It took him a little longer to remember how to breathe again. His discipline finally came to his aid, and even though he knew she would be a tantalizing danger to his peace of mind, he was still extremely pleased with her. Her bonny looks would make the sting in his insult all the more painful for such a shallow pig as MacNare to endure. Beautiful women were hard to come by in England, or so he'd heard, and this rare treasure had all but fallen into his lap.
It really had been disgustingly easy. None of her soldiers offered the least resistance. He didn't even have to make a fist. He simply walked into their camp, commanded them to kneel, and, by all that was holy, they knelt. Meek as lambs they were, and just as cowardly. Several of the weaklings even tossed their weapons away.
Only one soldier had made an attempt, halfhearted as it was, to shout a warning to his mistress. Connor heard the sound while he was keeping watch over Lady Brenna to make certain no harm came to her while she lingered by the stream, but one of his own men—Quinlan, no doubt—silenced the soldier.
Lady Brenna also heard the noise, and that was precisely when she dropped her ribbon and her cloth and started back to camp. Curiosity made her hurry, but after the other Englishwoman grabbed hold of her and filled her head with outrageous tales about demons, it took true courage for her to continue on.
He knew she believed she was running toward her own death. The look of fear on her face indicated as much. One life for twelve. Weren't those her exact words? Connor had been thoroughly confused by her behavior. She was Haynesworth's daughter, wasn't she? Yet, she wasn't like any of the English he'd ever known. In all his years of battles, he'd never witnessed a single act of true courage by any of the English… until today. He thought about mentioning that remarkable fact to her, then changed his mind.
He didn't believe it would be a good idea to talk to her just yet. The woman was going to have to get past her fear of him silence was prudent now.
He clasped his hands behind his back and patiently waited for her to get hold of herself. He wondered if she still believed he was a demon. The look in her eyes suggested she might, and it took a good deal of restraint not to smile, so ludicrous was the notion.
She really was going to have to become accustomed to being around him. Hell, he planned to bed her that evening, but he wasn't going to tell her his plan now. She was going to be his wife, no matter how long it took him to get her to agree in front of the priest. If necessary, he would waste the rest of the day waiting for her to calm down enough to listen to him.
Brenna was determined to hide her fear and thought she'd been successful thus far. She couldn't tell if he was a handsome devil or an ugly-as-sin one. She couldn't quite get past the blue paint to notice. She certainly noticed his eyes, though, but only because they were the color of darkness and as warm and soothing as a fist coming her way. His bone structure appeared to be intact. He had a straight nose, high cheekbones, and a hard-looking mouth. His hair was overly long, almost shoulder length, and the color of night. Odd, but it appeared to be clean.
She didn't have any idea how long she'd been staring up at him, and she certainly didn't notice any movement on his part, yet suddenly his hand was on top of hers. She stupidly looked down as he pulled her hand out from behind her back, and watched him gently pry her dagger away from her fingers.
She assumed he'd either keep the weapon or toss it away to show her his obvious physical superiority, and she was, therefore, astonished when he replaced the dagger in the leather sheath she wore hooked to the ornate belt draped around the tilt of her hips.
"Thank you," she whispered before she could stop herself.
What in thunder was the matter with her? Why was she thanking him? He'd just scared the curl out of her hair. Shouldn't she be giving him a blistering for the terror he'd caused her?
Lord, she was out of her mind if she thought she could give him a piece of her mind. How could she shout at him when she couldn't even find her voice? Besides, her little dagger wouldn't have done him any real harm. That was probably the reason he let her keep it. The strength radiating from the giant suggested he wouldn't even flinch if she tried to injure him.
But, the giant wasn't a god or a demon. He was just a man, very primitive and frightening, yet still just a man. Besides, anyone with a pinch of sense knew women were smarter than men. Her mother had shared that bit of wisdom with her daughters on many occasions, although never in the presence of their father. Mother was always honest, sometimes to a fault. She was also very kind and would, therefore, never say anything that would hurt any man's feelings.
Brenna wasn't going to follow her mother's example. She would try to be a little kind, but she wouldn't be completely honest. She'd never get out of this mess if she told the truth.
"I don't remember you."
He shrugged. He obviously didn't care if she remembered him or not.
"There seems to be a misunderstanding," she began again. "I wasn't waiting for you to answer my proposal." Her voice sounded stronger now.
"I was just a child back then. Surely you haven't been considering my request all these many years."
Didn't the man have anything better to think about? "Your men were jesting with me, weren't they?"
He shook his head. Her throat began to ache with her need to shout at him. Apparently he was as demented as his followers, though far less convivial. How was she ever going to get through to him?
Her father would kill her if he ever found out about her marriage proposals. The thought actually worried her for a second or two before she realized how ridiculous it was. Papa would have to get in line to do her in, behind the stone-silent warrior, his followers… and MacNare. Good God, she'd forgotten about him. MacNare was bound to be furious when he found out about his intended bride's audacity.
Brenna could see only one way out of her predicament. She had to find a way to make the barbarian understand.
"I have to leave now. Laird MacNare might not be understanding if I'm late. He's supposed to be sending an escort to meet me. I wouldn't want to see any of you harmed because of a little misunderstanding.''
The outcast suddenly reached out and took hold of her. His big hands settled on her shoulders in a firm grip, a silent message, she supposed, that she wasn't going anywhere until he was ready to let her. He wasn't hurting her though, and in fact, he was being extremely gentle.
She frowned up at him while she tried to make sense out of the madness surrounding her.
"Your arrival here has absolutely nothing to do with the proposals I sent, isn't that right? You have another motive in mind."
Nothing. Not a word, not a nod, not even a blink. Was she talking to a tree?
She could feel the heat building in her face, knew frustration was the reason for her blush, and let out a thoroughly loud, unladylike sigh that sounded very like a groan.
"All right, we will assume you're here because of my proposals. As I explained to you just a minute ago, I don't remember meeting you. One of my sisters knew all about my foolishness. She told me I'd been worrying about never finding a husband, though I doubt I even understood what husbands were for, and so to ease my worry, Joan told me what to do. She never supposed I'd go through with the plan; but now that I think about it, this is my father's fault because he told me he'd never be able to find any man who would put up with me, and it's your fault too, sir, because you smiled at me. I truly don't remember anything else about our meeting, just your smile. I'll always remember that. In England, you must understand, proper ladies do not ask gentlemen to marry them. It just isn't done," she added in a near shout. "As God is my witness, I really don't have enough strength left in me to go through this explanation again."
"What did you say to the messenger, mi'lady? Do you remember the exact words of your last proposal?"
She recognized Quinlan's voice behind her.
How in thunder could she possibly remember? Hadn't any of them been listening?
She couldn't turn to face Quinlan because their leader still had hold of her, and he didn't seem to be the least bit inclined to let go.
"I probably said, 'Will you marry me?'"
Connor smiled. He pulled her toward him, lowered his head, and kissed her just long enough to stun her.
He lifted his head then, looked into her eyes, and finally spoke to her.
"Yes, Brenna. I will marry you."
The man was clearly demented. He was determined to marry her. Her thoughts about marrying him seemed inconsequential to him. God only knew, she tried everything but physical force to get him to be reasonable. She argued, she pleaded, she prayed.
And all for naught. She had to resort to unladylike measures next. She stomped her foot down hard on top of his to get her point across. He didn't even flinch. She doubled over from the searing pain shooting up from her instep and had to take hold of his arm so she wouldn't completely disgrace herself and fall to the ground. Thankfully, it didn't take her more than a minute or two to regain what pitiful threads of dignity she had left and let go of him. Then she started all over again. She was quite proud of herself, really. She never once raised her voice as she calmly listed at least a hundred valid reasons why they couldn't possibly marry. She might as well have been talking to the wind. The barbarian didn't appear to be the least bit swayed. She wasn't even certain if he was still breathing. He simply listened to her with his arms folded across his chest and a you're-boring-me-into-a-trance look on his face, and when she ran out of dire consequences he would suffer as a result of his insanity, he calmly took hold of her hand and started dragging her behind him toward the horses.
Saints be enraged, she had to get out of this mess. She tried to think of a plan, pleading for God's help all the while, of course. Her thoughts and prayers were interrupted when Quinlan called out to him.
"What is it?"
Quinlan motioned to the English soldiers.
The Highlander didn't need time to mull the matter over. He didn't even bother to stop, but called the obscene order over his shoulder.
"No." She screamed the denial in a voice that shook with terror.
He was astonished by her reaction. "No?"
"No," she cried out again.
Dear God, what kind of man would ask such a question?
He was finally giving her his full attention, however. He turned to her and patiently waited for her to answer him.
She noticed he didn't let go of her hand. "They're defenseless," she began. "You took their weapons away."
"No, I didn't take their weapons away. They threw them down when we walked into camp. Tell me why they should live," he said in a voice that sounded quite pleasant given the circumstances. "What is their primary duty? Their only duty? Their sacred duty?"
She could tell he was beginning to get angry. His voice had hardened with each question he asked. He was also squeezing her fingers so hard they hurt. "Their primary duty is to defend."
He relaxed his hold. "And who do they defend?" he demanded.
"The king first and always, then the baron to whom they've given their pledge of fealty."
"And?" he prodded.
Too late, she realized where he was headed. God help her, she couldn't come up with a quick way to change direction.
"And did they?"
"What they did or didn't do isn't your concern."
"It is my concern," he corrected. "Those men have no honor. They deserve to die."
"Such a decision isn't yours to make."
"Of course it is," he replied. "You're going to be my wife."
"So you say."
"So I know," he snapped, his voice as hard as sleet now. "I cannot allow such cowards to live."
"There is another reason you cannot kill them," she stammered. Please, God, help me think of one, she thought. She bowed her head and stared down at the ground while she frantically tried to think of something clever to persuade him. "I'm waiting."
So was she, but God apparently wasn't in the mood to be helpful. "You won't understand," she whispered. "What won't I understand?"
"If you kill my father's soldiers, I couldn't possibly marry you."
"Is that so?"
He sounded to her as if he wanted to laugh. She looked up to see whether he was smiling and was thankful she'd been wrong. He looked just as somber and mean as before.
"Yes, that is so. I told you you wouldn't understand. If you weren't a heathen…"
"I'm not a heathen."
She didn't believe him. The man was smeared with paint, after all. Only pagans would follow such ungodly rituals.
Connor had wasted enough of his time discussing the matter. He looked at Quinlan, fully intending to tell him to let the soldiers leave, though certainly not because of her weak protests. No, it was the fear he'd caused her that made him change his mind. Fear had its place, especially in the hearts of his enemies, but it would be wrong for a wife to fear her husband.
She wouldn't give him time to be magnanimous. "Wait," she cried out. "Is it important for you to marry me?"
He shrugged. She translated the rude action to mean, yes, it was important. "And you are unwilling to explain your reasons?" 'I need not explain myself to you."
"I think perhaps I'd best explain my intentions to you, though." she replied. "And then I believe you'll understand. If you aren't a heathen, how are you going to get me to marry you? Will you simply announce to your family and friends that you have taken a wife? Or will there be a ceremony with a priest to hear our vows and bless our union?"
"There will be a priest."
She frowned. "A priest in good standing with the church?"
He smiled then. He simply couldn't stop himself. Lord, she was suspicious. "A priest in good standing,"
Victory was suddenly within her grasp. She said a quick prayer in thanksgiving to God for helping her, promised to get down on her knees later to beg His forgiveness because she'd believed He hadn't listened to her plea for assistance, and then said, "Exactly how do you plan to get me to repeat my vows in front of this man of God?"
She had him there. She couldn't possibly know how important it was for her to agree to marry him. He wasn't worried about the behavior of the priest or Brenna during the actual ceremony. He could be intimidating when he needed to be. It was Alec Kincaid who gave him pause. Connor was already standing on trembling ground with his brother, and if Brenna let Alec know she hadn't agreed, there would be hell to pay. He could deal with that, but if Alec wanted the pig MacNare to have her, Connor would have to go against him.