Connor was nowhere to be seen. He'd disappeared ahead of the rest of them more than an hour before and still hadn't returned.
Conversation would have broken the monotony, but no one was in the mood to accommodate her. After observing them for a little while, she realized they were fully occupied seeing to their protection, constantly searching the forest for a possible threat.
As peculiar as it was to admit, she was eventually comforted by their vigilance. Her backside was taking quite a pounding, and she tried to do as her mother had often instructed and offer her misery up to heaven for all the poor lost souls bound for hell. She didn't understand how her pain would help them find their way, of course, but rules were rules, and so she decided to try to follow them.
Yes, she could suffer discomfort. Penance for past sins would do her soul good. Gilly shouldn't have to suffer, though. Her mare began to slow her gait the higher they climbed up the steep hills. The horse had been neither bred nor conditioned for such a vigorous journey. The poor thing was all worn out and was being pushed beyond her limits.
Brenna wasn't certain whom she should ask to stop. Connor would have been her first choice, of course, but he wasn't there, and she'd have to shout her demand in the hope he might hear her.
She didn't think it would be a good idea to make a sound now. The serious expressions on the soldiers'
faces and their visible tension indicated they were traveling through hostile territory.
She found herself wondering if Connor had any friends. After thinking the matter over for several minutes, she concluded he didn't. He had only himself to blame, of course. The laird had all the winning ways of a wounded bear on the attack.
The comparison made her smile. Then she remembered poor Gilly. She decided to speak to Quinlan about her concern and reached over to touch his arm to gain his attention.
He reacted as though she'd pinched him. Jerking his arm away, he turned to frown at her for bothering him. Before she could whisper her worry, he motioned for her to keep silent by putting his hand to his mouth. She quickly pointed to Gilly.
The warrior wasn't blind. Surely he could see how lathered and labored her horse was.
Quinlan didn't acknowledge her concern. He simply nudged his horse into a gallop and rode ahead. She watched him until he disappeared into the trees.
She wasn't left unprotected, however. As soon as Quinlan left his position, another warrior moved forward to take his place.
And on they continued. She was wearing out. She assumed Quinlan had gone to get Connor, but the two men were taking forever to come back. She closed her eyes for what was surely just a minute or two, and when she next looked around, Connor was beside her, lifting her onto his lap. Too tired to push him away, her last thought before she fell asleep was that she would make certain she didn't lean back or press against him.
She awakened drooling all over the man. In her sleep she had turned toward him, wound her arms around his waist until her fingers were splayed against his warm skin, and somehow wiggled her way up higher onto his lap. Her face was pressed against the base of his throat. The heat radiating from him warmed her far more thoroughly than a dozen thick woolen blankets. It felt wonderful.
It was also humiliating. Her mouth was open against his skin, which made her behavior all the more disgusting. Thankfully, she remembered Gilly and was able to put her own embarrassment aside. How much longer could her horse go on before collapsing? Brenna tried to pull away from Connor and demand they stop before her mare injured herself, but he put his arm around her waist and forced her to stay where she was.
She pinched him to get his attention. He retaliated by squeezing the breath right out of her, a silent order to behave herself, no doubt, and if she'd been able to look up at his face, she was certain she would have seen him scowling. The man didn't do much of anything else.
She was mistaken. Connor was smiling, for he was vastly amused by her boldness. He knew he intimidated her; he'd seen the worry in her eyes, more than once he was sorry to admit, and yet she'd pinched him. What a contrary woman she was. If she feared him, why did she try to provoke him? He'd have to get around to asking her that very question someday, when he didn't have more important matters on his mind.
She had just made up her mind to start screaming like a demented woman, but was saved from disgracing herself in the nick of time. Connor finally decided to stop for the night. She was so thankful, she forgot to give him a piece of her mind because of the ordeal he'd put Gilly through. It was going to take the gentle mare a good week of pampering to recover.
Connor dismounted first before turning to assist her. He caught her as she was sliding down the stallion's side.
"You don't use a saddle."
"None of us use saddles."
She skirted her way around him and went running to her horse. Her legs screamed with each step she took, and she could only imagine Gilly's discomfort. She noticed her own saddle was missing, assumed one of his men had removed it for her, and was thankful for that much consideration.
Connor wouldn't let her see to Gilly's comforts. He assigned that duty to Owen, the soldier with the scarred face and a smile she thought was actually quite enchanting. She pestered him with instructions for her mare's care, thanked him for his help, and then watched like a worried mama while he led Gilly over to a spot where the moonlight wasn't barred by the trees. Her horse was cooperating, a sure sign she was up to mischief, for several times in the past she'd taken nips out of unsuspecting groomers. Brenna called out a warning and then went in search of her baggage.
The glen Connor had chosen for their respite was completely surrounded by thick forest. The ground cover and the trees were vibrant with hues of brown and green, and dabbled here and there were purple-tipped flowers just waking from winter's sleep. A canopy of thick golden green branches arched high above her. Streamers of fading light filtering down through the trees gave sufficient illumination for the short walk to the lake that, Quinlan had explained, cut through the southern tip.
Brenna was given sufficient privacy to see to her needs. After ten minutes had passed, Connor decided she'd had enough time alone and went to get her. He found her kneeling over her satchel, muttering to herself while she searched through her possessions. Several articles of clothing littered the ground around her.
She wasn't really paying attention to what she was doing. Her mind was on the problem of coming up with a plan to get out of this mess. Thankfully, time was on her side, she thought, and surely, once she'd gotten her wits about her, she'd figure something out.
Connor, towering over her, waited for her to notice him. He gave up after a few minutes and handed her the washcloth he'd picked up hours before.
"Were you searching for this?"
"Yes, thank you," she answered almost absentmindedly. "I must have dropped it only a moment ago, or I would have noticed. I'm very observant."
He didn't correct her. He didn't give her the blue ribbon she'd also left by the stream hours ago, either.
He decided to keep the thing a little longer, as a reminder that he had indeed taken a wife. He was bound to forget such an insignificant detail.
"Wash your face, Brenna. Your mouth is covered in paint."
She straightened up so quickly, she almost toppled over backward. "I don't paint my face." She was horrified by the very idea. Only women on their way to hell would do such a pagan thing. "It's my paint."
"How did I get paint…? I remember now. Just after you tricked me into asking you to marry me again, you said you would, and then you kissed me without asking permission."
"Yes," he agreed, just to get her moving. In his opinion, the brief touch of his mouth against hers didn't qualify as a kiss, it had been a symbolic gesture, nothing more.
"The priest is waiting for us. Hurry and finish."
She couldn't believe what she was hearing. She bounded to her feet. "Now? The priest is waiting now?
Why is he waiting?"
Connor was thoroughly puzzled by her behavior. She acted as though she'd just had the wind knocked out of her. "He's here to get it done," he explained.
She demanded specifics. "Get what done?"
"You couldn't have forgotten so soon," he replied in exasperation. "The wedding."
"Now?" she cried out again. "You want to marry me now?"
She ran her fingers through her hair, then started wringing her hands together, and, dear God, she knew she was shouting at him, but she couldn't seem to make herself stop. Connor was so chillingly calm about it all. He had to be out of his mind if he thought she could possibly marry him right now.
"What did you expect?"
She was too stunned to come up with an answer. "What did I expect? I expected time."
"Time for what?"
Time to come up with a way out of this nightmare, she wanted to scream.
"Time for you to… to take me to your home. Yes, that's what I expected. I need time to plan a proper wedding."
"Then I've saved you the trouble. You may thank me later."
"And time for you to come to your senses," she blurted out.
"I know what I'm doing."
She suddenly felt light-headed and realized that, for the first time in her life, she was about to swoon. She turned around and went to the edge of the lake to sit down. Closing her eyes, she tried to think of a plan while the world spun out of control around her. Yes, she needed a plan. Any plan. She was in such a panic, her mind wouldn't cooperate. She would greet the priest, yes, of course she would greet him, and she would talk to him, explaining that she would be happy to share her meal with him tonight and let him get a good rest. He could marry her to the bear first thing in the morning. She would strongly suggest, even beg if she had to, that he wait a little longer, a month or two or ten, because the sacrament of marriage was a serious undertaking after all, and then if Connor still didn't realize his mistake, she'd begin work on her wedding gown.
Connor was quickly running out of patience. Now what was she doing? Honest to God, a man could take only so much, and her resistance was becoming downright bothersome. He decided to take matters, and Brenna, into his own hands. He took hold of her cloth, dipped it into the water, and squatted down in front of her. Before she could scoot away, he took hold of her chin and scrubbed her face for her.
He wasn't gentle. Her face was bright red when he finished, and he didn't know if he'd been too rough on her delicate skin or if she was blushing.
"Let's get it done," he ordered.
He lifted her to her feet and literally pulled her along behind him.
"I finally understand. I'm dead, aren't I? I died of fright when I first saw you, and now I'm suffering for my sins. God, I wasn't that bad, was I?"
Connor pretended to ignore her rantings, and it took all he had to hide his smile. Lord, she was emotional. She wasn't crying, though. The priest would believe she'd been coerced into the marriage if she wept throughout the ceremony. Granted, she had been coerced, but he didn't want Father Sinclair to know it. There was also the fact that Connor didn't particularly like to be around women who wept all the time. They made him nervous, and given his choice, he'd take an angry wife over a weeping one any day of the week.
Brenna wasn't in the mood to cry. She felt like killing someone, and Connor was her first choice. And what kind of sinful attitude was that for her to take to her wedding? She was about to enter into holy matrimony, for the love of God.
Her wedding. It wasn't going to be at all like the wedding she'd planned in her daydreams during sewing lessons. She'd expected to be married in her father's chapel, surrounded by family and friends. What she was getting was a group of ill-mannered warriors and a priest who didn't look old enough to have finished his training.
Pride kept her from making a scene. Because everyone was watching her approach, she moved forward to walk by Connor's side, and as soon as she reached the priest, she lifted the hem of her skirts and made a formal curtsy.
"Shall we begin?" the priest said after casting a worried glance up at Connor's face.
"Now?" she cried out.
Connor let out a loud sigh. "Will you stop saying that?"
"Is something wrong with now?" the priest asked, his confusion obvious. He addressed his question to Connor and dared to frown up at him. "I must tell you, Laird, it displeases me to see you come to this sacrament dressed in war paint. I'll have to give my accounting to my superiors as well as Alec Kincaid.
What will I say to them?"
"Say whatever you want to say, Father. My brother, at least, will understand."
The priest nodded. "Very well. Mi'lady, do you come here of your own free will? Do you agree to marry Laird Connor MacAlister?"
Everyone stared at her while she contemplated her answer. She had given her word, God help her, and her father's soldiers had all been breathing when they'd left her, which meant Connor had kept his part of the bargain. It was now her turn.
The priest wasn't at all concerned about the bride's confusion. He was used to nervous brides, of course, for he had already married a fair number of couples in his short while as an ordained priest and had learned to expect just about anything.
"The priest is waiting for your answer, Brenna," Connor reminded her in a voice that held a threatening tone.
"Aye, he's waiting, lass," Quinlan blurted out, though he deliberately kept his voice soothing in the hope of calming her down.
She finally gave in to the inevitable. "Yes, Father, of course, but…"
"You must say the words, mi'lady. The church requires that I hear you acknowledge that you marry Connor MacAlister of your own free will."
"Brenna, I swear to you that if I hear that word again…" Connor began.
Frantic, Brenna finally remembered the pitiful little plan she'd come up with.
"Father, we haven't been properly introduced. I don't even know your name. I should, shouldn't I? I thought we would share our evening meal together, and you and I could get to know each other, and then you could get a long rest, and tomorrow we would go to your chapel, and if you don't have a chapel, then we could keep on going until we found one, and you would instruct me so that I would be prepared for this joyful sacrament, and I…"
She suddenly went completely still. "War paint, Father? Did you say war paint? Connor MacAlister's wearing war paint to my wedding?"
She didn't mean to shout at the priest, but honest to God, her endurance was gone. She simply couldn't take anything more. She didn't care who lived and who died, even if she were the one slain. Only one thing mattered to her now. The war paint.