she shouldn't put her duties aside, she meant to do just that in favor of exploring the hills.
Smiling in anticipation, she hurried to get dressed and go downstairs. The hall was deserted, and though she tried, she couldn't get the heavy door open so she could go down to the courtyard. She wasn't defeated, however, and turned to go out the back door instead.
"Good morning, mi'lady. Did you sleep well?" Netta called out from the hall.
"Yes, thank you," she answered. "Has Lady MacAlister come down yet?"
"No, mi'lady, she hasn't. Raen has already left the holding to go riding for the day. He told me he wouldn't be back until supper."
"He went outside the walls with some of Connor's soldiers?"
"No, he rode alone. He's taking a risk, isn't he?"
"He must not think so," Brenna replied with a shrug. "I wonder where he plans to go," she added.
"It wouldn't have been proper for me to ask," Netta said.
Brenna wasn't paying attention to the servant now, for she'd only just noticed the pile of items stacked on the top of the low chest in the entrance. As soon as Netta convinced her they looked familiar to her because they belonged to her, Netta helped carry everything back up to Brenna's room.
That evening, Raen returned to the holding just in time to share his evening meal with his mother and Brenna. He looked tired from his ride, but was still quite pleasant, and once again, he did nothing that was in the least inappropriate.
He was ready to go upstairs at the very same time she was. He clasped hold of her elbow and walked by her side, which was really quite gallant, and told her a humorous story that made both of them laugh. His hand brushed across her br**sts as he reached for the door latch, but it was apparent from the innocent look on his face that he hadn't even realized what he had done, leaving her to wonder why she was so quick to become suspicious again.
What was wrong with her, she wondered while she prepared for bed, and finally concluded that the strain of trying to win Euphemia's approval was making her a nervous twit. 'Twas the truth, the woman could make a saint lose her temper. No wonder Brenna had her guard up all the time. Connor's stepmother was an extremely difficult woman to please, and winning her over was proving to be far more difficult than Brenna had anticipated. While Euphemia never openly criticized her, she still managed to find fault with everything she did, and in a backhanded, condescending way that made Brenna want to clench her teeth together.
She wasn't about to give up, of course, and decided she would simply double her efforts.
The following morning, Raen had once again left the holding to go riding alone before Brenna had come downstairs. She spent a trying day seeing to Euphemia's every comfort and was worn out by supper.
The worst was yet to come, however. Brenna's evening wasn't at all delightful; it was god-awful. She tried to engage Raen in conversation, but he was in a sullen, defiant mood. Being charming must have been a strain on him, because he discarded all attempts at being the least bit polite.
He acted like a lecher again. He never took his gaze off her—or rather, her mouth—throughout the endless meal, and from the smirk on his face and the look in his eyes, she knew he was fully aware of how uncomfortable he was making her.
Euphemia chose to be oblivious to what was going on. Brenna doubted she would have done anything about it even if asked to. Her devotion to her son blinded her to his faults. She considered Raen to be perfect, which was more than evident from the way she constantly bowed to his wishes.
Up until that night, Euphemia found fault with just about everyone and everything else, though, except the meals. Brenna thought her mother-in-law was enjoying her food; she ate everything on her trencher just as she had at her previous meals, but after the table was cleared and the servants left the hall, Euphemia announced her dissatisfaction.
"Brenna, I realize you've been unprepared for company for the last several days and have obviously been in too much of a rush to go over supper arrangements thoroughly with your cook, and for that reason I have held my tongue. I cannot keep silent any longer, however, and must insist you replace the incompetent woman in your kitchen with someone more skilled. Tonight was the worst disaster yet. I swear I ate more fat than fowl, and the tarts were so bitter and stringy I could barely get them down. Has Connor had to put up with this poor excuse for food long?"
"Mother, Brenna hasn't lived here long enough to know if he has or not," Raen snapped.
Euphemia continued to frown at Brenna. "You look flushed, dear. Have you put in a long day?"
"Why don't you go upstairs to bed? Raen will be happy to keep me company."
She couldn't excuse herself fast enough. Unfortunately, Raen followed her to the entrance steps. He grabbed hold of her arm, told her he was escorting her, and pressed against her side. She was all but hanging over the railing in her attempt to put some distance between them.
"There isn't any need to go upstairs with me, Raen. I'm sure you have more important things to do."
"You've already taken one serious fall, and these steps are dangerously steep," he argued as he pulled her along.
"How did you hear about my fall?"
"I asked one of the servants how you injured your forehead, and she told me you fell down the stairs. I would be remiss in my duty to my brother if I didn't make certain you were kept safe while he was away."
"I fell down because I wasn't paying attention to where I was going. I am paying attention now."
He let go of her arm, giving her only a few seconds to feel relieved before he slipped his arm around her waist.
"Please let go of me," she asked.
He ignored her. "Are you eager to see Connor again? I know you must miss him, especially at night when you're in bed and you're wanting to feel him between your thighs."
"Do not dare talk to me in such a way," she ordered. She was so furious, she could barely control herself and increased her struggles to get away from him.
He shifted his grip, moving upward until his fisted hand rested just below her right breast, making it impossible for her to struggle now because, every time she moved, his knuckles rubbed against her.
He never once looked down at her or showed any reaction at all to the pain she knew she was inflicting in his arm with her nails digging into his flesh.
"I could take care of you while he's away," he whispered. "I know how to make the ache go away.
Leave your door unlatched tonight, Brenna."
Stunned by the filth he spewed, she could barely keep her wits about her. "If you don't let go of me, I swear I'll scream."
"Why in heaven's name would you want to scream?" he asked in mock astonishment, while his fingers slowly uncoiled and spread upward to squeeze her breast.
Anger gave her the strength of five men. She drove her elbow into his side and blessedly got just the reaction she wanted. He grunted in obvious pain and let go of her. She moved back against the door of her bedroom and reached for her dagger. She felt a second's panic when she touched her side and realized the knife wasn't in the pouch looped to her belt, but Raen wasn't looking at her now or trying to grab her again.
He opened the door for her, bid her good night, and strolled away. He was whistling as he went down the stairs.
Shaking with rage and terror, she ran inside, bolted the door closed behind her, and broke into sobs.
What in God's name was she going to do?
The possibility that he might try to touch her again terrified her. She slept on Connor's side of the bed that night and didn't go downstairs until later than customary the following morning. She was, however, much calmer, because she realized that Raen wouldn't dare do anything inappropriate in front of witnesses and as long as she was never alone with him, she would be safe until Connor came home.
The minute she saw her husband, she was going to tell him exactly what had happened, but until he returned and sent Raen away, it was her duty to look out for herself.
Connor should be the first to know. Raen was his stepbrother, and it wouldn't be right to tell anyone else, unless it became absolutely necessary. She wasn't about to suffer so much as an obscene look from the vile man however. If he came near her, she would banish him from the keep immediately, providing she had the power to do so, and if Quinlan told her she didn't have the authority, she would either tell him what had happened or pack her satchel and move in with the Kincaids. Alec had told her he would never deny her anything.
She walked around in a rage most of the afternoon, and at supper that evening, she ignored Raen and urged Euphemia to tell her all about herself. Connor's stepmother seemed to enjoy being the center of attention and spent over an hour complimenting herself. Brenna pretended to hang on every word. She wasn't about to leave the hall unless her stepmother was with her, which soon became apparent to Raen, because he finally went outside to stretch his legs.
He dared to ask Brenna if she would like to accompany him, in a mocking tone and with a sneer that told her he knew what her game was and found it amusing.
"No, thank you," she answered without bothering to look at him. "I would rather listen to your mother.
Lady Euphemia, you've had such an interesting life."
"I've had a tragic life," Euphemia corrected.
With Brenna's encouragement, she then proceeded to tell her all about the pain she had endured over the loss of her dear parents. No one had ever suffered the way Euphemia had, and no one had ever had so many crushing disappointments.
Euphemia didn't stop talking about herself for another hour or so. Brenna stayed by her side, pretending to be fascinated, and when, at last, she announced she was going up to bed, Brenna took hold of her arm and walked by her side.
"I meant to talk to you about the evening meals, madam."
"I meant to have a word with you too. Once again, I was disappointed, Brenna. Didn't you follow my instructions and get rid of the cook?"
"Yes, of course I did," Brenna lied. "I've come up with a plan I hope you'll approve. You are far more knowledgeable than I, and I could use your counsel."
"Don't berate yourself. You don't know any better."
Brenna didn't argue, but she didn't agree either. "I have asked five women to take turns preparing your evening meals, and I will let you decide at the end of the week who is the best skilled to suit your needs."
Euphemia shrugged with indifference. "Leave it to me."