While all the servants were busy searching for her, Brenna sat at the kitchen table with Ada, trying to communicate. Determined to make the first meal she shared with her stepmother as perfect as any of the holiday feasts her mother had served, Brenna had already spent at least a half hour explaining, or rather, attempting to explain, what was to be served and when. Her goal was to impress Euphemia so that the woman would have no doubts Connor had indeed married well. Discussing the menu proved to be an arduous undertaking, for though the elderly woman's smile indicated her willingness to be of assistance, it was apparent she didn't understand more than a word or two of her mistress's instructions, and if Netta hadn't come to her rescue, heaven only knew what would have ended up on the table. Netta translated Brenna's Gaelic into a twisted dialect only she and Ada and God could possibly understand.
Netta was obviously a treasure. Although the servant was only a few years older than Brenna and had served her laird's household only for one short year, she had lived on MacAlister land almost as long as Connor had and therefore knew all of the goings-on. More important, Netta knew how to acquire necessary items for her mistress.
Once Brenna had explained what she wanted to accomplish in the great hall to make it more welcoming to company in general, and her husband in particular, the servant begged to take over the tasks of organizing the household servants and volunteered to spend the afternoon braiding rushes. She promised the floor would be cleaned and sprinkled with rushes here and there by the middle of the following morning.
"I would rather we keep them hidden away until I've finished sewing the cushions for the benches and collected a few more things for the hall. When everything is finished, we'll make the changes all at once."
Both Netta and Ada were soon caught up in their mistress's enthusiasm. Netta was full of suggestions.
"As for the chairs you're wanting, mistress, I know for a certainty there are two nice tall ones, close in size to the one our laird prefers when he sits for his meals. They're in the tanner's hut, covered up tight,"
she added. "Lothar's known for scavenging out this and that from cottages that have sat vacant for a decent interval so no one will think him a thief. He doesn't have any use at all for the chairs—he told me so himself—and he threatened to burn them for firewood so he'll have room to collect more. He'd be willing and honored to give them up to you, and might be he has other things you'll be wanting. I'll give you fair warning, though. Lothar's a talker, and it won't do you any good at all to mention you're in a hurry. He won't take your hints because he's lonely now that his wife passed on, and he likes having company around."
"I'll be happy to sit with him for as long as he wishes," Brenna said.
Thrilled with the news that she could implement her plans for the hall sooner than she'd anticipated, she asked Netta to show her where Lothar's cottage was located, but the servant happened to remember her primary reason for searching her mistress out then and hastily told her important news.
"Lady Euphemia's son is here, mi'lady."
The announcement caused her mistress to jump up and hurry to the door. If Ada hadn't given Netta a good nudge in her side, she would have forgotten the question her friend had begged her to ask.
"Mi'lady, could you spare one more minute to put Ada's mind to rest?"
Brenna paused at the door.
"Ada's started fretting you'll want to replace her because she has so much trouble understanding you.
She's prone to worry…" The servant stopped her explanation when Lady Brenna went hurrying over to the cook and took hold of her hand.
"You'll be the mistress of the kitchens as long as you wish, Ada," she promised her, and after waiting until Netta had translated her promise, Brenna continued. "I'm the one with the problem of making myself understood, but if you'll have patience with me, I'm certain I'll improve."
Convinced her mistress meant to let her keep her important position, Ada squeezed Brenna's hand to let her know how appreciative she was and bobbed her head up and down in understanding. She was dabbing at the corners of her eyes with the cloth Netta handed her when their mistress left the kitchen.
Outside, the sky was overcast with dark gray shadows, an unwelcome sight to Brenna, who was used to being forced inside by her family whenever so much as a drip came down from the skies. She was fortunate to reach the back door before the heavy rain began.
She tried not to make any noise as she eased the door closed behind her. She didn't want to disturb the reunion between mother and son and thought only to wait by the door to the hall until there was a satisfactory lull in the conversation before she entered the room. Her plan was to quickly introduce herself, make certain both Euphemia and Raen were comfortable and had everything they needed, and then leave again so they could catch up on each other's news.
She heard Euphemia's whispered remarks and assumed she was talking to Raen.
"I don't know if Connor married well or not. Brenna's a pretty little thing, but she's barely grown and cannot possibly have acquired the skills necessary to run a household. She seems very eager to please, and from what I've observed, I would say she's already loyal to Connor. Pity she doesn't have an older woman to show her the way, but then, very soon now, that won't matter, will it? There can be only one mistress here."
"Pretty, you say? Describe her to me," Raen insisted.
"For heaven's sake, you would ask about such inconsequential things," Euphemia scolded. "Couple with camp followers if you must, but put aside any lustful thought for another man's wife. Have you learned nothing in the past few years? You would jeopardize everything if you…"
"Calm yourself, Mother," Raen ordered, his voice sharp with irritation. "I was merely curious. You insult me by suggesting I would even consider bedding a married woman."
"You've done it before, Raen," she reminded him. "Several times, as I recall."
"When I was too young to know any better," he said. "Connor must be pleased with his wife. Do they seem happy to you?"
"From what I've observed, I would have to conclude Connor is very unhappy. I haven't spent sufficient time with her to ascertain how she feels about him."
"If she satisfies him in bed, what more could he want? I for one wouldn't care what my wife's other skills were."
"Is mating all you ever think about?"
"Most men think of little else. I'm no different, Mother, so you can quit scowling at me with disapproval."
"I cannot know for certain, of course, but I would have to assume she doesn't satisfy him in bed either.
He moved her out of his bedroom and into another earlier today. She must have gone to him and pleaded, or perhaps she reminded him she couldn't give him an heir unless he bedded her."
"Did she convince him?"
"Yes," Euphemia answered. "Just an hour past, I saw one of his men carrying her clothing back into Connor's chamber."
"You make him sound quite miserable," Raen remarked with a laugh.
"I believe he is," his mother said with conviction. "I don't feel sorry for him, of course. He married her out of spite and has no one to blame but himself. Do you know he didn't even steal the woman he went after?"
"What nonsense is this?"
"I'm telling you the truth. Brenna's father promised MacNare one daughter and sent him another."
"How very English," Raen muttered, his voice as caustic as lye.
Brenna's face felt as though it were on fire, so embarrassed was she by the conversation about Connor's physical satisfaction with her, or rather, dissatisfaction. Intimate matters between a husband and his wife should never be discussed by others. Were Connor's relatives so uneducated and crude because they lived in the barbaric land in the north and simply didn't know any better?
Although it didn't seem possible, her embarrassment had intensified a moment later when Euphemia mentioned that Connor hadn't even captured the woman he'd wanted.
His stepmother had it all wrong. Connor hadn't known or cared which sister was being sent to MacNare; he simply intended to steal the man's bride, and that's exactly what he did. But how in heaven's name had Euphemia found out what her father had done? It seemed perfectly plausible to Brenna that his stepmother would have been privy to the feud going on between the MacNares and the MacAlisters—everyone in the Highlands knew about it—and it was also plausible that she had heard from others that MacNare planned to marry a woman from England.
It didn't seem plausible that she would have also heard that one sister had been promised and another sent, unless Connor had told her.
Why would he have done such a thing? It wasn't like him to ever tell anyone anything he was planning, except for Alec and his two close friends, Crispin and Quinlan, of course, but they were just like Connor.
They wouldn't have told Euphemia something they would consider inconsequential.
She leaned heavily against the door while she tried to come up with a reasonable explanation. She felt humiliated and worthless, but then, why wouldn't she? Her own father had treated her with callous disregard when he'd snatched her out of her warm bed and sent her to MacNare without so much as a fare-thee-well.
Had Connor been disloyal to her? She shook her head as soon as the possibility came into her mind.
Granted, her husband had a considerable list of flaws that were bound to drive her daft by the time she was an old woman, yet he also had a fair number of virtues. He was above all else an honorable man, of that she was absolutely certain, and honorable men didn't deliberately embarrass their wives.
Heaven only knew how Euphemia had found out, but one day, when Brenna had won her approval and friendship, she would get up the courage to ask her.
The immediate problem facing her was proving to Euphemia that although she was young, she was still quite capable of running Connor's home. His stepmother hadn't said anything unkind about her, which gave Brenna considerable hope that she would be able to prove herself in no time at all.
Connor's family should be important to her, and jn the back of her mind she knew that once he noticed how she accepted his relatives, he would realize he should give her side of the family the same consideration. At the very least, he should show some interest in listening to her talk about her brothers and sisters. He didn't even know their names now. In time he would, she vowed.
Her work was cut out for her, but she'd never backed away from a challenge before, and she wasn't about to back away now. Her ultimate goal was to turn an unfeeling, hardened warrior into a loving husband, and one way or another, she would make it happen. Training a bear to genuflect would probably be easier than teaching Connor to be thoughtful. Still, it could be done, couldn't it?
She straightened away from the door and with renewed determination and a firm plan in her mind, she took a slow, deep breath and opened the back door. Then she slammed it shut so Euphemia and Raen would hear, forced a smile on her face, and went inside.
"Good day, Lady MacAlister," she called out from the doorway.
"Good day, Brenna. I'm happy you could join us. We've been waiting for you quite a long time now."
"I apologize if I kept you waiting. I was in the kitchens going over tonight's meal."
"Come forward, child, so I may introduce you to my son."
She felt a surge of anger at being called a child, quickly suppressed it, and did as she was asked. Raen was standing by the hearth. She intended to go to him before she curtsied, but Euphemia's son got to her first. 'Twas a fact, he actually ran, but thankfully he had enough presence of mind to stop before he ran her down. A bit unsettled by his enthusiasm, she took a quick step back to put a decent amount of distance between them.
"My son's name is Raen," Euphemia called out. "And from the look on his face, I can only conclude you've given him quite a start. Son, where are your manners?" she added in a sweet voice.
And still he didn't say a word. His close scrutiny made her uneasy in no time at all. What was the matter with him?
"It's a pleasure to meet you," she blurted out, looking up at him while she waited for him to stop gawking at her and say something in return.
She was surprised the man standing before her was related to Euphemia. They didn't look anything alike.
Raen evidently favored his father's side of the family, which really wasn't all that fortunate, because they must have been rather dull-looking people.
He wasn't unpleasantly dull, just rather ordinary, with lackluster features and pale coloring and hazel eyes that couldn't decide what color to be. He was tall, nearly as tall as Connor, as a matter of fact, yet given to fat around his chest, not muscle, which meant he didn't do much strenuous work on his land.
The way he was staring at her made her horribly uncomfortable. His gaze had been centered on her mouth for surely what must have been a full minute, and then dropped to her breasts, where it lingered even now.
It wasn't appropriate behavior at all. But he was from the far north, she reminded herself, and therefore didn't know any better.
"You're a very beautiful woman, Brenna," he whispered, as he clasped her hand in his. "I hope Connor realizes your value."
"Surely you realize a woman's value isn't determined by her appearance, but what is inside her heart, and I assure you, Raen, my husband does recognize my worth. I do thank you for your compliment," she hastily added, lest he take offense because she'd just instructed him.
"Yes, of course," he agreed. He bowed low to her then, and while he was telling her how very eager he'd been to meet her, he was slowly rubbing his thumb back and forth along the palm of her hand. She couldn't understand why he would want to do such a thing. She certainly didn't enjoy it, but when she tried to pull away from him, he tightened his hold. She made up her mind then and there that she would be polite to the man, but never, ever like him.
"Come and sit with me at the table. I'm getting an ache in my back craning around to look at you,"
Euphemia called out.
Seizing the opportunity, Brenna jerked her hand away before turning to his mother. "Madam, wouldn't you be more comfortable sitting in the tall chair?"
"You want me to sit at the head of the table while Connor is away?" , Euphemia apparently didn't need an answer to her question, for quicker than a goblet can be tossed from the table to the floor, she took possession of the position of power. "You are very thoughtful, child."