"A bit of the way of it, my angel," the baron hedged.
"Oh, my God. He spent the coins," Alice said with a groan.
Jamie raised her hand for silence. "Mary, finish this explanation before I start shouting."
"You must understand, Jamie, how difficult it is for us to be reasonable in the face of this atrocity. I shal , however, endeavor to be strong, and explain it in full to you, for I can see how puzzled you are."
Mary took her time straightening her shoulders. Jamie felt like shaking her, so thin had her patience worn.
She knew it wouldn't do her cause any good, though, for Mary liked to drag out her comments, no matter what the circumstances. "And?" Jamie prodded.
"As I understand this, a barbarian from the Highlands is coming here next week. He's going to choose one of the three of us—Agnes, Alice, or me—to be his second wife. He kil ed his first wife, you see. You aren't included in this, Jamie. Papa said we were the only ones named in the king's letter."
"I'm certain he didn't kil his first wife," Alice said. "Cook says the woman kil ed herself." Alice crossed herself.
Agnes shook her head. "No. I believe the woman was murdered. Surely she wouldn't kil herself and spend eternity in hel , no matter how terrible her husband was to her."
"Could she have died by accident, do you suppose?" Alice suggested.
"The Scots are known to be clumsy," Mary said with a shrug of her shoulders.
"And you're known to believe every bit of gossip you hear," Jamie interjected in a hard voice "Explain what you mean by 'choosing,' Mary," she added, trying to keep her expression from showing how horrified she was.
"Choose for his bride, of course. Haven't you been listening, Jamie? We have no say in the matter, and our own contracts for marriages are all set aside until the selection has been made."
"We're to be paraded in front of the monster like horses," Agnes whimpered.
"Oh, I almost forgot," Mary rushed out. "The Scottish king, Edgar, is also in favor of this marriage, Jamie.
Papa said so."
"So the lord might only be doing the bidding of his king and might not want the marriage either," Alice said.
"Oh, Lord, I hadn't thought of that," Agnes blurted out. "If he doesn't want to be wed, he'l probably kil his bride before he even reaches his home, wherever in God's name that is."
"Agnes, will you calm yourself? You're screaming again," Jamie muttered. "You're going to pul your hair out of your scalp if you keep tugging on it so. Besides, you cannot know if you speak truth or fancy about the circumstances of his first wife's death."
"His name is Kincaid, Jamie, and he is a murderer. Papa said he beat his first wife to death," Agnes advised.
"I said no such thing," the baron shouted. "I merely suggested—"
"Emmett told us he threw his bride over a cliff," Mary interjected. She drummed her fingertips on the tabletop while she waited for Jamie's reaction.
"Emmett's only a groom and a lazy one at that," Jamie returned. "Why would you be listening to his stories?"
Jamie took a deep breath, hoping to calm her queasy stomach. Although she fought against it, her sisters'
fear was becoming contagious. She could feel a shiver pass down her spine. She knew better than to voice her concern, though. Bedlam would erupt again.
Her trusting sisters were all staring at her with such hopeful, expectant looks on their faces. They'd just put the problem in her lap and now waited for her to come up with a solution.
Jamie didn't want to fail them. "Papa? Is there some way you can placate our king? Can you stil send the taxes to him, perhaps adding a bit more to soothe his temper?"
Baron Jamison shook his head. "I'd have to col ect the whole tax all over again. You know as well as I that the serfs' backs are near to broken with their own troubles. The barley crop wasn't good, either. Nay, Jamie, I cannot demand again."
Jamie nodded. She tried to hide her disappointment. She'd hoped there was stil a little of the col ection left, but her father's answer confirmed her fear that it was all gone.
"Emmett said Papa used up all the coins," Mary whispered.
"Emmett is just like an old woman carrying tales," Jamie countered.
"Aye," their father agreed. "He's always been one to taint the truth. Pay no attention to his rantings," he added.
"Papa? Why was I excluded?" Jamie asked. "Did the king forget you had four daughters?"
"No, no," the baron rushed out. He hastily turned his gaze from his daughter to his goblet, for he feared his youngest would see the truth in his eyes.
King Henry hadn't excluded Jamie. He'd used the word "daughters" in his message. Baron Jamison, knowing he'd never be able to get along without his youngest taking care of him, had made the decision himself to exclude her. He thought his plan was most cunning.
"The king named only Maudie's daughters," . he announced.
"Well, that certainly doesn't make any sense to me," Agnes remarked between sniffles.
"Perhaps it's because Jamie's the youngest," Mary suggested. She shrugged, then added, "Who can know what's in our king's mind? Just be thankful, Jamie, that you weren't included in his order. Why, if you were chosen you couldn't marry your Andrew."
"That's the reason," Agnes interjected. "Baron Andrew is so powerful and well liked. He told us so. He must have swayed our king's mind. Everyone knows how smitten Andrew is with you, Jamie."
"That could be the reason," Jamie whispered. "If Andrew is as powerful as he says he is."
"I don't think Jamie really wants to marry Andrew," Mary told the twins. "You needn't frown at me, Jamie. I don't think you even like him very much."
"Papa likes him," Agnes said. She gave her father another glare before adding, "I wager it's because Andrew has promised to live here so Jamie can continue to slave for—"
"Now, Agnes, please don't start that again," Jamie begged.
"Why you think it's sinful of me to want to keep Jamie here after her marriage is beyond me," the baron muttered.
"Everything seems to be beyond you," Mary murmured.
"Watch what you say, young lady," he returned. "I'l not all ow you to speak so disrespectful like in front of me."
"I know the true reason," Alice said, "and I'm going to tel Jamie. Andrew paid Papa your dowry, sister, and he—"
"What say you?" Jamie shouted. She nearly leapt out of her chair. "Alice, you're mistaken. Knights do not give a dowry. Papa, you didn't take any coins from Andrew, did you?"
Baron Jamison didn't answer his daughter. He seemed quite taken by the task of swirling his ale in his cup.
His silence was damning.
"Oh, God," Mary whispered. "Alice, do you realize what you're suggesting? If what you're tel ing us is true, then our father has all but sold Jamie to Baron Andrew."
"Now, Mary, don't be getting Jamie riled up," their papa advised.
"I didn't say he sold Jamie to Andrew," Alice said.
"You did so," Mary countered.
"I saw Andrew give Papa a cloth bag full of gold coins."
Jamie's head was pounding. She was determined to get to the bottom of this coin exchange, no matter how long it took or how much her head hurt.
Sold indeed! The very idea made her stomach turn. "Papa, you didn't really take coins for me, did you?" she asked. She couldn't keep the fear out of her tone.
"No, of course not, my angel."
"Papa? Do you know you cal us your angels only when you've done something shameful?" Agnes wailed. "God's truth, I'm beginning to hate that endearment."
"I saw Andrew give Papa the coins, I tel you," Alice shouted.
"I'm just wondering how you could have known what was inside the cloth bag," Mary argued. "Do you have the sight, do you suppose?"
"He dropped the bag," Alice snapped. "Some of the coins fel out."
"It was just a little loan," their father bel owed to get their attention. "Now hush this talk about sel ing my baby."
Jamie's shoulders slumped with relief. "There, you see, Alice? It was just a loan Andrew was giving Papa. You had me worrying for naught. Can we return to our original problem now?"
"Papa's back to looking guilty again," Mary advised.
"Of course Papa looks guilty," Jamie said. "You needn't rub salt in his wound. I'm sure he's sorry enough as it is."
Baron Jamison smiled at his daughter for defending him. "That's my good little angel," he praised. "Now, then, Jamie, I want you to stay hidden when the Scotsmen arrive. No sense tempting them with what they can't be having."
The baron didn't realize his blunder until Alice seized on his remark. "Scotsmen, Papa? You speak of more than one. Do you mean to tel us this demon named Kincaid is bringing others with him?"
"He's probably just bringing his family to witness the marriage," Agnes suggested to her twin.
"Is that the full of it?" Jamie asked her father. She tried to concentrate on the problem at hand, but her thoughts kept returning to the gold coins. Why would her father accept a loan from Andrew?
The baron took his time answering.
"Papa, I have the feeling there's more you'd like to tel us," Jamie coaxed.
"Good God, you mean there's more?" Mary bel owed.
"Papa, what else are you keeping from us?" Alice shouted.
"Spit it out, Papa," Agnes demanded.
Jamie motioned for silence again. The urge to grab hold of her father's gray tunic and shake him into speaking nearly overwhelmed her. She could feel her temper boiling. "May I read this missive from our king?" she asked.
"We really should have learned how to read and scribble when Jamie's mama began her instructions," Agnes remarked with a weary sigh.
"Nonsense," Agnes scoffed. "No gentle lady needs such instruction. What we really should have done was learn how to speak that God-awful Gaelic language like Jamie," she announced. "You know I mean no offense, Jamie," she hastened to add when she caught her sister's frown. " 'Tis the truth I wish I'd learned it with you. Beak did offer to teach all of us," she ended.
"It gave our stable master pleasure to teach me," Jamie said. "And Mama was amused. She was bedridden for such a long while before she died."
"Do you mean to tel me this monster from the Highlands cannot speak our language?" Agnes whimpered before bursting into tears.
Jamie might have been able to control her anger if Agnes hadn't started weeping. "What difference will it make, Agnes?" she blurted out. "The man's going to kil his bride, not talk to her."
"So you believe the rumor is true?" Mary gasped.
"No," Jamie answered, immediately contrite. "I was just jesting." She closed her eyes, said a quick prayer for patience, then turned to Agnes. "It was most unkind of me to get you upset, sister, and I do apologize."
"I would certainly hope so," Agnes cried.
"Papa, let Jamie look at this missive," Mary suddenly demanded.
"No," the baron blurted out. He immediately softened his tone, lest his angels become suspicious of his true motives. "You needn't bother, Jamie.
'Tis simple to tel . There be two Scots coming week next, and two brides going home with them."
Needless to say, the baron's daughters didn't take this added news well . The twins started howling with as much indignation as sleeping babies who'd been pinched awake.
"I'm going to run away," Mary shouted.
"It would seem to me," Jamie began in a voice meant to penetrate the noise, "that we must immediately form a plan to dissuade your suitors."
Agnes stopped bel owing in mid-scream. "Plan? What are you thinking?"
"I have thought of a deceitful plan and I'm almost afraid to mention it, but your welfare is at issue and so I'l tel you that if I were the one doing the selecting, I'd certainly stay away from any contender who was… afflicted in some way."
A slow grin transformed Mary's face. She was always the quickest to catch Jamie's thoughts, especial y when they were of a devious nature. "Or so ugly as to be painful to look upon," she said with a nod. Her brown eyes sparkled with mischief. "Agnes, you and Alice may be afflicted. I'm going to be fat and ugly."
"Afflicted?" Alice asked, clearly puzzled. "Do you understand what she means, Agnes?"
Agnes started to laugh. Her nose was red from rubbing and her cheeks were raw from her tears, yet when she smiled, she looked very pretty. "A dread disease, I do believe. We must eat berries, sister. The rash will only last a few hours, so we must time this well ."
"Now I see," Alice said. "We'l make the dul -witted Scots think we always have terrible lumps on our faces."
"I shal drool," Agnes announced with a haughty nod, "and scratch until they think I'm infested with vile creatures."
The four sisters laughed over that picture. Papa took heart. He smiled at his angels. "There. Do you see, now? I told you it would work out." He hadn't said any such thing, of course, but that fact didn't bother him at all . "I shal go and have my morning lie-down while you continue with your plans." Baron Jamison couldn't leave the hall fast enough.
"These Scots might not care what you look like," Jamie advised, worrying now that she might have given her sisters false hope.
"We can only pray they're shal ow," Mary returned.
"Is deceiving them a sin?" Alice asked.
"Of course," Mary answered.
"We'd best not confess to Father Charles," Agnes whispered. "He'l give us another month of penance.
Besides, we're deceiving Scots, if you'l remember. God will certainly understand."
Jamie left her sisters and went to talk to the stable master. Beak, as he was affectionately called by his friends because of his large hawklike nose, was an elderly man who had long ago become Jamie's confidant. She trusted him completely. He never carried her thoughts to others. He was wise in his years, too. He'd taught her all the skil s he thought she'd need. In truth, she was more of a son than daughter to him.