The last of the four dared to gain advantage by striking from behind. Alec whirled around, slammed his boot into the man's groin in what appeared to be the most effortless of motions, then lifted the man off the ground with one powerful blow of his fist centered beneath his jutting jaw.
The pile on the ground had grown to pyramid proportions. Daniel had been correct in his boast that it would soon be over, for less than a full minute had passed.
Alec didn't even look winded. That amazing thought had just taken root in Jamie's mind when a new sound caught her attention. She turned just as three big men came rushing toward her from the cover of the bushes on the opposite side of the boulder.
Like snakes they'd slithered through the thicket to get to the prize.
"Alec!" Jamie shouted.
"Jamie, you must protect me," Mary screamed.
Before Jamie could respond, her sister pul ed her away from the boulder. Mary flattened herself against the rock, then pul ed Jamie in front of her.
Though Mary was almost a head tal er than her younger sister, once she'd hunched her shoulders down into the crease in the rock and tucked her face between Jamie's shoulderblades, she was well insulated from attack. The boulder shielded her back, and her sister shielded her front.
Jamie didn't try to protect herself. She understood her duty. Mary came first. If need be, she'd give her life to keep her safe.
The three men were almost upon them when Jamie remembered the smal dagger she held in her hand.
She took aim and threw the weapon, deliberately choosing the biggest of the three. Her aim proved true.
The bandit let out an ear-piercing scream and col apsed.
Daniel charged the second of the three dark-haired men and knocked the vil ain to the ground with a mighty blow to his midsection. Alec had a greater distance to cover. By the time he'd almost reached his prey, it was too late. Though Jamie fought like a wildcat, the bastard had her in what appeared to be a death grip. His knife was pressed against her heart.
"Stop where you be," the man shouted at Alec in a high-pitched screech. "I got nothing to lose now. If you come any closer, I'l kil her. I can snap her pretty little neck as easy as not."
Daniel had finished his fight and was slowly advancing from behind. Alec motioned for him to stop when the vil ain gave a fearful glance over his shoulder. He tightened his hold on Jamie's hair in reaction to this new threat, then twisted the mass around his hand as he jerked her head back.
Alec saw the wild, hunted look in the man's bleak eyes. It was obvious the bastard was terrified, for Alec could see his hands were shaking. His enemy was of medium height, with a bloated face and stomach.
He was going to be a quick kil , Alec decided, once he'd released Jamie and she wasn't in jeopardy. The man was in a panic now, however. His fear made him as unpredictable as a cornered rat. The enemy might very well try to kil Jamie if provoked… or if he believed his situation was completely hopeless.
It was hopeless, of course. He would die. His fate had been decreed the moment he touched Jamie.
Alec kept his fury contained, waiting for his opportunity. He affected a casual stance, folded his arms across his chest, and tried his damnedest to look bored.
"I'm meaning what I say," the captor shouted. "And shut the other woman up. I can't think with her screaming like that."
Daniel immediately went over to Mary. He clamped his hand over her mouth, forcing her to be silent, yet never once spared her a sympathetic glance. His full attention was on Jamie's captor as he also waited for his chance to strike.
The fear slowly ebbed from the enemy's eyes. He snickered, obviously sensing victory was now on his side. Alec knew he had him then. The rat was getting ready to scurry out of his corner. He was feeling content, and that false confidence was going to be his destruction.
"This one be your woman?" the man bel owed at Alec.
"You care for her?"
"Oh, you're caring all right," the enemy shouted. He chuckled with glee then. It was a foul, grating sound.
"You don't want me kil ing your pretty, now, do you?" He tore at Jamie's hair, hoping to cause a grimace as further proof of his power and their impotence, but when he glanced at the hel ion he'd captured, he realized he'd failed.
His hostage was glaring at him. He knew he was hurting her, but she stubbornly refused to cry out.
Alec had avoided looking at his wife's face, knowing the fear he'd see in her gaze would undermine his concentration. His rage would be uncontrol able then. Yet when the blackguard twisted Jamie's hair so forceful y, Alec instinctively looked at her.
She didn't appear to be afraid. God's truth, she looked bloody furious. Alec was so surprised by her show of courage that he almost smiled.
"Get me one of them fine horses," her captor ordered. "When I'm feeling safe and sure you ain't sniffing after me, I'l let your pretty go."
Alec shook his head. "No."
"What say you?"
"I said no," Alec answered, his voice as calm now as the soft wind. "You can have her, but you cannot have her horse."
Jamie let out a loud gasp. "Shut your mouth, bitch," her enemy muttered. He pressed his blade to her throat, glaring at Alec all the while. "I'm wanting both, damn your hide."
Alec shook his head again. "Take the woman if you want, but not the horse."
"I said I'm wanting both!" His voice sounded like the screech of a trapped bird.
"Let him have both, Alec," Daniel interjected. "You can easily replace her and her horse."
Jamie couldn't believe what she was hearing. The urge to weep was almost overwhelming. "Alec?" she whispered, her worry obvious in her tone.
"You can't mean it."
"I told you to shut your mouth," the enemy ordered again. He gave her hair another vicious yank to emphasize his command.
Jamie slammed her foot down on top of his in retaliation.
"Daniel, get her horse," Alec ordered. "Now."
"Let the other woman fetch it," the captor shouted.
Daniel ignored that command and walked over to Wildfire.
Jamie couldn't believe what was happening to her. She could have sworn she heard Daniel whistling. She knew the Scots didn't like the English, but this horrendous conduct was simply untenable. She was trying desperately not to be afraid. Alec wasn't making that task easy for her. After giving her only a quick glance, he'd ignored her. God help her, he had looked downright bored—until her enemy demanded her horse, Jamie qualified.
Alec hadn't looked bored then. He looked furious.
Cholie had been right, after all . The Scots did value their horses more than their women.
If she'd had anything in her stomach, she certainly would have lost it by now. The scoundrel squeezing her so indecently smel ed like a forgotten chamber pot. Every time she took a breath, she wanted to gag.
"Put the horse between her man and me," Jamie's captor ordered.
Alec waited for his chance. He moved when Daniel approached, grabbed the reins out of his friend's hands, and pul ed Wildfire as close to his opponent as possible.
What happened next so startled Jamie that she didn't have time to react. She suddenly found herself flying through the air like a disk. She heard her captor's scream of agony just as Daniel caught her in his arms.
Jamie turned in time to see Alec plunge the enemy's dagger into his throat.
She did gag then, twice. Daniel hastily put her down. Mary came flying across the clearing and hurled herself at Jamie. The danger was over, but Mary continued to cry hysterical y.
Jamie closed her eyes and concentrated on calming her racing heartbeat. Mary was clinging to her now, squeezing the breath out of her.
Jamie was suddenly shaking like a leaf in a windstorm. Her legs felt as brittle as kindling wood.
"You may open your eyes now."
Alec gave her that order. When Jamie did as he commanded, she found her husband standing just a breath away from her.
His eyes didn't look so terribly cold now. In truth, she thought he looked close to smiling. That didn't make any sense to her. She'd just seen him kil so easily, so brutal y, so casual y. And now he looked as if he wanted to smile over it.
Jamie couldn't make up her mind if she wanted to run away from him or stay and throttle him.
While she stared up at her husband, she heard Daniel order Mary to come with him, then felt him pry her sister's hands away from her. She didn't have the strength to help with that chore, yet she did wonder why Daniel sounded so angry with Mary and why Alec looked so damned cheerful.
Jamie wasn't aware her hands were clenched together. Alec was. "It's finished," he told her in a soft voice.
"Finished?" she repeated. She turned to look at the man Alec had just fel ed, and immediately started to shake.
Alec moved to block her view. He held up her dagger, his intent to give it back to her, but stayed that action when he saw how upset she was. She acted as though the dirk had suddenly become possessed by demons.
"This belongs to you, doesn't it?" he asked, confused by the unreasonable fear in her eyes.
Jamie took a step to the side, looked down at the dead man again, staring at the gaping hole in his neck where the dagger had penetrated.
Alec again moved to block her view. "Wife?"
She started backing away from him. "I don't want the dagger anymore. Throw it away. I have another one in my satchel."
"He's dead, wife," Alec stated, trying to be reasonable. "You needn't keep looking at him, lass. He can't hurt you now."
"Aye, he's dead," she stated with a vehement nod. "You tossed me in the air, Alec, just like a…"
She nodded again. "You kil ed him so easily, milord. I've never seen…"
When she didn't finish her statement, Alec let out a sigh. "It was good of you to notice," he said then.
She gave him an incredulous look while she continued to back away from him. "It was good of me…?
Do you think I am giving you praise, husband?" She paused to take a deep breath, trying to ease the ache in her throat, then looked at the dagger he was holding. "Throw that away, if you please. I don't want to look at it."
"Does the sight of blood upset you?" he asked. He thought her behavior most confusing. The woman had been a tigress only minutes before, when she struggled with her captor, yet now was acting like a frightened child.
Alec tried once again to calm her. He tossed the dagger over his shoulder.
"Yes—I mean, no," Jamie suddenly blurted out.
"Yes and no what?" he asked.
"You asked me if the sight of blood distresses me," Jamie explained in a rush. "And I answered you."
She threaded her fingers through her hair, inadvertently making it more disheveled than before, then whispered, "That blood makes me sick."
She had to sigh then. She'd meant to tel him she was used to seeing blood, that she was a healer and had probably mopped up enough blood to turn a river red, but it was simply too much trouble to try to explain anything. She was stil reacting to the terrible upset she'd just had, she told herself, and to her husband's incredible strength.
There was also the rather painful fact that he had been very will ing to give her away. Her horse actually meant more to him than she did.
She was going to have nightmares for a month.
Alec suddenly reached out and pul ed her into his arms. "If you take another step back, you'l end up on top of the heap."
Jamie took one look over her shoulder, saw the stack of bodies, and felt her knees give out on her. She would have fal en on her face if he hadn't held her up.
Yet even in her distressed state, she couldn't help noticing how very gentle he was being. A contradiction, that, given the fact that he was such a giant of a man. It didn't seem possible that someone his size could be so gentle. Yet it seemed just as unlikely that he could dispose of four armed attackers without showing the least bit of exertion. The man hadn't even worked up a proper sweat.
He smel ed nice. Jamie leaned against his chest and let him hold her.
"Did you mean it, Alec?" she whispered.
"Mean what?" he asked.
She didn't explain quickly enough to suit him. He tilted her chin up so he could see her expression. "Mean what, wife?"
"When you told that horrible man he could have me but not my horse," she explained. "Did you really mean what you said?"
He would have laughed if she hadn't looked so upset. "No."
She immediately col apsed against him. "Then why did you sound as if you meant it?"
Her voice was stil whisper-soft, but he heard her all the same. Alec couldn't believe she harbored such a worry. Give her up? Never! "I wanted him to think he was in control, lass."
"He was in control, Alec," Jamie argued. "He was the one with the knife."
"Ah, I see," Alec returned, a smile in his voice now. "Then the men who circled me were also in control."
"Well, no," Jamie whispered. "I mean to say, they did have weapons, but you were the one who… took charge."
Before he could respond to that comment, Jamie added, "Then it was all a trick, wasn't it? You lied to him."
"I lied to him."
She let out another long sigh before her shivers reminded her how frightened she'd been. She immediately shoved away from him.
Jamie was back to being bloody furious. There was fire in her eyes, Alec thought, and he didn't have the faintest idea why she was angry now. The woman was as puzzling as a maze.
Ignoring her command to let go of her, Alec draped his arm around her shoulders, hauled her up against his side, and led her over to where Daniel had col ected the horses.
Jamie didn't offer a word of gratitude when he lifted her up onto Wildfire's back. She kept her gaze downcast until he handed her the reins. His hands brushed against hers, startling her. She jerked her hands away.
"Look at me."
He waited until she obeyed his command before speaking again. "You've shown me how courageous you are, wife. I'm very pleased with you."
Her eyes widened in surprise. Alec smiled. He'd just found a rather simple way to placate her: praise.
Wasn't it true that all women liked to hear their husbands' expressions of approval from time to time?