The deathwatch was over.
Alec Kincaid's woman was finally being laid to rest. The weather was foul, as foul as the expressions on the faces of those few clan members gathered around the burial sight atop the stark ridge.
It was unholy ground Helena Louise Kincaid was being placed in, for the new bride of the mighty chieftain had taken her own life and was therefore doomed to a resting place outside the true Christian cemetery. The church wouldn't all ow a body with a sure mortal sin to reside inside the blessed ground. A black soul was like a bad apple, the church leaders supposed, and the thought of one rotten soul staining the pure ones was too grave a possibility to ignore.
Hard rain spit down on the clansmen. The body, wrapped in the Kincaid red, black, and heather-colored plaid, was dripping wet and awkwardly weighty when settled inside the fresh pine box. Alec Kincaid saw to the task alone, all owing no other to touch his dead wife.
The old priest, Father Murdock, stood a respectable distance away from the others. He didn't look at all comfort able with the lack of proper ceremony. There weren't any prayers to cover death by suicide.
And what solace could he possibly offer the mourners when one and all knew Helena was already on her way to hel ? The church had decreed her sorry fate. Eternity by fire was the only penalty for suicide.
It hasn't been easy for me. I stand beside the priest, my expression as solemn as those of the other clan members. I also offer a prayer, though not for Helena's benefit. No, I give the Lord my thanks because the chore is finally finished.
Helena took the longest time dying. Three whole days of agony and suspense I had to endure, and all the while praying she wouldn't open her eyes or speak the damning truth.
Kincaid's bride put me through an ordeal, dragging out the dying time. She did it just to keep me churning inside, of course. I stopped the torment when I was finally given a chance, easily snuffing the breath out of her by holding the Kincaid plaid over her face. It didn't take me long at all, and Helena, in her weakened state, didn't put up much of a fuss.
God, it was a satisfying moment. The fear of being found out made my hands sweat, yet the thrill of it sent a burst of strength down my spine at the same time.
I got away with murder! Oh, how I wish I could boast of my cunning. I cannot say a word, of course, and I dare not let my joy show in my gaze.
I turn my attention to Alec Kincaid now. Helena's husband stands by the gaping hole in the ground. His hands are fisted at his sides and his head is bowed. I wonder if he's angry or saddened by his bride's sinful death. It's difficult to know what's going on inside his mind, for he always keeps his emotions carefully masked.
It doesn't matter to me what the Kincaid is feeling now. He'll get over her death, given the passage of time. And time is what I need, too, before I challenge him for my rightful place.
The priest suddenly coughs, a racking, aching sound that turns my attention back to him. He looks as though he wants to weep. I stare at him until he regains his composure. Then he begins to shake his head. I now know what he's thinking. The thought is there, on his face, for everyone to see.
The Kincaid woman has shamed them all.
God help me, I must not laugh.
They said he kil ed his first wife.
Papa said maybe she needed kil ing. It was a most unfortunate remark for a father to make in front of his daughters, and Baron Jamison realized his blunder as soon as the words were out of his mouth. He was, of course, immediately made sorry for blurting out his unkind comment.
Three of his four daughters had already taken to heart the foul gossip about Alec Kincaid. They didn't much care for their father's view on the atrocity, either. The baron's twins, Agnes and Alice, wept loudly and, as was their particularly irritating habit, in unison as well , while their usual y sweet-tempered sister Mary marched a brisk path around the oblong table in the great hall , where their confused father sat slumped over a goblet of guilt-soothing ale. In between the twins' noisy choruses of outrage, his gentle little Mary interjected one sinful tattle after another she'd heard about the Highland warrior who would be arriving at their home in a paltry week's time.
Mary, deliberately or nay, was stirring the twins into a full lather of snorting and screeching. It was enough to try the patience of the devil himself.
Papa tried to give the Scotsman his full defense. Since he'd never actually met the warrior, or heard anything but ill , unrepeatable rumors about the man's black character, he was therefore forced to make up all his favorable remarks.
And all for naught.
Aye, it was wasted effort on his part, for his daughters weren't paying the least attention to what he was saying. That shouldn't have surprised him, he realized with a grunt and a good belch; his angels never listened to his opinions.
The baron was terribly inept at soothing his daughters when they were in a state, a fact that hadn't particularly bothered him until today. Now however, he felt it most important to gain the upper hand. He didn't want to look the fool in front of his uninvited guests, be they Scots or nay, and fool he'd certainly be called if his daughters continued to ignore his instructions.
After downing a third gulp of ale, the baron summoned up a bit of gumption. He slammed his fist down on the wooden table as an attention-getter, then announced that all this talk about the Scotsman being a murderer was nonsense.
When that statement didn't get any reaction or notice, his irritation got the better of him. all right, then, he decided, if all the gossip turned true, then mayhap the Scotsman's wife had been deserving of the foul deed. It had probably just started out as a proper thrashing, he speculated, and as things had a way of doing, the beating had gotten a wee bit out of hand.
That explanation made perfectly good sense to Baron Jamison. His comments gained him an attentive audience, too, but the incredulous looks on his daughters' faces weren't the result he'd hoped to accomplish. His precious angels stared at him in horror, as if they'd just spotted a giant leech hanging off the tip of his nose. They thought him daft, he suddenly realized. The baron's weak temper exploded full measure then, and he bel owed that the sorry woman had probably sassed her lord back once too often.
It was a lesson that his disrespectful daughters would do well to take to heart.
The baron had only meant to put the fear of God and father into his daughters. He knew he'd failed in the extreme when the twins started shouting again. The sound made his head ache. He cupped his hands over his ears to block out the grating noise, then closed his eyes against the hot glare Mary was giving him. The baron actually slumped lower in his chair, until his knobby knees were scraping the floor. His head was bent, his gumption gone, and in desperation, he turned to his faithful servant, Herman, and ordered him to fetch his youngest daughter.
The gray-haired servant looked relieved by the order, nodding several times before shuffling out of the room to do his lord's bidding. The baron could have sworn on the Holy Cross that he heard the servant mutter under his breath that it was high time that order was given.
A scant ten minutes elapsed before the baron's namesake walked into the middle of the chaos. Baron Jamison immediately straightened in his chair. After giving Herman a good glare to let him know he'd heard his whispered criticism, he let go of his scowl. And when he turned to watch his youngest, he let out a long sigh of relief.
His Jamie would take charge.
Baron Jamison realized he was smiling now, then admitted to himself that it just wasn't possible to stay sour when his Jamie was near.
She was such a bewitching sight, so pleasing to look upon, in fact, that a man could forget all his worries.
Her presence was as commanding as her beauty, too. Jamie had been endowed with her mama's handsome looks. She had long raven-colored hair, violet eyes that reminded her papa of springtime, and skin as flawless and pure as her heart.
Although the baron boasted of loving all his daughters, in secret, Jamie was his pride and joy. It was a most amazing fact, considering he wasn't her true blood father. Jamie's mother was the baron's second wife. She had come to him when she was nearly full term with her daughter. The man who'd fathered Jamie had died in battle, a bare month after wedding and bedding his bride.
The baron had accepted the infant as his own, forbidding anyone to refer to her as his stepdaughter.
From the moment he'd first held her in his arms, she had belonged to him.
Jamie was the youngest and the most magnificent of his angels. The twins, and Mary as well , were gifted with a quiet beauty, the kind that grew on a man with time and notice, but his dear little Jamie, with just one look, could fairly knock the wind out of a man. Her smile had been known to nudge a knight clear off his mount, or so her papa liked to exaggerate to his friends.
Yet there was no petty jealousy among his girls. Agnes, Alice, and Mary instinctively turned to their little sister for guidance in all matters of significance. They leaned on her almost as often as their papa did.
Jamie was now the true mistress of their home. Since the day of her mama's burial, his youngest had taken on that burden. She'd proven her value early, and the baron, liking order but having no gift for establishing it, had been most relieved to give Jamie full responsibility.
She never disappointed him. Jamie was such a sensible, untroubling daughter. She never cried, either, not since the day her mama passed on.
Agnes and Alice would have done well to learn from their sister's disciplined nature, the baron thought. They tended to cry over just about everything. To his mind, their looks saved them from being completely worthless, but stil he pitied the lords who would someday be saddled with his emotional daughters.
The baron worried most for his Mary. Though he never voiced the criticism, he knew she was a might more selfish than was considered fashionable. She put her own wants above those of her sisters. The bigger sin, however, was putting herself above her papa.
Aye, Mary was a worry, and a mischief-maker, too. She liked to plow up trouble just for the sheer joy of it. The baron had a nagging suspicion that Jamie was giving Mary unladylike ideas, but he never dared voice that notion, lest he be proven wrong, and fal from grace in his youngest's eyes.
Yet even though Jamie was his favorite, the baron wasn't completely oblivious to her flaws. Her temper, though seldom unleashed, could ignite a forest fire. She had a stubborn crook in her nature, too. She had inherited her mama's skil for healing, even though he'd specifical y forbidden that practice. Nay, the baron wasn't pleased with that inclination, for the serfs and the house servants were constantly pul ing her away from her primary duty of seeing to his comforts. Jamie was dragged out of her bed during the middle of the night quite frequently to patch up a knife wound or ease a new life into the world. The baron didn't particularly mind the nighttime cal s, as he was usual y sleeping quite soundly in his own bed and was therefore not inconvenienced, but he took grave exception to the daytime interruptions, especial y when he had to wait for his dinner because his daughter was busy tending the injured or sick.
That thought made him sigh with regret. Then he realized the twins had quit their screeching. Jamie had already quieted the storm. Baron Jamison motioned to his steward to refil his goblet and leaned back to watch his daughter continue to weave her magic.
Agnes, Alice, and Mary had rushed over to their sister the moment she entered the room. Each was trying to tel a different version of the story.
Jamie couldn't make any sense out of their comments. "Come and sit with Papa at the table," she suggested in her husky voice. "Then we shal sort through this new problem like a family," she added with a coaxing smile.
"'Tis more than a mere problem this time," Alice wailed, mopping at the corners of her eyes. "I don't think this can be sorted out, Jamie. Truly I don't."
"Papa's done it this time," Agnes muttered. The younger twin dragged out one of the stools from under the table, sat down, and gave her father a fierce glare. "As usual, this is all his fault."
"This trickery ain't my doing," the baron whined. "So you can quit your frowning at me, missy. I'm obeying my king's command, and that be that."
"Papa, please don't get yourself upset," Jamie cautioned. She reached over to pat her father's hand. Then she turned to Mary. "You seem to be the most in control. Agnes, quit your whimpering so I may hear what has happened. Mary, will you please explain?"
"'Tis the missive from King Henry," Mary answered. She paused to brush a lock of pale brown hair over her shoulder, then folded her hands on the tabletop. "It seems our king is most upset with Papa again."
"Upset? Mary, he's bloody furious," Alice interjected.
Mary nodded before continuing. "Papa didn't send in his taxes," she announced with a frown in her father's direction. "The king is making an example of our papa."
In unison the twins turned to add their glares.
Jamie let out a weary sigh. "Please go on, Mary," she requested. "I would hear all of this."
"Well, since King Henry has married that Scottish princess… What is her name, Alice?"
"Yes, Matilda. Lord, how could I forget the name of our queen?"
"'Tis simple enough for me to understand how you could forget," Agnes said. "Papa's never taken us to court and we've never had a single really important visitor. We're as isolated as lepers out here in the middle of nowhere."
"Agnes, you're straying from our topic," Jamie announced. Her voice was strained with impatience.
"Mary, do go on."
"Well, King Henry seems to think we must all be wed to Scots," Mary stated.
Alice shook her head. "Nay, Mary. He doesn't want all of us wed to Scots. Just one of us. And the barbarian gets to pick from the lot of us. God help me, it's so humiliating."
"Humiliating? Whoever is chosen will certainly be going to her death, Alice. If the man kil ed one wife, he's bound to kil another. And that, sister, is a little more than just humiliating," Mary pronounced.
"What?" Jamie gasped out, clearly appal ed by such talk.
Alice ignored Jamie's outburst. " I heard his first wife kil ed herself," she interjected.
"Papa, how could you?' Mary shouted her question. She looked as if she wanted to strike her father, for her face was flushed and her hands were clenched. "You knew the king would be angry with you for not paying your taxes. Did you not think of the repercussions then?"
"Alice, will you please lower your voice? Shouting won't change this situation," Jamie said. "We all know how forgetful Papa can be. Why, he probably just forgot to send in the tax money. Isn't that the way of it, Papa?"