Book 3 in the Captive Hearts series
After years at war, Michael Brodie comes home to his Scottish estate to find his clan expects him to set aside Brenna, the arranged bride he left behind nearly a decade ago. To make matters worse, Michael’s Uncle Angus, whom Michael relied on to manage state matters, is also impatient with Brenna’s independence and contrariness, though the clansmen and tenants loathe Angus, too.
Michael will not abandon a wife who has loyally—if angrily—waited for his return, but he soon realizes the resentments stirring among his family have deep, miserable roots, and the war he left behind was paltry compared to the battle he must fight to win his wife’s heart, and keep her in her rightful place at his side.
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“Elspeth, I believe a Viking has come calling.”
At Brenna’s puzzled observation, her maid set aside the embroidery hoop serving as a pretext for enjoying the Scottish summer sun, rose off the stone bench, and joined Brenna at the parapets.
“If Vikings are to ruin your afternoon tea, better if they arrive one at a time,” Elspeth said, peering down at the castle’s main gate. “Though that’s a big one, even for a Viking.”
The gate hadn’t been manned for at least two centuries, and yet, some instinct had Brenna wishing she’d given the command to lower the portcullis before the lone rider had crossed into the cobbled keep.
“Lovely horse,” Elspeth remarked.
The beast was an enormous, elegant bay, though its coat was matted with sweat and dust. From her vantage point high on Castle Brodie’s walls, all Brenna could tell about the rider was that he was big, broad-shouldered, and blond. “Our visitor is alone, likely far from home, hungry and tired. If we’re to offer him hospitality, I’d best inform the kitchen.”
Highland hospitality had grown tattered and threadbare in some locations, but not at Castle Brodie, and it would not, as long as Brenna had the running of the place.
“He looks familiar,” Elspeth said as the rider swung off his beast.
No, Elspeth hadn’t meant the horse, because now that the rider was walking his mount toward the groom approaching from the stables, Brenna had the same sense of nagging familiarity. She knew that loose-limbed stride, knew that exact manner of stroking a horse’s neck, knew—
Foreboding prickled up Brenna’s arms, an instant before recognition landed in a cold heap in her belly.
“Michael has come home.” Nine years of waiting and worrying while the Corsican had wreaked havoc on the Continent, of not knowing what to wish for.
Her damned husband hadn’t even had the courtesy to warn her of his return.
Elspeth peered over the stone crenellations, her expression dubious. “If that’s the laird, you’d best go welcome him, though I don’t see much in the way of baggage. Perhaps, if you’re lucky, he’ll soon be off larking about on some new battlefield.”
“For shame, Elspeth Fraser.”
A woman ought not to talk that way about her laird, and a wife ought not to think that way about her husband. Brenna wound down through the castle and took herself out into the courtyard, both rage and gratitude speeding her along.
She’d had endless Highland winters to rehearse the speech Michael deserved, years to practice the dignified reserve she’d exhibit before him should he ever recall he had a home. Alas for her, the cobbles were wet from a recent scrubbing, so her dignified reserve more or less skidded to a halt before her husband.
Strong hands steadied her as she gazed up, and up some more, into green eyes both familiar and unknown.
“You’ve come home.” Not at all what she’d meant to say.
“That I have. If you would be so good, madam, as to allow the lady of the—Brenna?”
His hands fell away, and Brenna stepped back, wrapping her tartan shawl around her more closely.
“Welcome to Brodie Castle, Michael.” Because somebody ought to say the words, she added, “Welcome home.”
“You used to be chubby.” He leveled this accusation as if put out that somebody had made off with that chubby girl.
“You used to be skinny.” Now he was all-over muscle. He’d gone away a tall, gangly fellow, and come back not simply a man, but a warrior. “Perhaps you’re hungry?”
She did not know what to do with a husband, much less this husband, who bore so little resemblance to the young man she’d married, but Brenna knew well what to do with a hungry man.
“I am…” His gaze traveled the courtyard the way a skilled gunner might swivel his sights on a moving target, making a circuit of the granite walls rising some thirty feet on three sides of the bailey. His expression suggested he was making sure the castle, at least, had remained where he’d left it. “I am famished.”
“Come along then.” Brenna turned and started for the entrance to the main hall, but Michael remained in the middle of the courtyard, still peering about. Potted geraniums were in riot, pink roses climbed trellises under the first-floor windows, and window boxes held all manner of blooms.
“You’ve planted flowers.”
Another near accusation, for nine years ago, the only flowers in the keep were stray shrubs of heather springing up in sheltered corners.
Brenna returned to her husband’s side, trying to see the courtyard from his perspective. “One must occupy oneself somehow while waiting for her spouse to come home—or be killed.”
He needed to know that for nine years, despite anger, bewilderment, and even the occasional period of striving for indifference toward him and his fate, Brenna had gone to bed every night praying that death did not end his travels.
“One must, indeed, occupy oneself.” He offered her his arm, which underscored how long they’d been separated and how far he’d wandered.
The men of the castle and its tenancies knew to keep their hands to themselves where Brenna MacLogan Brodie was concerned. They did not hold her chair for her, did not assist her in and out of coaches, or on and off of her horse.
And yet, Michael stood there, a muscular arm winged at her, while the scent of slippery cobbles, blooming roses, and a whiff of vetiver filled the air.
“Brenna Maureen, every arrow slit and window of that castle is occupied by a servant or relation watching our reunion. I would like to walk into my home arm in arm with my wife. Will you permit me that courtesy?”
He’d been among the English, the military English, which might explain this fussing over appearances, but he hadn’t lost his Scottish common sense.
Michael had asked her to accommodate him. Brenna wrapped one hand around his thick forearm and allowed him to escort her to the castle.
He could bed his wife. The relief Michael Brodie felt at that sentiment eclipsed the relief of hearing again the languages of his childhood, Gaelic and Scots, both increasingly common as he’d traveled farther north.
To know he could feel desire for his wedded wife surpassed his relief at seeing the castle in good repair, and even eclipsed his relief that the woman didn’t indulge in strong hysterics at the sight of him.
For the wife he’d left behind had been more child than woman, the antithesis of this red-haired Celtic goddess wrapped in the clan’s hunting tartan and so much wounded dignity.
They reached the steps leading up to the great wooden door at the castle entrance. “I wrote to you.”
Brenna did not turn her head. “Perhaps your letters went astray.”
Such gracious indifference. He was capable of bedding his wife—any young man with red blood in his veins would desire the woman at Michael’s side—but clearly, ability did not guarantee he’d have the opportunity.
“I meant, I wrote from Edinburgh to let you know I was coming home.”
“Edinburgh is lovely in summer.”
All of Scotland was lovely in summer, and to a man who’d scorched his back raw under the Andalusian sun, lovely in deepest winter too. “I was in France, Brenna. The King’s post did not frequent Toulouse.”
Outside the door, she paused and studied the scrolled iron plate around the ancient lock.
“We heard you’d deserted, then we heard you’d died. Some of the fellows from your regiment paid calls here, and intimated army gossip is not to be trusted. Then some officer came trotting up the lane a month after the victory, expecting to pay a call on you.”
Standing outside that impenetrable, ancient door, Michael accepted that his decision to serve King and Country had left wounded at home as well as on the Continent.
And yet, apologizing now would only make things worse.
“Had you seen the retreat to Corunna, Brenna, had you seen even one battle—” Because the women saw it all, right along with their husbands and children. Trailing immediately behind the soldiers came a smaller, far more vulnerable army of dependents, suffering and dying in company with their menfolk.
“I begged you to take me with you.” She wrenched the door open, but stepped back, that Michael might precede her into the castle.
She had pleaded and cried for half their wedding night, sounding not so much like a distressed bride as an inconsolable child, and because he’d been only five years her senior, he’d stolen away in the morning while she’d slept, tears still streaking her pale cheeks.
He searched for honest words that would not wound her further.
“I prayed for your well-being every night. The idea that you were here, safe and sound, comforted me.”
She plucked a thorny pink rose from a trellis beside the door and passed the bloom to him.
“Who or what was supposed to comfort me, Michael Brodie? When I was told you’d gone over to the enemy? When I was told you were dead? When I imagined you captured by the French, or worse?”
They stood on the castle steps, their every word available to any in the great hall or lurking at nearby windows. Rather than fret over the possibility that his wife had been unfaithful to him—her questions were offered in rhetorical tones—Michael stepped closer.
“Your husband has come home, and it will be his pleasure to make your comfort his greatest concern.”
He even tried a smile, letting her see that man and wife might have some patching up to do, but man and woman could deal together well and very soon.
She looked baffled—or peevish. He could not read his own wife accurately enough to distinguish between the two.
“Have you baggage, Husband?”
Yes, he did. He gestured for her to go ahead of him into the hall. “Last I heard, the coach was following, but I haven’t much in the way of worldly goods.”
“I’ll have your things put in the blue bedroom.”
When she would have gone swishing off into the bowels of the castle, Michael grabbed her wrist and kept her at his side. She remained facing half-away from him, an ambiguous pose, not resisting, and not exactly drinking in the sight of her long-lost husband, either.
“What’s different?” He studied the great hall he’d stopped seeing in any detail by his third birthday. “Something is different. This place used to be…dark. Like a great ice cave.”
And full of mice and cobwebs.
She twisted her hand free of his.
“Nothing much is different. I had the men enlarge the windows, whitewash the walls, polish the floors. The room wanted light, we had a bit of coin at the time, and the fellows needed something to do.”
“You put a balcony over the fireplace.” She’d also had the place scrubbed from the black-and-white marble floor to the blackened crossbeams, freeing it of literally centuries of dirt.
“The ceilings are so high we lose all the warmth. When we keep the fires going, the reading balcony is warmer than the hall below it.”
She’d taken a medieval hall and domesticated it without ruining its essential nature, made it…comfortable. Or comforting? Bouquets of pink roses graced four of the deep windowsills, and every chair and sofa sported a Brodie plaid folded over the back. Not the darker, more complicated hunting plaid Brenna wore, but the cheerful red, black, and yellow used every day.
“I like it very much, Brenna. The hall is welcoming.” Even if the lady was not.
She studied the great beams twenty feet overhead—or perhaps entreated the heavens for aid—while Michael caught a hint of a smile at his compliment.
That he’d made his wife smile must be considered progress, however miniscule.
Then her smile died. “Angus, good day.”
Michael followed her line of sight to a sturdy kilted fellow standing in the doorway of the shadowed corridor that led to the kitchens. Even in the obscure light, Michael recognized an uncle who had been part older brother and part father, the sight of whom now was every part dear.
“Never say the village gossip was for once true! Our Michael has come home at last.” Angus hustled across the great hall, his kilt flapping against his knees. “Welcome, lad! Welcome at long last, and God be thanked you’re hale and in one grand piece, aren’t you now?”
A hug complete with resounding thumps on the back followed, and in his uncle’s greeting, Michael found the enthusiasm he’d hoped for from his wife.
“Surely the occasion calls for a wee dram,” Angus said. His hair was now completely white, though he was less than twenty years Michael’s senior. He wasn’t as tall as Michael, but his build was muscular, and he looked in great good health.
“The man needs to eat before you’re getting him drunk,” Brenna interjected. She stood a few feet off, directly under crossed claymores that gleamed with the same shine as the rest of the hall.
“We can take a tray in the library, woman,” Angus replied. “When a man hasn’t seen his nephew for nigh ten years, the moment calls for whiskey and none of your fussy little crumpets, aye?”
Brenna twitched the tail of her plaid over her shoulder, a gesture about as casual as a French dragoon swinging into the saddle.
“I will feed my husband a proper meal at a proper table, Angus Brodie, and your wee dram will wait its turn.”
Angus widened his stance, fists going to his hips, suggesting not all battlefields were found on the Continent.
“Uncle, Brenna has the right of it. I haven’t eaten since this morning. One glass of good spirits, and I’d be disgracing my heritage. Food first, and then we’ll find some sipping whiskey.”
Brenna moved off to stick her finger in a white crockery bowl of roses, while Angus treated Michael to a look of good-humored disgruntlement.
“She runs a fine kitchen, does our Brenna. Do it justice, and find me in the office when you’ve eaten your fill. I’m that glad you’re back, lad.”
He strode off, the tassels on his sporran bouncing against his thick thighs, while Brenna shook droplets of water off the end of her finger.
“Does my uncle often cross swords with you?”
She wiped her finger on her plaid. “He does not, not now. He leaves the castle to me. I’m sure your arrival is the only thing that tempted him past the door. What are you hungry for?”
He was hungry for her smiles. A soldier home from war had a right to be hungry for his wife’s smiles.
“Anything will do, though I’ve a longing for a decent scone. The English can’t get them right, you know, and they skimp with the butter and must dab everything with their infernal jams, when what’s wanted is some heather honey.”
Compared to the little curve of her lips he’d seen earlier, this smile was…riveting. Brenna had grown into a lovely woman, but when she aimed that smile at Michael, he had the first inkling she might be a lovable woman, too. Her smile held warmth and welcome, maybe even a touch of approval.
“A batch of scones has just come out of the oven, Michael Brodie. If we hurry, you can get your share before the cousins come raiding.”
He followed her into the depths of the house, watching her skirts twitch, and entertaining naughty, husbandly thoughts.
Until he recalled that the blue bedroom where Brenna was sending his baggage was a guest chamber, across a cold, drafty hallway and several doors down from the laird’s apartments.
He was Michael, and he was not, this Viking come calling. His table manners were still fastidious—some might say elegant—without being pernickety, his eyes were the same shade of green, and he still bore a light scent of vetiver… And yet he was not the man she’d married.
Brenna buttered him another scone—his third—and set it on his plate. “I have tried without success to hate you, you know.”
He paused, a bite of roast grouse held halfway to his mouth. “To what do you attribute your failure?”
Good of him, not to scold her for raising the topic when he’d been home less than an hour. “I used to like you.” She had not meant to sound so wistful.
His smile was the same as her many memories of it, tipping up at the right side of his mouth first, and revealing a dimple in his right cheek. “One hopes you married a fellow you liked.”
She would have married nearly anybody who’d offered. “You used to tease me, but you were never mean about it.”
He’d also kept his hands to himself—hands that didn’t sport dirty fingernails, no matter how hungry he’d been when he came to the table.
He offered her the scone she’d just buttered. “You’ve been watching me eat for nigh half an hour, my lady, and the food is ambrosial. Please have at least a nibble.”
Brenna accepted the scone, tore off a bite with her fingers, and set the rest back on his plate. Before she took a bite, she tried to steer the discussion in the direction it needed to go. “I wondered if you regretted our marriage.”
She popped the bite of sweet into her mouth, mostly to give herself time to digest his answer, for it had been as swift and certain as a bolt from a crossbow. “Then why did you leave me a maid, Michael?”
“So I would not instead leave you a mother.” He spoke gently and held out another bite of scone to her, his fingers glistening with butter and honey.
His green eyes used to be full of laughter and confidence, and now they held shadows. He wasn’t lying, but neither was he being entirely honest. Brenna took the food from his hand, realizing she was hungry too, and dinner still some hours away.
“We eat late this time of year. The days are so long, and the nights so short.”
He went back to cleaning his plate, suggesting he was prudent as well as hungry. “Do I have time for a bath before the meal?”
“You do.” Brenna dispatched her bite of scone, licked her fingers, and caught her husband watching. “I’ll order you a bath.”
She scooted her chair back, and Michael was on his feet with a speed that astonished.
“You needn’t observe the parlor courtesies with me, Michael. I’ve been doing without somebody to hold my chair for years.” She moved away, she did not scurry.
“When you remind me of that, you don’t mean it as a scold, but I hear it was such. Will you assist at my bath? One anticipates a wife might perform that service for her husband.”
He was reminding her that their separation had not been entirely easy for him either, drat the man.
“I’m not scolding. I’m…” She was hungry and tired, and not a little resentful of her husband now that he had returned—though she’d also resented his absence. Part of her wanted to assist at that bath, to touch him and make sure he was real. Another part of her nearly hated him.
“I did not wake up this morning anticipating that my husband might come home today. I got out of the habit of wishing for that, and now here you are, and what’s to be done with you?”
What’s to be done with us?
In some fashion understood only by soldiers who’d seen years of death, did he nearly hate her and all who’d spent those same years at peace?
He slid her chair back to its place at the table. “We will talk about what’s to be done, but first I’ll wash the dust of the road from my carcass, have a wee tot with Angus, and then a ramble around the castle. My thanks for the food. It’s the best I’ve had since leaving home.”
He seemed sincere, but that was the problem with men—they could so easily seem sincere. Or maybe, and this was an old conundrum, the problem was Brenna’s discernment.
She took herself off to the kitchens, both to relay the laird’s compliments and to arrange his bath. Under the circumstances, Angus might have assisted at his nephew’s bath, but Brenna couldn’t stomach such a notion.
Angus hadn’t even used the front door to come into the castle, but had let himself in through the kitchens, as if he still lived here or was perhaps anticipating living here again.
Which he might do, over Brenna’s dead body.
Brenna was Michael’s wife, and Michael had asked her to assist him at his bath. She was prepared to meet that challenge until she found the tub, not in the blue bedroom, but in the laird’s very bedchamber.
The presumption of it, that he’d countermand her orders, added more than a dollop of rage to her near-hatred.
“You’ve changed things in here, too,” Michael said as the maids dumped the last of the water into the tub, all the while stealing glances at the prodigal laird. “My wife likes our home light and cheery. This is fortunate, because I do too.”
Did he expect a light and cheery marriage? With her?
“Give me your boots, sir. Hugh’s eldest does a wonderful job with them. Have you a shaving kit that I can fetch from among your things?”
He settled into the rocking chair where Brenna preferred to do her embroidery at the end of the day. The chair was old and quite heavy—like much about the castle—and yet it creaked under Michael’s weight.
“I shaved this morning. Do I still have a kilt somewhere on the premises? I have a dress kilt among my things. I assume I’ll wear that tomorrow when we review the staff.”
A dusty boot came off, revealing a stocking-clad, muscular calf and a big right foot.
Brenna pretended to test the temperature of the water, which was wonderfully hot. “You haven’t developed a taste for southern attire?”
“I’ve had a bellyful of southern everything. I’ve missed home, missed it terribly.” The second boot came off, and he held them out to her.
He hadn’t missed her terribly, and while that ought to be a relief, it also rankled. Exceedingly.
Brenna took his boots and found wee Lachlan waiting for them outside the door, which denied her the excuse of taking the boots all the way down to the kitchen.
“Thank you, Lachlan, and mind you do a good job. Fetch me one of your da’s work kilts and a clean shirt from the laundry, and leave them in the sitting room before you start on the boots.”
The boy scampered off, his grin revealing two missing front teeth. Behind her, Brenna heard her husband rising from the rocking chair.
“You will be happy to know you’re a baroness,” he said, unbuttoning his waistcoat. “Or you will be shortly. I was hoping to escape with a mere knighthood, or a baronetcy, but the regent gets sentimental about his soldiers.”
“I’m a baroness?” If he’d told her she was with child, she could not have been more surprised. “You’re to be given a title?”
He draped the waistcoat over the shoulders of the rocker, where it looked both odd and cozily appropriate. “When you heard I’d gone over to the enemy, I was in fact on the King’s business, or so my superior officer would have it. Would you help me with this knot?”
Brenna crossed the room and stood before him as he raised his chin. “Conducting the King’s business in Toulouse could not have been very safe, Michael Brodie.” She loosened the knot, which he had indeed yanked into something entirely unfashionable.
Staring at the breadth of his shoulders, Brenna was abruptly reminded that in addition to being her errant husband—and now a peer of the realm!—Michael Brodie was the smiling, teasing, decent man who’d married her when he might have repudiated the bargain their fathers had struck years ago.
How many times had he cheated death in the past nine years?
A queer feeling assaulted her knees as she studied his throat. “I would not have liked to find myself your widow.”
Whatever emotions she was battling—anger, resentment, bewilderment, relief—any of them was a better bargain than sorrow.
His arms as they came around her were tentative, but surprisingly welcome. “One is cheered to hear this.”
“You sound English,” she said, pulling back but smiling to be able to insult him. “You dress English.”
“And yet, the English could barely understand me, at first.” He passed her his wrinkled cravat, which she hung over his waistcoat. “You are not pleased about being a baroness.”
The voluminous linen shirt he unbuttoned probably cost enough to feed a crofter and his family for months, and yet, Michael expected her to be pleased about this title business.
“A title is another surprise, and I do not like surprises. Have you ambitions to join the Scottish delegation?”
“No, I do not. Those poor bastards must mince about London for much of the year, pretending they have some influence with a group of lords who’ve never dug a potato or imbibed decent whiskey in their fat, pampered lives. No more French for me, no more English, and I’m not entirely keen on the Irish or the Germans at present, either.”
The shirt came off over his head, which necessitated that Brenna test the water again. It had not cooled in the least. “Your mother was Irish, sir, and the daughter of an Irish earl. A true lady.”
And his sisters had been sent to Ireland not long after he’d left the castle.
“As Wellington is Irish,” he said, tossing her his shirt, “though His Grace disdains mention of it. It was the duchess’s friendship with Mama that brought me to Wellington’s notice.”
Brenna folded the shirt, an extravagance of pale fabric, meticulous seams, and tiny stitches, a shirt she might have made for him had he remained at home. A shirt he might have died wearing.
This peculiar, domestic conversation juxtaposed with increasing displays of Michael’s bare skin had anxiety cresting up toward panic in Brenna’s belly.
“Are you used to ladies assisting you at your bath?” Because she was surely not used to this casual disrobing he accomplished all too quickly. Maybe a soldier learned this lack of modesty, along with how to march and shoot. Michael’s chest and shoulders rippled with muscle, his arms were roped with it, and his belly…she draped the shirt ever so carefully over the chair back.
Michael paused, his hands on his falls. “I am not used to having anybody’s assistance with a bath. For months, the only places I could bathe were ponds and streams, and to do so was to risk the loss of my clothing, if not my liberty or my life.” He undid a couple of buttons on each side of his breeches and shot her a puzzled look. “Are you shy, Brenna Maureen?”
He’d gone a bit Scottish on her. “Are ye shy…?”
While she’d gone a bit red in the cheeks. “I’ve seen many a naked man, more than I’ve ever wished to.”
She shouldn’t have said that, and not because it piqued her husband’s interest.
“Oh, have you now?” He prowled across the room. “So if I drop these breeches you won’t be torn between the urge to shamelessly stare at the long-lost family jewels and the inclination to run from the castle in a maidenly fright?”
In the next room, somebody opened the door, then a moment later, closed it.
“That will be Lachlan with your clean clothes.”
Brenna might have ducked past her husband, but he stood there, naked to the waist, his tone not quite teasing, and his mouth not quite smiling. “Brenna Maureen?”
She’d always liked the way he’d said her name, musically, like an endearment. Now was an inconvenient moment to recall such a thing.
And yet, as angry as she was with Michael, she did not want to hurt him avoidably, not even for the sake of her pride.
“I see my cousins and the fellows from the village bathing in the loch all the time. They know good and well when Elspeth and I are on the parapets or in the solar, and those men have no modesty. Elspeth finds them vastly entertaining. She fancies Lachlan’s papa, though I doubt he’s aware of her feelings.”
Michael peered down at her. “What does Lachlan’s mother think of a devotion to cleanliness that requires strutting and pawing in the altogether before decent women?”
“Annie’s been gone five years, Michael.” Brenna moved off to the wardrobe, where she stored her soaps and flannels. She rummaged longer than necessary, trying to locate her emotional balance and failing.
“Would you mind fetching my clean clothes?” Michael asked. “You’ll have to make me a list of who’s left us, who’s been born or wed. I ought to know these things before I start on my tenant calls.”
He sounded neither resigned nor resentful, but perhaps resolute. Brenna left the room, starting that list in her head, for many families had departed for the New World, and in nine years, any family seat would see its share of deaths—also a few births. When she returned to the bedroom, Michael was ensconced in the tub and busily lathering his chest.
Which was a kindness on his part, truly it was.
If Brenna had strayed during the years of Michael’s absence, she hadn’t wandered very far or very often. Judging from her excessive modesty, she’d done her frolicking in the dark of night under several blankets and without a single candle lit.
Which in one sense was a pity—virgins and their near equivalent were rumored to be a howling lot of work—and in another was a sweet, sweet relief.
“I think I’ll shave after all,” Michael said when he’d rendered himself cleaner than he’d been in days. “Perhaps you’d retrieve my kit for me?”
His wife left the room as if a squad of dragoons were galloping down on her, which allowed Michael time to climb out of the tub, towel off, and pin on the plain, dark work kilt. The only assistance he’d asked of his wife was to rinse his hair when he’d made use of her soaps, and even this had provoked blushes from her.
And silence. Brenna had been a quiet girl; she was a silent woman.
“Thank you,” Michael said, taking his kit from her and moving to the window. Brodie Castle was in truth an Elizabethan manor with a stone keep anchoring its central wing, but in deference to Highland winters, the walls were thick throughout.
Michael unrolled grooming scissors, a razor, comb, whetstone, and shaving brush, the last of which he swished in the tub and lathered up using Brenna’s soap.
“You scent the soap with heather and what else?” he asked, because small talk seemed the safest undertaking with a wife who had reason enough to hate him.
“Lavender, a bit of rosemary, a drop of vetiver. I use what’s on hand, and what’s in season. The rose oil I save to make gifts.”
Michael wet the razor and lifted his chin. “What time should we muster the castle staff tomorrow? They’re impatient to inspect me, I’m sure.”
In the mirror, he saw that his wife had stopped tidying up in the vicinity of the tub—or stopped pretending to tidy up. He’d been careful not to splash a single drop on her floors. She instead watched him as he scraped whiskers off his throat.
“We’ll get that out of the way early. There’s work to do, and the weather should be fair.”
Early by Highland summer standards was not a sanguine thought for a man who’d traveled hundreds of miles on horseback. “Early it is. Is auld Maudie still keeping house for us?”
“And does Dabnich mind the tenants and farms?”
Brenna’s expression gave away nothing, which piqued Michael’s curiosity. “Angus has taken on those responsibilities. Dabnich’s boys moved to Boston, and he and the missus followed.”
Michael considered this while tending to his upper lip. “Would you mind if I grew a beard?” He hated beards. They itched and made eating a fussier undertaking. He was becoming none too keen on conversation with his wife either.
“You must do as you please.”
“Have you time to trim my hair then?”
Because he was determined that she not spend their entire marriage across a room from him, and even as a very young lady, Brenna had not easily abided untidiness.
“I like your hair.”
He nicked himself on the jaw. “You like my hair?”
She opened the wardrobe to put away her scents and soaps. “Aye. There’s more red in it now. Two red-haired people usually have red-haired children.”
Because she might turn and see his face in the mirror, Michael did not smile, but she’d recalled the color of his hair when he’d departed years ago, and she contemplated procreation with him.
More progress, but like the damned French, she gave up ground only grudgingly.
“May I have that shirt?”
She had folded the clean shirt at least twice, but tossed it to him now. “That one might be a bit small on you. Hugh isn’t as broad through the shoulders.”
Michael’s baroness was not offering a compliment.
Hugh hadn’t access to the London tailors, said to be the best in the world. The shirt was clean and well made nonetheless. Michael left the top two buttons open to accommodate the more snug fit.
“I’m sure I have a clean cravat somewhere in my bag.” This time, rather than provide his lady with yet another excuse to depart from his presence, he crossed the hall himself and retrieved his entire traveling bag.
As he stood before the mirror and wrapped his neckcloth around his throat, Michael caught sight of Brenna in the mirror, arms crossed, plaid shawl wrapped tight. “Why the frown, Wife?”
He wished she’d object to his moving his effects into what was clearly her bedroom. Wished she’d join battle, because an altercation of any sort required that two parties engage each other.
“Will you sashay about the castle barefoot?”
“Half the women in Edinburgh are barefoot as we speak, shoes being too precious to waste on summer wear.”
When he expected she’d inform him he was not a fishmonger’s wife plying her wares on the lowland docks, Brenna instead tossed his shaving water into the tub, wiped off his razor, threw his towel onto the stack of damp flannels on the floor, and started rolling up his kit.
“You would have made an excellent officer’s wife.”
She passed him his kit, the ties fastened in a tidy bow. “Some might say I am an officer’s wife.”
She would have made an excellent officer. Rather than lay himself open to another telling toss her of uxorial dagger, Michael focused on brushing his too-long hair back from his face.
“Angus will be expecting you,” Brenna reminded him. “Mind he doesn’t get you too drunk. The staff began inspecting you the moment you rode into the bailey. You were right about that.”
He set the shaving kit aside, determined to gain some concession from her. “If that’s so, I’ll sleep here tonight, Brenna Brodie. We are man and wife, and a baron needs an heir.”
She wrinkled her nose, which made her look young and not as formidable. “Any particular baron?”
Brenna sidestepped as nimbly as if swords had been crossed beneath her verbal feet.
“We are the Baron and Baroness Strathdee.” He liked the sound of it, even if their title did not impress his lady wife.
“We’ve good fishing in the River Dee. I’ll see you at dinner.”
She left the field, off to clean, tidy, polish, or otherwise organize some corner of the house, and yet, Michael did not have the sense he’d inspired his wife into a retreat. A baron might need an heir, but a man married to Brenna Brodie needed his wife’s cooperation if any heirs were to be forthcoming.
On that daunting thought, Michael headed barefoot for the lower floors, and a wee dram—or two.
“I hate Scotland. The mountains are gray and mean, the roads are bumpy, and everybody talks funny.”
Maeve’s nursemaid might have been deaf for all the impact this litany had on her, so Maeve resorted to heavier artillery.
“I have to use the necessary.”
Prebish stopped gawking out the window and aimed a smile at her charge that did not fool Maeve for a moment.
“You used the necessary at the last posting inn, and if you’re about to tell me you’re famished to flinders and dying of thirst yet again, you know the basket is under the seat.”
“There’s nothing but scones in the basket, and they’re stale by now. The tea in the flask has gone all cold and nasty too.” Like Maeve’s life had gone cold and nasty.
“Best appreciate good food while you have it, child. Times are hard, and not every little girl is as fortunate as you.”
Prebish was a Papist, which Maeve took to mean she prayed frequently, was on a first-name basis with a lot of saints, and didn’t mind so much when people died. When Maeve had been a truly little girl, she had heard many a good story perched on Prebish’s ample lap. On the basis of that long association—and a certain tight feeling in her tummy—Maeve posed a question that had been plaguing her since they’d left Ireland.
“If I’m so fortunate, why did Bridget send me far, far away?”
Such a scary distance, too. The Scottish roads were nothing compared to the pitching of the Irish Sea and the odd languages people spoke in Belfast and Glasgow. In the port towns, Prebish had held Maeve’s hand, and Maeve hadn’t protested.
“Your sister is expecting a child of her own, young Maeve, and your older brother is now a Scottish baron. He’s the head of your family, and the proper fellow to look after you now that all that nonsense is over with on the Continent.”
Nonsense was what Prebish called everything from a disagreement among the maids to war to Maeve’s very reasonable arguments against having her hair braided every single day.
“Tell me again what my brother looks like.”
Prebish’s smile shifted and became wistful—or sad?
“He’s a grand fellow, your brother Michael. As tall as Hamish Heckendorn, with green eyes and blond hair. He liked to laugh when I knew him, and your sisters adored him.”
“Does he still like to laugh?” Because what did it matter if a man was taller than the blacksmith in Darrow if that man was grumpy and sour all the time?
“He’s been long away to war, Maeve. That can take the laughter out of a man, but there’s nothing like a child to bring it back.”
Who was to bring back Maeve’s laughter?
The mountains never changed here. They took all day to get around, and the roads only got worse the farther the carriage traveled from the coast. In Aberdeen, Prebish had declared they needed a day to rest, but they’d also picked up baggage, the weight of which made the ride even rougher.
“Will my brother like me?”
Prebish was not ignoring this question. Maeve could see her old face was creased in thought. “He will love you, and you will love him, because that’s what family does.”
Maeve reached under the seat for the basket of scones—which were not stale—and took a bite, hoping to settle her stomach. Prebish had told the truth—families loved each other, even families who sent their dearest little girl off to strange, cold, bumpy lands—but Prebish had also not answered the question Maeve had asked.
Would Michael, a brother she’d never met, like her?
Brenna had parted from her newly scrubbed husband at the first opportunity, needing activity to keep her from flying at him in a flat panic.
Heirs were not a fit topic for the dinner table, though, so a lovely meal had been served an hour earlier than usual.
Of which, Brenna had tasted not one bite.
“Angus said you set a good table, and he spoke the truth.” Michael offered her a smile and put a slice of cheese on the end of a small bone-handled knife. Brenna took the cheese, knowing she hadn’t eaten enough dinner to sustain a hare in summer.
She ignored the compliment and the smile, for Angus offering compliments was the local equivalent of Greeks bearing gifts.
“Thank you.” She nibbled the cheese rather than speculate on what else Angus had said over a glass or three of whiskey.
“Does Angus usually dine here?”
“He dwells in the dower house, and is well looked after there. This is our own cheese, you know. I like it particularly well.”
From Michael’s expression, Brenna’s dodge hadn’t worked.
He cut himself a thick slice of cheese in a single, clean stroke.
“Why is my uncle residing in the dower house when we have an entire castle available to shelter our family?”
“The castle is drafty, dusty, and without many modern conveniences, according to Angus.” While the dower house, built at the insistence of Michael’s mother, was an architectural gem full of comfort and innovations. “Your father gave him the tenancy of the dower house with your mother’s permission.”
This was not far from the truth, if the late laird’s semi-drunken ramblings could be trusted. Brenna had been too grateful for Angus’s absence to question the explanation.
“I suppose it’s the least we can do for Angus, as much of the running of the place as he’s taken on. Will your cousins join us for meals?”
As Brenna finished her cheese and washed it down with the last of her wine, it occurred to her that Michael was much concerned with reconnecting with his people. He wanted to review his staff first thing in the day, had asked for a list of the departed before he’d taken his bath, and now wanted to know the comings and goings of Brenna’s cousins and their families.
“Come,” she said, rising. “I will answer your questions as we walk.”
Because she’d moved dinner up, and because they were in the Highlands, the sun was not yet set. In high summer, the gloaming lasted for hours—hours when work might be done, or a husband might be reasoned with.
“Where are you taking me, Brenna?” He was amused, not in fear of a kidnapping.
“You asked me to list for you all of those who’ve left your holdings in your absence. We’ll start that list down by the kirk.”
The castle chapel had been demolished in some long-past wave of reformatory zeal and the stones reused for other structures, so Brenna led her spouse through the postern gate and down the wooded hill toward the village.
“Even the trees are taller,” Michael said. “Do we still have as much venison as we want?”
“We do, and thank God for it. Venison and potatoes, salmon when they’re running, grouse, mutton, oats most years, and we trade wool for much else. I’m jealous of my kitchen gardens, and the conservatory provides a few delicacies. I suppose Angus would have discussed the crops with you.”
That was as close as Brenna could come to asking about the hour Michael had spent behind a closed door with his uncle. Angus would share his version of Brenna’s history with Michael, and he’d do it at the time and place most likely to benefit Angus and burden Brenna—or destroy her.
Michael took her hand. Just slid his fingers through hers, and kept right on walking, while Brenna lost track of every thought in her head.
“Angus complained, of course,” Michael said. “Cheerfully, because we Scots always complain cheerfully, but he let it be known I am much indebted to him for cobbling together ten more years of solvency on land that begrudges even the hardiest sheep a living.”
“Five years,” Brenna said. “Your da didn’t fall from his horse until five years ago, and he managed his land properly until the end.” Though he hadn’t managed much else well.
“May we rest a moment?” Michael didn’t drop her hand, but instead came to a stop at a small clearing. Heather sprang up amid the bracken, and evening sunlight slanted through deep forest shadows. The scents were fresh, green, and soothing.
Michael had endured hardship after hardship with the military. He was not asking to rest because his feet were tired.
“It will be dark soon,” Brenna observed.
Still, Michael did not drop her hand. “A soldier learns to treasure beauty where he finds it. Tell me about the day my father died.”
Five years ago, Brenna hadn’t known where to write to her husband, or if he was even still alive.
“Shall we sit, Husband?”
Ages ago, somebody had graced the clearing with a plain plank bench, and that bench had endured too. Brenna untangled her hand from Michael’s and took a seat, but the infernal man simply came down beside her and recaptured her hand.
“Were you here when he died?”
“I was with him. He asked that I remember him to you and tell you he was proud of you.”
Michael hunched forward, one forearm braced on his thigh. He stayed that way for a long moment before he spoke.
“If we are blessed with children, we will tell them we are proud of them, but we will also tell them we love them, and when they are gone from us, we will tell them we miss them and pray for their safety every night.”
She hurt for him, despite all intention to the contrary, because he wasn’t the cheerful, braw fellow who’d gone off to war years ago. He was both more and less than that young man, and the changes had been wrought through privation, violence, and misery.
“Was it awful, in France?”
He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed her knuckles.
“Yes, it was awful, for many reasons. In some regards, the wars were hardest on the French people. They gave untold thousands of their best and boldest young men to the Corsican’s bloodlust, and eventually, few were left at home to tend the crops or raise the children. One couldn’t help but admire the French, just as they grudgingly admired the bravery and tenacity of their foes.”
“All this gallantry only made for more widows and orphans.” And wounded, starving soldiers.
Brenna searched for anything she could give him that might be of comfort. “Your father was always a bit tipsy toward the end, but no more so than any other aging laird. The gout plagued him, and drink was his consolation. He was on his favorite horse, and they simply took a bad step before a jump.”
More quiet passed, such as the woods at dusk were quiet. Squirrels chattered and leapt about, and birds fluttered in the canopy above.
“Even on the battlefield, it can happen like that,” Michael said softly. “We lost many a soldier to disease and exposure, rather than to bullets. Too many.”
She could not tell if his use of “we” referred to the French or the British. Probably both.
“Your father also told me to give his love to your mother and sisters. I wrote to your mother to let her know this.” He’d been proud of his son, but his wife and daughters had had his love—too late, of course, but they had.
Another absent kiss to her knuckles. “Thank you.”
His expression was so bleak, Brenna’s heart ached. “I ride his gelding, you know. Boru is a fine mount, though Angus wanted to shoot him.”
“We’ll ride out tomorrow, then, you and I.”
“If the weather’s fine.” Except first they had a night to get through. “Shall we be on our way? Soon it will be too dark to read the headstones.”
“You were taking me down to the kirk?”
“Aye.” And still, he kept her hand in his. He’d been like this as a young man too, affectionate, full of casual touches and easy smiles. She had loved him for that, loved him desperately. “Michael, I realize we will share a bed tonight, but if you expect…”
He sat beside her, her hand in his, expression unreadable in the forest shadows. “If I expect?”
She rose and walked across the clearing, twigs snapping under her boots. Maybe this was a discussion best held outside the castle walls, or at least begun there.
“I cannot join with a stranger.”
“I would be alarmed if you could, but I’m not a stranger. I’m your husband.”
He’d followed her across the clearing, and she hadn’t heard a sound. The heat coming off of him, the scent of vetiver, and his voice told Brenna her husband stood immediately behind her.
“Why didn’t you come home, Michael? The armistice was more than two years ago, and you didn’t serve for the Hundred Days. You’ve been on British soil for more than two years, and I’ve received exactly one note from you in all that time.”
“You’re angry,” he said, his hands settling on her shoulders. “I can under—”
Brenna wrenched out from under his grasp and faced him.
“I am not angry, and you cannot understand, any more than I can understand why you’d remain behind enemy lines in France, year after year, bound by some duty you haven’t taken the time to explain to your own wife.”
“One doesn’t generally advertise one’s location behind enemy lines, Brenna.”
“One doesn’t generally spend years behind those lines, then wait two more years to come home, Michael.” The light was waning, and this topic wasn’t the point of their errand beyond the castle walls.
“I had yet to discharge my duties to my satisfaction or to my superior’s satisfaction.”
Bother his superior.
“Every soldier gets leave, Michael Brodie, and yet, I had no leave from being your wife. I thought about haring off to London, you know. Presenting myself on your doorstep to see if you recognized me.”
He remained silent, did not even try to apologize or explain.
“Your parents separated for all practical purposes,” she said, because any reaction from him was better than his continued silence. “Many couples do.”
“We’ll not separate.” He sounded exactly like his father, and exactly like his uncle, too.
“You failed to consummate our union when you had the chance, went marching off to war for longer than was necessary, could not be bothered to write to your own wife twice a year, and now you come wandering home in expectation of…what? An heir on the way by Christmas? Are you daft?”
“We’ll not separate, Brenna Brodie. Angus tells me our finances are precarious, many of the tenants have left for the New World, the English pass one tax after another, and the people remaining need their laird and lady. Mother should never have gone back to Ireland.”
“You are so certain of that,” Brenna said, “and you know nothing of it, because you were not here, were you?” The bitterness in her tone must have registered, because Michael’s expression was shocked.
“Michael,” she said gently, “we have been separated for nearly a decade. I no more want to be your cast-off wife than you want to follow in your parents’ footsteps, but creating a family is not another order from headquarters to be dispatched with all haste.”
“I fail to comprehend—” He went silent, and in that silence, Brenna could see him building up a wall of masculine pride and Scottish male stubbornness. If he had his way, he’d bed her by morning, preferably more than once, and mark it off his list of obligations to be seen to.
Her soul—and her dinner—rebelled at the very thought.
“I don’t know your favorite dessert,” she said. “I don’t know which of the dances you prefer, or if you still know them. Do you fancy heather ale, or does your taste run to English drink? Will you spend days out on the moors, shooting as your father did, or have your mother’s head for figures?”
“What has that to do with begetting an heir?” he shot back, moving closer. “A soldier becomes accustomed to both the hardships and the limited comforts available in times of war. I can well assure you, madam, a man and woman need not know each other’s particulars to enjoy—”
Brenna put her hand over his mouth. “If you’re about to compare your wife to a camp follower, Michael Brodie, I suggest you rethink your words.”
He spoke around her fingers. “You find this amusing?”
She dropped her hand. The first time she’d touched him voluntarily, it had been to shut him up, and yes, she found humor in that—also hope.
“I think it’s sad that your only comfort has been whores. I, however, am not one of them.”
Brenna was damned sure of that.
“I never meant to imply you were, but Scottish baronies are not awarded every day.”
“Spare me,” she said, heading back up the path toward the castle. “You care naught for titles and pomp, particularly not the kind handed out by an English sovereign. I have been loyal to you and faithful to you for the duration of this farce of a marriage, Michael Brodie, and if you’re honest, you will admit many other women would not have honored their vows to the extent that I have.”
She left him in the deepening shadows, having resolved nothing, except her own position on the matter of his almighty heirs.
And that Michael did not agree with it.
“I’ve bungled things already.”
The sound of Devil’s steady chewing said the master’s clumsy handling of his wife was of no moment to the horse, but then, Devil was a gelding, and the summer grass was lush.
“She’s not the Brenna I left behind,” Michael added. “Not the Brenna I used to pray for each night, bivouacking beside my horse on the alarm grounds, waiting for death to snatch us from sleep.”
Then, as now, the steady chomp, chomp, chomp of a nearby mount was reassurance that all was well, and no raiding parties were stealing through the countryside intent on wreaking havoc on Wellington’s army.
“I don’t miss France, God knows. Don’t miss London either.”
Devil shifted a few feet away, having a nose for clover like no other horse Michael had known. Michael shifted too, trying to find a smooth patch of pasture from which to watch the stars come out.
“I do miss…something.” Missing something had become a habit, a bad habit. Rather like the whiskey in his flask could become a bad habit. “I should not have tarried so long in London, but St. Clair needed me.”
Michael’s wife had implied she had needed him too, though Michael was at a loss to say how. Brenna appeared as self-sufficient as a woman could be, with a ready ability to state her wishes, needs, and wants.
Also her dislikes, among which, her marriage—or her husband—apparently numbered.
Equine lips wiggled over Michael’s hair. He scratched the horse’s ear, as the beast had trained him to do.
“I failed to do adequate reconnaissance, horse. Wellington never went into battle without conferring with his intelligence officers if he could help it, and St. Clair seemed to know things the very birds of the air were in ignorance of.”
Michael did not miss his former commanding officer either, much. The damned man was wallowing in wedded bliss, for one thing.
“Angus said Brenna can be difficult.” This daunting thought required another pull on the flask. “I surmise my uncle and my wife are not in charity with each other, but then, Uncle was against the marriage.”
His father had told him that, which at the time had only increased Michael’s determination to see the wedding take place.
“I used to be protective of our Brenna. She was such a quiet, wee thing.” And pretty—she was still pretty, but no longer wee, and her quiet had become the brooding of a discontented female.
Lights winked out in the castle windows, while overhead, the night sky filled with stars.
“Uncle says Brenna will need a firm hand, and that she’s standoffish and given to strange fancies.” Though Angus had shared this reluctantly, Michael had wanted to plant the older man a facer for speaking ill of a woman who had put up with much.
He tipped the flask up rather than think of all Brenna had endured without her husband at her side.
“Bloody hot in Spain. We slept in our clothes, though.” Did Brenna sleep fully clothed, even in summer? Was she prepared for a sneak attack in the dead of night?
“I’m a bit half-seas over, you understand.” Another light went out, this one in the laird’s chamber. “’Tisn’t helping.”
Michael lay in the cool, fragrant grass and tried to recall exactly when the discussion between him and his wife had gone astray. Dinner had been delicious, abundant, and pleasant enough…and then in the clearing, Brenna had announced that he wasn’t welcome to exercise a husband’s privileges in her bed, and matters had gone abruptly to Hades.
“What did I expect?” he asked, scratching behind the horse’s chin. “Brenna had the right of it. I did not mean to compare her to a whore, but I compared coupling with her to what passes between a prostitute and her customers. A woman is entitled to expect a great deal more from her husband, or why marry the bugger?”
Something in the conversation had cheered him, nonetheless. Something about…
“She has not strayed, horse. My Brenna Maureen has not strayed even once.”
Though Angus had said she was overly partial to her widowed cousin, and cousins often married.
“Do you think she’d believe me, if I told her I hadn’t strayed either?”
The horse moved off in search of more clover, while Michael got to his feet, took a few moments to get his bearings, and then headed in to spend the night beside his wife.
To whom he had been faithful, and of whom, he was still—to his surprise, pleasure, and relief—protective.
Sometime after she’d fallen exhausted into her bed, Brenna felt the mattress dip and shift. A pleasant whiff of vetiver, whiskey—and meadow grass?—came to her as her husband arranged himself two feet to her left.
The next sound was harder to decipher, but she managed—the soles of two big male feet rubbing together, the bedtime equivalent of shaking the dust of the day from one’s feet, a small safeguard in the direction of keeping the sheets clean if conducted with those feet hanging over the side of the bed.
Michael punched his pillows next, several stout blows that would have knocked wayward notions from grown men.
“Are you trying to wake me up, Husband?”
The punching stopped, and she felt him flop down onto the mattress—and heard the put-upon male sigh with which he tucked himself in.
“You did not lock the door, Brenna. My things are in this room.”
So was his wife.
“Neither one of us wants talk.” The bed was huge, and they weren’t touching, but Brenna could feel her husband thinking.
“I did not want you to conclude I was sneaking up on you.”
“You’re hard to miss when encountered in a bed, Michael. Go to sleep. Morning comes quickly.” And yet, she was pleased the pillows had taken a few warning shots on her behalf.
“You want time.”
“I want a good night’s sleep.” Though she should have anticipated that, like any man, Michael would want to beat a topic to death once broached. He could not ponder a discussion and undertake it in manageable portions; he must have done with it, regardless of the hour.
“I want time, too, Brenna Maureen.”
Brenna rolled to her side, wishing she’d left a candle burning, despite the extravagance. “Time for what?”
“I was a good soldier, once I saw what was expected of me. It’s part of the reason I went to France. I was to look after my men, the same as a laird looks after his people. When I went to France, it was much the same, though I was in a garrison with soldiers of a different nationality. We looked after one another, most of the time, and when a man lapsed in that duty, he suffered consequences.”
What was he saying, and why must he say it to her in pitch darkness?
“If I were planning to run off, Michael Brodie, I would have scarpered long since. Many and many a family has left the Highlands, including entire branches of clan MacLogan. I could easily have gone with them.” Though her own clansmen had hardly recalled where they’d stashed her, once she’d come to live at Castle Brodie.
A considering pause ensued, and then Brenna felt a single, callused finger trace down the side of her jaw.
“You might have left, but you stayed. I’m glad you stayed.”
The quality of the darkness changed, sheltering fragile dignity rather than frustrated curiosity. Because Michael had made a concession, Brenna offered him one of her own.
“You need not have come home at all. I know this. You’re a baron, or a lord of parliament, or some such. You could have set up housekeeping in London, and you could easily have set me aside.”
He still could.
“Such a thought never occurred to me. This is my home, you are my wife, but I’m asking you to give us time, to not dismiss our marriage out of hand because we’re getting a late start on being husband and wife.”
All day long, Brenna answered questions: What to serve for dinner, when to schedule a wedding or christening, what to put in a basket for a family suffering illness, and how to manage old Davey MacCray when he was once again three days gone with drink.
Those questions were easy, and this one was too.
“I’m glad I stayed, too, Michael. I’ve learned to be patient. Maybe you can learn to be patient with me, as well.”
The mattress shifted again, bobbing Brenna about as if she were small craft on a stormy loch. She felt Michael come near, felt the shocking warmth of his bare chest against her arm, and then his lips brushing against her forehead.
Before she could flinch or bat him away, he subsided.
“Good night, then, Wife. Though I’m warning you, a man learns a deal of patience in the army.”
He rolled over, giving her his back. She’d seen his bare back earlier in the day, when he bathed, and she knew the skin over his shoulder blades would be smooth, the muscles along his spine lean and graceful.
Brenna rolled over too, so they were back to back, and any stray temptation to touch him less likely to overtake her good sense. “Good night, Husband.”
Why had he kissed her, and why hadn’t she panicked? “Michael?”
“I feel safer with you here.”
He said nothing, did not ask if she meant safer with him back home, safer with him in the castle, or safer with him in the same bed.
He also did not ask what or who she felt safer from.
Army life, whether in a French garrison or among British troops in Spain and Portugal, was intimate. Michael had seen a woman giving birth in the snow along the road to Corunna, and rejoiced with his entire unit when he’d learned mother, child—and father—had safely made it aboard the evacuation ships.
He’d also seen a couple lying in the snow, arms about each other, both dead of the exhaustion and exposure that had claimed many on that hellish retreat.
Combat held worse intimacies yet, as when a French officer whom one chanced upon foraging with his men along a riverbank—and shared a bit of gossip and commiseration with—showed up the next day at the business end of a bayonet charge.
The garrison in France had been no different, with domestic squabbles, short rations, and news of the occasional victory or defeat equally shared by all. Thus, it should not have bothered Michael to spend the night in the same bed with his wife, to hear her sighs and murmurs, and feel her stirring in the dark.
“You sleep like a recruit after his first forced march,” Michael said, untangling himself from the sheets. “Though you don’t snore, and you smell a good deal better.”
Like roses, and like home.
“This time of year, nights are short, days are long.” Brenna sat on the bed with her back to him, wrapping herself into a wool dressing gown. She wouldn’t even cross the room without donning as much armor as the situation might afford her.
“Why do you wear the hunting plaid?” The darker hues flattered her vivid coloring more than the red everyday plaid would, but it was still an odd choice.
“This pattern doesn’t show the dirt as easily, and the colors suit me better.” Still, she sat with her back to him, as if the knot of her sash required all of her attention.
“Brenna, I’m decently covered.”
She peeked over her shoulder. “So you are.”
And yet, she blushed to find him wearing pajama trousers, though they were held up by a properly knotted drawstring rather than a morning salute from his cock.
“Do you break your fast here, or go down to the kitchen?” He could not imagine her putting the staff to the effort of serving her a solitary breakfast in a dining parlor.
“I take a tray, something light, though I’ll talk to Cook about preparing more substantial fare now that you’re back. I’m sure the tray will be sitting outside the door, along with your boots. ”
Still, she did not move. She was, instead, watching him the way the French had watched Michael for months after he’d shown up at their gates, professing a mostly sincere disgust of all things English.
Michael fetched the tray—his boots could wait—and brought it to the bed, setting it down beside Brenna, and taking a place at the foot of the bed. Butter, honey, a basket of scones wrapped in snowy linen, and a pot of tea were arranged just so.
“The staff knows how to welcome the laird home.”
Her chin came up. “The staff takes its direction from the lady.”
Michael buttered a flaky, warm scone, set it on a plate, and passed it to her.
“I was once assigned the job of keeping track of an enemy patrol in the mountains.” An English patrol, which detail he did not share. “Those fellows were part mountain goat. They went up this track and down that defile, and I was supposed to follow without letting on I was in the area.”
Brenna paused with the scone two inches from her mouth. “Because they would have captured you?”
They would have shoved him off the bloody mountainside and told him to give their regards to Old Scratch.
“Something like that.” He possessed himself of her hand, helped himself to a bite of her scone, and resumed his tale rather than laugh at the consternation on her face.
“I eventually figured out that the way to execute my assignment was to get above them. You shouldn’t waste good food, Brenna.”
He saw the temptation to smile flirt with the corners of her mouth, and saw her battle it aside as she took a bite of scone.
“So when darkness fell, I began to climb. Gets cold in the mountains at night. Colder.”
Brenna paused in her chewing. “Would you like some tea?”
“So there I was, clinging to the side of some damned French mountain, or possibly Spanish—there being little distinction when a fellow’s teeth are chattering and he has to piss—darkness falling, and me waiting for the moon to rise. Then the clouds came in. Sound can travel in odd ways in terrain like that, so I could hear the patrol below me, hear them laughing about the idiot thundering along behind them, smell the meat cooking over their campfire.”
Brenna stirred cream and honey into his tea and passed him the mug.
“It was a long night?”
“It was an interminable night, and that was before it began to sleet.”
He took a sip of pure heaven, the kind of heaven that had both tormented and comforted his memory on that mountainside.
“Is that how you feel now, Michael? As if you’re clinging to a mountainside in hostile territory, bitter weather coming in, night coming on, and the enemy laughing at you from behind their loaded guns?”
He passed her the mug of tea and took the last bite of her scone.
“I meant no disrespect to you when I complimented the kitchen staff, Brenna.”
She did not give his mug back, but cradled it in her hands.
“I anticipate criticism. It’s freely handed about here, for decisions made, not made, made too late, made too soon. I did not know what you’d want for breakfast, where you’d want breakfast, and a wife should know these things. I forgot to ask, and then you were asleep.”
Cold, dark mountainsides were apparently in ample supply in the Scottish Highlands, and Michael dared not belittle her concerns. An angry cook or a vindictive laundress could cause much suffering among the objects of her ire, regardless of pesky male nonsense like a war to be waged.
“For breakfast, I would like my wife’s company. I care little about what’s served, provided she shares it with me, but hot tea and fresh scones will never go amiss with me.”
Brenna took a sip from the mug and held it out to him, then busied herself slicing, buttering, and drizzling honey on a second scone. She put half on her plate, half on his, and passed it to him.
The day gained a measure of hope.
Michael had found a ledge on their marital mountainside. A small, narrow ledge, but one they could share.
Brenna fetched her husband’s boots rather than linger over the last cup of morning tea in hopes he’d tell her another story.
“You have your da’s way with a tale,” she said, passing him the mug of tea and taking the tray to the corridor. “I could listen to that man spin a yarn time after time, the same story, the same ending, and yet, I hung on his every word. Winters grew longer when he passed away.”
Michael unrolled his shaving kit on the windowsill and set up his folding mirror. “Angus has some of the same ability, particularly when the whiskey’s on hand.”
Yes, he did. The same rumbling burr that drew the listener in, despite all sense to the contrary.
Brenna poured warmed water into a green porcelain basin and set it on the windowsill. “Do you shave every morning?”
“Mostly. Beards itch.” And yet, he’d threatened to grow one—for her?
“I thought they were warm.”
“A decent wool scarf is warmer. Will you weave one for me, Brenna, my love?”
He was flirting. She would get used to it, though flirting back was probably a hopeless cause. “Mind you don’t cut yourself.”
Now what was she to do? Get dressed with her husband in the same room? He had no difficulty strutting around in nothing but his cotton underlinen.
“Will you wear the Brodie plaid today?” he asked as he dabbed lather onto his throat and cheeks. “I’ll kit myself out in the laird’s regalia, unless you think that’s overdoing the clan pride.”
“It is not possible for a mortal Scotsman to overdo clan pride,” Brenna said as he drew the razor along his jaw in a movement that ought not to have fascinated her. “I’ll wear the plaid, and so will everybody else who owns a scrap of the tartan. At least it isn’t raining.”
To see a man shave was intimate. To see him moving around in only one old, worn, comfortable item of apparel, and to start the day with him held the same odd closeness.
“You don’t snore either, Husband.”
He smiled at her in the little mirror and went on scraping lather and whiskers off his face.
While Brenna blethered on. “You don’t kick, you don’t move about much, you don’t talk in your sleep. You do, however, give off a lot of heat.”
“Which ought to recommend me to your continued keeping September through June. Should you be getting dressed, my lady?”
She was a baroness. Did other baronesses watch their husbands make odd faces at a shaving mirror each morning?
“Soon. I dress quickly.”
But she ought to be doing something, so Brenna sat on the foot of the bed, pulled the ribbon off the end of her braid, and unraveled the single plait she usually slept in. She didn’t bother retrieving the brush from the vanity, because the vanity sat near the window.
Michael set the razor aside, wiped off his face, and began reassembling his kit. “You’ve pretty hair, Brenna Brodie. You always did.”
She had red hair, and lots of it. “You missed a spot.”
He looked disgruntled, as if she’d said the wrong thing, but he’d look mighty silly Trooping the Colour with that bit of lather on his chin. Brenna rose from the bed, took the towel off her husband’s shoulder, and dabbed at the spot near where the dimple in his chin appeared when he smiled.
“There. Your fizzog at least is presentable.”
Michael Brodie was what the old women would call a braw fellow, tall and muscular, but lithe. Dancing in his kilt over crossed swords, he’d be—
“I’m tempted to kiss my wife.” His voice had gone thoughtful, and Brenna couldn’t mistake the heat in his eyes. Nor could she quite understand it.
“Because I’ve wiped soap off your chin?”
His smile was unnerving, all male, all happy to be male.
“Because you bear the scent of flowers, because your unbound hair makes my hands itch, and because it’s early morning on a beautiful day. I don’t have to kill anybody today, and I don’t have to prevent anybody from being killed.”
Such was a soldier’s definition of a beautiful day.
Brenna closed her eyes rather than look upon his smile. “Kiss me then.”
A wife expected to endure her husband’s kisses—at least—and he couldn’t tarry at it too long, because he was soon to be out in the bailey, greeting his staff.
“Such bravery,” Michael said, and Brenna heard a smile in his voice. His arms came around her, slowly, not a pillaging embrace but more of a stealthy reconnaissance. She did not—could not—relax.
“You might offer your husband a hug of a morning.”
He was still smiling, but a feeling other than patient resignation stole up from nowhere and wrapped Brenna more tightly than her husband’s arms. She had seen plenty of flirtation and carrying on in the great hall and in the tavern in the village. When Lachlan’s mother had been alive, she’d been in her husband’s arms frequently, holding his hand, touching his hair or his sleeve. Even Davey MacCray’s wife sat in his lap, kissed his cheek, and carried on with him when he wasn’t too drunk.
While Brenna understood none of it.
“You put your arms around me,” Michael whispered. “You lean on me, and you know I rejoice to take your weight against me, because the feel of you in my arms alone gives me pleasure.”
He was instructing her in the basics of marital affection, and Brenna was grateful for his guidance. Pathetically grateful. She looped her arms around his trim waist and swallowed past a lump in her throat.
“Lean, Brenna Maureen. Lean on your husband.”
His arms were around her loosely. She could whirl away and grab her hairbrush; she could scold him for keeping her from her appointed tasks. He wanted more from her than a simple hug. He wanted trust, courage, good faith, and hope.
Michael’s hand stroked over Brenna’s unbound hair, a patient, soothing caress that landed like the blow of a claymore on her heart.
“Michael, I don’t know—”
His hand caressed her again, smoothing down her hair, gently, slowly. Then again.
Something was amiss with the Baroness Strathdee.
Michael had come to this conclusion as he, Angus, and the baroness had worked their way down the line of maids, footmen, laundresses, gardeners, and other retainers standing at attention in the morning sunshine.
Brenna knew each of the thirty-some souls by name, but had limited her participation in the ritual to the occasional terse comment.
“Jeannie Fraser, make your curtsy. Thomas Brodie, son of Ella and Daniel Brodie, make your bow to your laird.”
And when the inspection was complete, Brenna had excused herself with unceremonious speed.
“I am puzzled by something,” Michael said as Angus ambled with him toward the stables a short while later.
“Life is a puzzling proposition most of the time. Whiskey helps. Ale is seldom a bad idea. A good night’s rest can have a fine effect on a man’s outlook.”
He peered over at Michael, as if inspecting him for evidence of that last.
“Why do we have so many working at the castle, if Brenna lives there alone?”
“It’s a big place, the castle, and your mother was the one who trained Brenna how to run it. The ladies have their standards, and a prudent man doesn’t interfere if he can help it.”
“I’m not a prudent man, I’m the laird. You tell me we’re barely scraping by, and my wife has nigh three dozen people to do her bidding.” And yet, Michael would not on his least charitable day have accused Brenna of idleness.
Neither, apparently, would Angus.
“You ride a fine beast,” Angus remarked as they walked into the long stone barn. “Is he English?”
“German,” Michael said, pausing outside Devil’s stall. “Found him at Tattersall’s, though he was said to be too crazy to ride.”
“He doesn’t look crazy, but then, the worst of ’em seldom do. Like old Davey MacCray. Sweet as the day is long until he gets to brooding.”
“I’ll take Boru out,” Michael said to a groom. “It’s Patrick, isn’t it?”
“Pat will do, Laird.”
The boy had the lanky grace of the born horseman, and the red hair common to plenty of Brodies. He soon brought out a rangy gray wearing Michael’s saddle, and a glossy black gelding as well.
“Who’s this?” Michael asked, letting the black sniff his glove.
“Campbell,” Angus said. “So when I put the crop and spurs to him, I’m striking a blow for the clans.”
Boru was not as elegant as Campbell, but several inches taller, and more heavily boned. “This was my father’s favorite mount?”
“Aye.” Angus swung up. “Bastard will jump anything he’s faced with, including things he shouldn’t. Where are we off to?”
“Let’s ride the banks of the Dee.”
“You don’t want to start on your tenant calls? They’ll be expecting you.”
Michael climbed aboard the gray and gathered up his reins. He should call on his tenants, all three dozen of them. He really should.
“Give the women a day to sweep their hearths and bathe the children. After nearly ten years, another day won’t matter much.”
Angus looked like he wanted to argue, but instead delivered a stout whack to Campbell’s quarters and cantered out of the stable yard.
When Michael returned two hours later, he’d satisfied himself that Brenna was riding a safe, sane, and even trustworthy mount, and he’d satisfied himself as well that the River Dee still sounded beautiful on a summer morning, and still reflected sunlight more brightly than any jewel.
“How many tenants did my father have?” Michael asked as he and Angus handed their horses off to young Patrick.
“Too many,” Angus said, slapping his crop against his boot. “When snow is a possibility any month of the year, the land isn’t intended to support huge tribes of people. The English have grasped this concept more clearly than we do ourselves. The hardier breeds of sheep are the answer, though some still debate it.”
Memories abruptly punctuated the soft morning air, of Michael’s father roaring at Angus on this same topic.
“We seem to have plenty of sheep.”
If the sheep, one of God’s least intelligent creatures, could eke out a living in the Highlands, then a stout Scotsman with his wife and family would be even better suited to the challenge—or so the old laird had bellowed.
“We could have more,” Angus said as they crossed the bailey. “But that discussion can keep for another day. I delighted to see you in proper attire this morning, lad. The neighbors would probably find it a fine sight too.”
Two years in London refined certain instincts that all the battlefields in the world could not.
“Are you suggesting we hold a ceilidh in honor of my arrival?”
Angus turned a guileless smile on his nephew. “A party, ye say? A celebration? With fine food and drink, and dancing into the night? Everybody sporting about in their plaids? The children hiding under the tables, and the pipers drinking like lords? Now why would I go and suggest such a lot of bother as that?”
He tromped off, swinging his crop as if he were conducting an orchestra, whistling some tune designed to get a man’s toes tapping.
Even the army had understood the need for an occasional celebration, though Michael wasn’t sure what Brenna would make of the notion. He found her in the solar, a room his mother had tacitly declared the province of the ladies.
“Greetings, Wife. What mischief are you up to on this bonny day?”
“Ledgers,” she said, not rising. She’d changed out of her finery and was once again in a high-waisted smock, the hunting-plaid shawl around her shoulders. “Have you any idea when the rest of your baggage will arrive?”
“Any day.” Michael advanced into the room, which he’d neglected on his ramblings yesterday. In an otherwise dark, solid edifice, this room was light and airy, its ceiling a good ten feet, its windows plentiful.
The air bore the scent of lavender and roses, and the walls held framed memories. “We were handsome children.”
He studied a painting done of him with Brenna and two of his sisters, Bridget and wee Erin. “I’d forgotten how hard it was to sit still for this. You girls made it look easy.”
Brenna set aside her quill pen.
“I loved to hear your mother reading. She could have read sermons to us instead of those old fairy tales, and I would have held still by the hour. Your da once told me he’d fallen in love with her brogue.”
Because Brenna sat at an escritoire, Michael could not appropriate a place beside her, so he peered over her shoulder.
“You’ve a tidy hand. What are all these figures?”
Something in her manner suggested the topic was sensitive, and yet, a man needed to understand the finances of his own household.
“Can you explain them to me?”
“I meant now. We could take this ledger and a picnic, find a shady spot by the river, and catch a nap.” The plan struck him as a brilliant combination of work, play—and wooing.
“Or you could pull up a chair. When I’m done with the ledgers, Cook wants menus from me, because plain fare will not do now that his lordship is home. I’d like to take your measurements too, and cut out some kilts for you, though the ladies from the village are happy to help stitch them up. I should also write to your sister Bridget and let her know that you’ve arrived safely, because I doubt you’ll think to do it, and somebody needs to take a basket to Goodie MacCray, because this time, I don’t think old Davey’s bellyache is a simple matter of too much drink.”
She might as well have laid into him with Angus’s riding crop, so acutely did guilt assail him—also resentment.
“You have to do all that today?”
“I was planning on doing it before luncheon.”
“Show me,” he said, taking her wrist in one hand and her infernal ledger in the other. “Show me your ledgers, and then I’ll take old Davey his basket while you do your menus, but I swear to you, Brenna Brodie, if you expect me to eat haggis, I’ll trot right back to London.”
His offer of help did not appear to please her. “I don’t know what you like to eat. I was hoping Cook might recall.”
“I will eat anything, up to and including boiled shoe leather, but not the damned haggis, neeps, and tatties. I suppose haggis is your favorite dish?”
“I’ll eat it. You really don’t like potatoes? Even with salt and butter?”
“I have no grudge against them, and I will eat turnips, but I got sick once, eating haggis as a boy, and cannot abide—are you laughing at me?”
“Some Scot you are. Next you’ll be sticking out your pinkie finger and wearing satin breeches.”
She was smiling, though she tried to bury her smile in the ledger in her lap. Because he treasured her smiles, Michael dredged up more complaints.
“I’ve worn satin breeches, I’ll have you know. A fellow hardly dares show up at Carlton House in anything less. My shoe buckles would have blinded you, and my stockings were of clocked silk.”
“You poor dear. If you’re done whining, I can explain my figures to you.”
She nattered on about dry goods, larders, cellars, and such other topics as would make a quartermaster’s head spin, and yet Michael did manage—over the teasing of her rosy scent and the pleasure of admiring her cleavage—to pick up on a few details.
Such as the fact that nobody worked at the castle full time, but rather, a position was usually shared by at least two people, the better to spread the coin.
Angus had failed to elucidate this scheme, suggesting he did not himself grasp it. “You set back something each month for every employee?”
“I do. In coin.”
“Does Angus know of this?”
She closed the ledger and cradled it against her chest.
“I don’t ask Angus about the crops and livestock, he doesn’t ask me about the household accounts. He is not the laird here, but I am the lady.”
And wasn’t that a fine way to run an estate, with the left and right hand in ignorance of each other?
Though she had a point.
“Angus believes we’re teetering on the edge of ruin. He won’t come right out and blame it on my absence, but I gather certain decisions should have been made in the last five years by the laird, and I was…away, so they didn’t get made.”
Brenna set the ledger aside and folded her hands in her lap.
“What aren’t you saying, Brenna?”
“Angus thinks Scotland should be overrun with sheep.”
“Scotland is overrun with sheep, so is England, and I suspect Ireland and Wales aren’t faring much better, but I’ll tell you this: wool had much to do with why Wellington’s armies were successful.”
“You didn’t fire wool bullets, Michael.”
He got up to pace, abruptly impatient with her, her ledgers, and the way she could keep some part of herself in silence even in the midst of a conversation.
“Wool is light in weight, it keeps a body warm even when it’s wet. Even the finest wool is hardy as hell, and it doesn’t stiffen up and hold the wet like leather. On the Peninsula, officers were quartered in the old convents and town halls, the churches and what have you, but the men bivouacked on any patch of dry ground they could find, often without even tents to protect them.”
Brenna rose too, and Michael was reminded that his dear, sweet little wife had acquired height in his absence.
“Wool is a fine product,” she said. “Every croft in the shire has a loom, and we weave and knit as much to sell as we do to wear, but Brodie land can support more than a bunch of bleating sheep. You’ve bottom land, pastures, decent fields marled for year upon year that can grow a good crop of oats. How many more of the clan do you want to see replaced by sheep?”
In one corner of his mind, Michael marveled that he was arguing with his wife, and delighted that she trusted him enough to disagree with him. Another part of him admired the way her bosom heaved when she was in a taking and had forgotten to wrap herself in her damned shawl.
“I don’t want to see any of the clan replaced by sheep. How many tenants did my father have?”
“Forty-six families when he died, and that was down from fifty-eight when he married your mother.”
Why hadn’t Angus given him those numbers?
“You haven’t told me why you’re withholding wages from the people who work here at the castle.”
She turned away from him, picked up her ledger, and set it atop a stack on the escritoire.
“I save a bit back for each one, so when the damned sheep have eaten every last holding and garden on Brodie land down to the roots, my people will have a little something to build a future on.”
He had more questions for her, questions he would not ask—yet. Why so few MacLogans among the employed? How did she choose to whom to give employment when so many needed it? Why did she call them her people and not our people, while the bottom land was his not ours?
“Can we afford to throw a party?” The inquiry was genuine, in light of their discussion.
“Of course. A celebration will be expected now that you’re home. Choose a date, and I’ll confer with the staff.”
Her tone was mild, as if they hadn’t been nearly shouting at each other two minutes earlier, and yet, Michael had the sense he’d disappointed his wife—again, some more.
“A week from Friday. That will allow everybody to sleep off their drunk before services on Sunday.”
Brenna resumed her place at her escritoire, opened the ledger, and dipped her pen in the glass inkwell.
“Next Friday, then. Cook will have Davey’s basket ready by now.”
She was dismissing him, as effectively as if Wellington himself had muttered, “That will be all, Colonel Brodie.”
Wellington was hundreds of miles to the south, God be praised, so Michael stayed in the doorway, studying his wife. She was pretty, tidily swathed in her hunting tartan, and angry as hell. He was not sure how he knew this, but he would have bet his horse it was so.
He would not ask her what he’d done wrong, lest he fall prey to that female conundrum that started with: “If you have to ask…”
When he repaired to the laird’s bedchamber to take off his riding boots, he saw Brenna’s riding habit hanging on the door of the wardrobe, and insight struck, rather like a serving of a bad haggis.
He’d not only gone riding without his wife, contrary to a previous invitation, he’d borrowed her mount without even asking her permission first.