Journeying from England to Scotland to wed a highlander, Lady Brenna had resigned herself to the arranged match. But when a band of fierce, painted warriors captured her en route, she fearlessly met their demand to marry their leader, the quick-tempered laird Connor MacAlister. She couldn't know that her capture was merely the first act of vengeance against her betrothed, Connor's sworn enemy. Brenna harbored no illusions that her husband was in love with her; after a hasty forest wedding, MacAlister assured her she could return home once she had borne him a son.
But she could not deny that she had once proposed to MacAlister, ten years ago, when she was just a child and the visitor to her father's castle charmed her with his dazzling, unexpected smile. Now, as she sets out to win the brave chieftain whom she has come to adore, a legacy of revenge ensnares Brenna in a furious clan war and only her faith in her gallant hero can save her.
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It wasn't love at first sight.
Lady Brenna didn't want to be presented to company. She had far more important things to do with her day. Her nursemaid, a dour-faced woman with God-fearing ways and clumped-together, protruding front teeth, wouldn't listen to her arguments, however. With the determination of a hedgehog, she cornered Brenna in the back of the stables and then lunged forward. Never one to let an opportunity or a little girl slip past her, the nursemaid lectured her charge all the way up the hill and across the muddy courtyard.
"Quit your squirming, Brenna. I'm stronger than you are, and I'm not about to let go. You've lost your shoes again, haven't you? And don't dare lie to me. I can see your stockings peeking out. Why are you dragging that bridle behind you?"
Brenna lifted her shoulders in a shrug. "I forgot to put it back."
"Drop it this minute. You're always forgetting, and do you know why?"
"I don't pay attention to what I'm doing, like you tell me to, Elspeth."
"You don't pay attention to anything I tell you, and that's a fact. You're more trouble than all the others put together. Your older brothers and sisters have never given me a moment's worry. Even your baby sister knows how to behave herself, and she's still sucking on her fingers and wetting herself. I'm warning you, Brenna, if you don't change your ways and give your parents a little peace, God himself will have to stop his important work and come down here to talk to you. Just how are you going to feel about that? You don't like it much when your papa has to sit you down on his knee and talk to you about your shameful behavior, now do you?"
"No, Elspeth. I surely don't like it. I try to behave. I really do."
She peeked up to see if the nursemaid believed she was contrite. She wasn't, of course, because she really didn't think she'd done anything wrong, but Elspeth wouldn't understand.
"Don't you bat those big blue eyes at me, young lady. I don't believe you're the least bit sincere. Lord, but you smell. What have you gotten into?"
Brenna lowered her head and kept quiet. She'd been chasing after the piglets just an hour before, until the tanner put their mama back in the pen, and Brenna's peculiar stench was just a small price to pay for all the fun she'd had.
Her torture had only just begun. Even though she had had a bath just a week before, she was bathed again, and in the middle of the day, of all times. She was scrubbed from head to toes, and so thoroughly she had to cry about it. Elspeth wasn't at all sympathetic to her wails, and Brenna eventually got tired of crying. She barely struggled at all while Elspeth dressed her in a blue gown and too-tight matching slippers. Her cheeks were pinched hard for color, her white-blond tangles were brushed into curls, and she was then dragged back down to the hall. She would have to pass her mother's inspection before she could be left alone.
Her oldest sister, Matilda, was already seated at the table with her mother. Cook was there too, going over supper arrangements with her mistress.
"I don't want to meet no company today, Mama. It's sorely wearisome for me."
Elspeth came up behind her and poked her in her shoulder. "Hush now. You mustn't complain. God doesn't like women who complain."
"Papa complains all the time, and God likes him just fine," Brenna announced. "That's why Papa's so big. Only God is bigger than he is."
"Where did you hear such nonsense?"
"Papa told me so. I want to go outside now. I won't run after the piglets again. I promise."
"You're staying right where I can keep my eye on you. You're going to behave yourself today. If you don't, you know what will happen to you, don't you?"
Brenna pointed to the ground. "I'll have to go down there." She dutifully repeated the threat she'd heard over and over again.
The little girl didn't have any idea what was "down there"; she only knew it was awful and she didn't want to go there. According to Elspeth, if Brenna didn't change her sorry ways, she was never going to get into heaven, and just about everyone, including her family, wanted to go there.
She knew exactly where heaven was because her papa had given her exact directions. It was right on the other side of the sky.
She thought she might like it, but really didn't care. Only one thing was important to her now. She wasn't about to be left behind again. She still had nightmares at least once a week over what her mama referred to as the "unfortunate" incidents. The terrifying memories were still lurking in the back of her mind, where everyone knew all little girls tucked away their worries, just waiting for the right opportunity to jump out in the dark and scare her. Her screams would wake her sister, of course. While Elspeth was busy soothing baby Faith, Brenna would drag her blanket to her parents' chamber. When her papa was away from home doing important work the king could give only to someone as trustworthy and loyal as he was, she'd sneak into the big bed and cuddle up next to her mama, and when her papa was home, she'd sleep on the cold floor right next to Courage, his beautiful silver-handled sword Mama swore he loved almost as much as his children. Brenna felt safest when her papa was there because his loud snores always lulled her back to sleep. Demons didn't try to crawl in through the window and nightmares about being left behind didn't visit her when she was with her parents. Those horrors wouldn't dare.
"Please tell Brenna to keep her mouth shut when company arrives, Mother," Matilda requested. "She shouts every word. She does it on purpose. When will she stop the vile habit?"
"Soon, dear, soon," her mother replied almost absentmindedly.
Brenna edged closer to her sister. Matilda was bossy by nature, but now that their brothers were away learning how to be as important to their king as their papa, her condition had worsened. She was becoming as bothersome as Elspeth.
"You're a pain in the arse, Mattie."
Her mother heard the remark. "Brenna, you will not use such common language again. Do you understand me?"
"Yes, Mama, but Papa says his arse is paining him all the time. It aches something fierce, it does."
Her mother closed her eyes. "Don't sass me, child."
Brenna's shoulders slumped. She tried to look pitiful. "Mama, I'm sorely weary of everybody telling me what to do all the time. Doesn't anybody like me?"
Her mother wasn't in the mood to placate her daughter. She waved her hand toward the cluster of chairs on the opposite side of the hall.
"Go and sit down, Brenna. Do not say another word until you are given permission to speak. Do it now."
The little girl dragged her feet as she crossed the hall.
"Don't make her sit there all alone too long, Mother. The unfortunate incidents have made her difficult. Papa says it's going to take her time to recover."
Mattie was defending her. Brenna wasn't surprised by the show of loyalty. It was her sister's duty to watch out for her while her brothers were away. But it made Brenna angry that Mattie had brought up the unmentionable. She knew how much Brenna hated being reminded of what had happened to her.
"Yes, dear," her mother replied. "Time and patience."
Mattie let out a loud sigh. "Really, Mother, how can you be so calm about it? Have you no guilt? Even I can understand forgetting one of your children on a single occasion, but twice? It's a wonder the child lets you out of her sight."
Elspeth moved forward to offer her opinion. " 'Tis my fear you'll never catch a husband for that one, mi'lady."
Brenna put her hands over her ears. She hated it when the nursemaid referred to her as "that one." She wasn't one of the piglets, after all.
"I'll catch a husband by myself," Brenna shouted.
Joan walked into the hall in time to hear her sister's boast.
"What have you done this time, Brenna?"
"Then why are you sitting all by yourself? You're usually squeezed up next to Mother, talking her ears off. Tell me what you've done. I promise I won't lecture you."
"I sassed Mama. Did Papa catch your husband for you, Joan?"
"Catch a husband?" she asked. She didn't laugh for fear of hurting Brenna's tender feelings, but she couldn't stop herself from smiling.
"I suppose he did," she admitted.
"Did you help?"
"No. I'll meet my husband on the day I marry him."
"Aren't you scared he's ugly?" Brenna whispered.
"What he looks like won't matter. Papa assures me it's a strong alliance," Joan whispered in response.
"Is that good?"
"Oh, yes. Our king has given his approval."
"Rachel says you have to love your husband with your whole heart."
"That's only a foolish wish. When she's old enough, she's going to marry a man named MacNare, and Rachel's never met him. He doesn't even live in England, but Father isn't concerned about that. He was swayed by promises and gifts MacNare gave him."
"Elspeth says Papa won't ever find anyone for me. She says Papa's too busy for the likes of me. I have to catch one by myself. Will you help me?"
Joan smiled. "I can see this is worrying you. I'll be happy to help."
"How do I get one?"
Joan pretended to consider the matter for a long minute before she answered.
"I imagine you select the man you want and then you ask him to marry you. If he lives far away, then you must send a messenger to him. Yes, that would be how you would do it. You know, Brenna, Papa would be unhappy to hear us talking like this. It is his duty to find someone for you. Why are we whispering?"
"Mama told me not to talk."
Joan burst into laughter. The noise alerted Elspeth, who immediately rushed over.
"Please don't encourage her, Lady Joan. Brenna, you were told to keep quiet. Doesn't that mouth of yours ever rest?"
"I'm sorry, Elspeth."
The nursemaid snorted in disbelief. "No, you're not sorry." She moved closer, wagged her finger in front of Brenna's face, and then said, "One of these days God's going to march in here and lecture you sound, young lady. Mark my words. You'll be sorry then. He doesn't like little girls who sass."
Elspeth finally left her alone, and Brenna fell asleep waiting for company to arrive. Her sister Rachel shook her awake and pulled her along to stand with her older sisters.
Brenna hid behind Rachel's back until her name was called and she was dragged out for display. She was suddenly feeling too shy to look up at the company, and as soon as her papa finished bragging about her, she moved behind her sister again.
None of the strangers paid any attention to her, and so she decided to sneak out of the hall while everyone was ignoring her. She turned around, took one step toward the entrance, and then came to a quick stop.
Three giants came through the door. She was too stunned to move. The one in the middle was taller than the other two and held her interest the longest. She watched him closely, and when her parents hurried forward to greet the newcomers, she realized he was even bigger than her own papa.
She grabbed hold of Rachel's hand and started tugging. Her sister took a long time to look down.
"What is it?" she whispered.
"He isn't God, is he?" she asked, pointing to the dark-haired guest.
Rachel rolled her eyes heavenward. "No, he most certainly isn't God."
"Did Papa lie to me? He told me only God is bigger than he is, Rachel."
"No, Papa didn't lie. He was just teasing you. That's all. You don't need to be afraid."
Brenna was thoroughly relieved. Papa hadn't deceived her, after all, and God hadn't bothered to come down from heaven to lecture her. There was still time for her to change what Elspeth told her was her sinful life.
Her papa drew her attention when he let out a bellow of laughter. She smiled because he was having such a fine time, and then she turned to look at the middle one again. She'd been told time and again that it was rude to stare, but she didn't pay any attention to her mother's rule now. The giant mesmerized her, and she wanted to remember everything she could about him.
He must have felt her staring at him, though, because he suddenly turned and looked directly at her.
Brenna decided to make her papa proud of her and behave like a proper young lady. She grabbed a fistful of her skirt, hiked it up to her knees, and then bent down to curtsy. She promptly lost her balance and almost hit her head against the floor, but she was quick enough to lean back so she could land on her bottom.
She stood back up, remembered to let go of her skirts, and then peeked up at the stranger to see what he thought about her newly acquired skill.
The giant smiled at her.
As soon as he looked away, she squeezed herself up against Rachel's backside again.
"I'm going to marry him," she whispered.
Rachel smiled. "That's nice."
Brenna solemnly nodded. Yes, it was nice.
Now all she had to do was ask.
Papa let his daughters leave the hall a few minutes later. Brenna waited until everyone else had gone upstairs, then ran back outside. She was determined to catch one of the piglets today so she would finally have a pet of her very own. She would have preferred a pup, but Papa had let her older brothers and sisters have them all, and none were left for her, and she meant to right his terrible wrong by taking one of the piglets.
Luck was on her side. The piglets' mama had once again left the pen and was now sleeping in a mud pool on the far side of the stables halfway down the hill. Brenna tried not to make any noise, but she slipped in the mud and made a loud splatter anyway. The babies must have worn their mama out. She didn't even lift her head or open her eyes. Brenna heard the loud squeak of the front doors being opened next, but when no one shouted at her, she was certain she hadn't been seen.
The piglets made her task easy, for they had rolled themselves into little balls and were sleeping on top of each other. Brenna scooped one into the hem of her skirts, wrapped it up tight, and then clutched it against her chest. She thought to run to the kitchens and hide her prize there, and she was sure she would have succeeded with her plan, if her new pet hadn't made such a fuss about it all.
Brenna didn't realize her jeopardy until she was outside the pen and heard a horrible noise coming toward her. Pigs weren't supposed to fly, but the enraged mama seemed to be doing just that. Her head was down, her feet were moving faster than a bolt of lightning, and her intent was clearly issued with an ear-shattering squeal that sounded like the devil himself rising out of the bowels of hell to get her.
Brenna opened her mouth and let out a wail every bit as worthy as her predator's. Too terrified to think, she ran in circles, around and around the pen, her hair flying every which way, mud splattering everywhere, clutching her piglet in her arms as she screamed over and over again for her papa to come and save her.
The sight that befell her parents was horrifying. Their sweet little angel was covered with mud and running around like a hen without her head.
Everyone started running at the same time. Papa didn't rescue her, for he had neither the speed nor the stride; the giant who had smiled at her did. And just in the nick of time.
The mama's snout tripped her, and just as Brenna was being pitched to the ground, she felt herself being lifted high into the air. She squeezed her eyes shut, remembered to stop screaming, and then looked around again. She was still in his arms, yet on the opposite side of the fence a fair distance away from the pen. She couldn't imagine how he'd been able to jump over the obstacle.
Chaos surrounded them. Everyone was running toward her. Her papa was the last one to reach the fence. He was still panting when she heard him ask his company if they knew what had caused the animal to attack his dear little Faith.
Brenna wasn't offended. Papa was always getting their names confused. He'd remember by nightfall though, and from the look in his eyes, she knew what would happen then. She'd spend a good hour sitting on his knobby knees while he scolded her. She didn't even want to think about what her punishment would be if he discovered what she had hidden in her skirts. She fervently hoped he never found out.
She knew her savior could feel her pet wiggling between them, and she finally gathered enough courage to look up at him to see what he was going to do about it. He looked surprised, and when the piglet let out another squeal, he smiled.
She was so happy he wasn't angry, she smiled back before she could remember to be shy.
One of his friends stepped closer to the fence. "Connor, is everything all right?" He turned to answer. Brenna stopped him by putting her hand on the side of his face and nudging him back to her again. She whispered her plea then. He must not have heard her, because he leaned down closer until their foreheads were almost touching.
The giant suddenly threw his head back and roared with laughter. She told him to hush, but that only made him laugh all the more. He didn't tell on her, though, and once he'd put her back down, she was able to run past her papa before he could grab hold of her.
"Come back here, Brenna."
She pretended she didn't hear him and continued on. It wasn't until she was safely hidden under the kitchen table, with her new baby sleeping in her lap, that she realized she'd forgotten to ask the man to marry her. She wasn't discouraged. She would ask him tomorrow, and if he told her no, she would come up with another plan. One way or another, she meant to catch him and save her papa the trouble.
Copyright © 1996 by Julie Garwood