In the back of her mind was a glimmer of hope that while she was busy tending to her new duties, she would also start making a few necessary changes. Why, if she really put her mind to it, she might even be able to civilize these Highlanders.
The wars, coming one atop the other, actually crept up on Jamie. She wasn't about to take the blame for instigating any of the conflicts. No, the blame belonged to the Scots, their ridiculous customs, their stubborn nature, and most especial y, their unbending pride. Was it her fault none of these barbarians ever made a bit of sense?
Jamie slept past the nooning meal the day after she patched up Angus. She thought she deserved the long rest until she remembered it was Sunday and she'd missed mass. It was a duty to attend the service, and the realization that no one had bothered to wake her up irritated her. Now she was going to have to use one of her shil ings to buy an indulgence.
She dressed in a cream-colored chemise and a ruby-colored bliaut, then draped a braided belt around her waist ever so loosely so it would rest on her hips, as was the fashion these days. She might not have gone to court, but she kept up with the newest styles, even though it was a bother. Stil , she didn't want the Scots thinking she was just an ignorant country girl. She was their laird's wife now and must always look fashionable. She brushed her hair, gave her cheeks a good pinch for color, and went to see how her patient was doing. If all was well with Angus, she would find the priest and put the matter of her sin in his hands.
She dreaded the coming penance.
Luck was on her side, however. Not only was Angus sleeping peaceful y, but the priest was also in the hall . He was taking his turn sitting beside the warrior.
The priest started to stand when he saw Jamie approaching. "Pray stay seated, Father," Jamie requested with a smile.
"We've not been properly introduced," the priest announced. "I'm Father Murdock, Lady Kincaid."
It was stil difficult to understand him. The priest's voice was as thin as his hair. The soft burr in his speech only added to the problem. He sounded in dire need of a good cough. Jamie resisted her urge to cough for him.
"Has the pain in your chest let up, Father?" she asked.
"It has, milady, it surely has," Father Murdock answered. "I haven't slept so well in many a night. That potion you gave me turned the trick."
"I'd like to make a salve for you to rub on your chest," Jamie said. "We'l have that cough gone by week's end."
"Thank you, lass, for taking the time to help this old man."
"I must warn you, Father, the stench in this paste will make your friends keep well away from you."
Father Murdock smiled. "I shal not mind."
"Has Angus been resting well ?"
"He's sleeping now, but earlier Gavin had to restrain him. Angus was trying to tear the bandages off his bad arm. Elizabeth was so distressed she wanted to awaken you. Gavin ordered her to bed."
Jamie frowned over this news while she studied the warrior's swol en fingers. The color was good enough to please her. She put her hand on his brow next. "The fever didn't catch hold of him," she announced.
"Your prayers have saved him, Father."
"Nay, lass," the priest contradicted. "You are the one who saved him. God must have decided to let Angus stay with us, and in his wisdom he sent you here to tend to him."
His praise embarrassed her. "Wel , he sent you a sinner," she blurted out, wanting to get the dreaded business over. "I missed mass this morning," she explained after she'd pressed a shil ing in his hand.
"Please accept this coin for an indulgence."
"Now, Father, before you decide upon my penance, I would like to explain my reasons. I wouldn't have missed mass if Alec had wakened me," she said. Her hands settled on her h*ps and she tossed her hair back over her shoulder in a gesture Father Murdock found enchanting. A frown worried her brow.
"Come to think of it, this really should be Alec's sin, too. What think you of that?"
The priest didn't answer her soon enough. "Do you know," she continued, "the more I reflect on this problem, the more I become convinced Alec should be the one giving you his coin. Why, this is really his sin."
Father Murdock was having difficulty fol owing her train of thought. He felt as though a whirlwind had just fil ed the room. A whirlwind with the sun shining through. The priest wanted to laugh with sheer joy.
The gloom that had hovered over Alec's home since Helena's death would leave now. He was sure of it.
He'd seen the way his laird watched his wife all during the night while she worked on Angus. He'd looked just as surprised as the rest of them… and just as pleased.
"Father?" Jamie asked. "What think you of my worry?"
"Neither one of you has sinned."
Father Murdock smiled over the surprise his statement had caused. Lady Kincaid looked flabbergasted.
"You're very devout, aren't you, Lady Kincaid?"
It would have been a sin to let the priest think that. "Oh, heavens no," she said hurriedly. "I cannot let you believe such a lie. It's just that our priest back home… well , he is most devout, and I must tel you his penances are usual y bloody awful. I think boredom led him to be strict. He made Agnes cut her hair once. She cried for a week."
"One of my dear sisters," Jamie explained.
"It must have been a terrible sin," Father Murdock remarked.
"She fel asleep during one of his sermons," Jamie confessed.
The priest tried not to laugh. "We're not so rigorous here," he advised. "I promise I will never make you cut your hair, Lady Kincaid."
"What a shame you didn't live with us then," Jamie interjected. "Agnes's hair hasn't curled since she was forced to cut it."
"How many are there in your family?" the priest asked.
"There were five of us, all girls, but the eldest, Eleanor, died when I was just seven, so I don't remember her very well . The twins, Agnes and Alice, came next, then Mary, and I'm the baby. Papa raised us mostly by himself," she added with a gentle smile.
"A sound family it seems to me," the priest remarked with a nod. "Are your sisters as pretty as you are?"
"Oh, much prettier," Jamie stated. "Mama was fat with me when she married Papa. He'd lost his wife, you see, and Mama had lost her husband right after she'd married him. It made no matter to Papa though. I became his baby as soon as he wed Mama."
"A good man," Father Murdock commented.
"Yes," Jamie agreed with a sigh. "Just mentioning my family makes me miss them."
"Then we won't speak of this any longer," Father Murdock advised. "Take this coin back, please, and put it to better use."
"I'd rather you kept the shil ing. My husband's soul could surely use some attention. He's a laird, after all , and has had to kil men in battle. Do not misunderstand me, Father, for Alec would never, ever take a life without a good reason. Though I don't know him as well as you do, I do believe he wouldn't go looking for trouble. In my heart I know this is true. You must take my word on this matter, Father."
Alec walked into the hall just in time to overhear his wife's defense of his character.
"I agree with you, lass," the priest answered. He glanced up and saw the exasperated look on his laird's face. He had trouble restraining his chuckle.
"Well, now," Jamie said, her sigh of relief evident. "I'm pleased you agree. Though it's shameful of me to admit, I do get tired of having to think about my soul all the time. Father Charles made us confess every thought. 'Tis the truth there were times I made up a few just to appease the man. He's a most conscientious priest and we did lead a very sedate life. Nothing sinful ever happened."
Father Murdock thought the priest sounded like a fanatic. "We're much more relaxed here, Lady Kincaid."
"I'm pleased to hear this," Jamie returned. "Now that I'm married, I must also take care of my husband's soul, and if that isn't enough to turn my hair gray, I don't know what is. Father, I do believe we shal become good friends. You must begin by cal ing me Jamie, don't you suppose?"
"What I suppose, Jamie, is that you have a gentle heart. You're just the breath of fresh air this cold old castle is needing."
"Aye, Father, she does have a gentle heart," Alec interjected. "She'll have to try to overcome that flaw."
"Having a gentle heart isn't a flaw."
Jamie was thankful she'd made that emphatic statement while stil looking at the priest, for once she turned around to confront her husband, she wasn't able to speak at all . She gasped instead.
Alec was half naked.
Alec was dressed like a barbarian. He wore a white shirt but that was the only civilized garment covering his huge body. The shirt was partially covered by the end of his plaid draped over his shoulder. The rest of his plaid was wrapped around his waist. It was folded into wide pleats, held in place by a narrow roped belt, and fel only to mid-thigh. Black boots, that were gray in the worn places, covered only a part of his muscular legs.
His knees were as bare as a baby's arse.
Alec thought she looked ready to faint. He hid his irritation while he patiently waited for her to get accustomed to his attire, then said, "How's Angus doing?"
"I beg your pardon?"
She was stil staring at his knees. "Angus," Alee repeated a bit more forceful y.
"Oh, yes, Angus, of course," she answered, nodding several times.
When she didn't say another word, Alec commanded, "You'l look at my face when I speak to you, wife."
Jamie was startled by the harshness in his rebuke. She quickly did as he had ordered.
Alec was sure her blush could start a fire. "How long do you think it's going to take you to get used to seeing me dressed this way?" he asked, his exasperation obvious.
She recovered quickly. "What way?" she asked, smiling innocently.
A wry grin softened his mouth. "Wil I always have to repeat myself to you?"
She shrugged her answer. "Was there something you wanted to speak to me about?" she asked.
He decided to embarrass her again. "Wife, you've seen me without any clothes on, yet now you act—"
She rushed over and clapped her hand over his mouth. "I've felt you naked, husband. I've not seen you naked. There is a difference," she added.
She dropped her hand when she realized what she'd just done, then backed up a space. "Remember your manners in front of the priest, Alec."
He rol ed his eyes heavenward. She thought he was praying for patience. "Now tel me what it is you wished to say to me."
"I want to speak to Angus," Alec answered. He started toward the bed, but Jamie stepped directly into his path, blocking his way. Her hands were settled on her h*ps again.
"He's sleeping now, Alec. You may speak to him later."
He couldn't believe what he'd just heard. "Wake him."
"Your roar probably just did," she muttered.
He took a deep breath. "Wake him," he ordered again. In a softer tone of voice, he added, "And, Jamie?"
"Don't ever tel me what I may or may not do."
Before she could find the courage to answer him she had to remind herself that her husband had promised never to lose his temper with her. The look on his face was chil ing. "Why must I never tel you what you may or may not do?"
She knew he didn't like her question. His jaw was clenched now. The muscles in his cheeks flexed once, then again. She wondered if her husband had always had this nervous affliction or if it was of recent origin.
"'Tis the way it's done here," Father Murdock blurted out.
The priest wheezed his way out of his chair and rushed over to stand next to Lady Kincaid. His worry was well founded. He'd known Alec Kincaid for long years, recognized that look in his eyes all too well , and sought to intervene in Jamie's behalf before Alec's temper exploded. In time, Jamie would surely learn the perils of questioning such a powerful man. Until then, the priest decided he would have to watch out for her. "The lass has only been here a short time, Alec. Surely she doesn't mean to chal enge you."
Alec nodded. Jamie shook her head. "I do so mean to chal enge him, Father, though I don't wish to sound insolent. I would simply like him to explain why I can't tel him what to do. He tel s me often enough."
She had the audacity to look disgruntled with him. "I'm your husband and your laird, wife. Are those two reasons sufficient for you?"
The muscle in his jaw flexed again. Jamie was fascinated by it. She wondered what potion she could give him to rid him of that affliction, then decided that since he was glaring at her, she wouldn't bother.
"Well?" Alec demanded, taking a threatening step toward her.
She didn't retreat an inch. God's truth, she took a step toward him. Alec was amazed. He'd been known to send grown men running for safety, but this slip of a woman was boldly trying to stand up to him.
Hel , he admitted with a growl, she was standing up to him.
The priest once again tried to intervene. "Lady Kincaid, dare you incite him to anger?"
"Alec won't lose his temper with me," Jamie announced, her gaze directed on her husband. "Alec is a very patient man." Because she was looking at Alec, she missed the priest's astonished expression.
"He gave me his word, Father. He would never break it."
God, how she was baiting him. Alec couldn't make up his mind if he wanted to strangle her or kiss her.
"Do you make me regret my promise to you, wife?"
She shook her head. "I don't. Your attitude does give me concern, though. How are we ever going to get along if you don't learn to bend? Alec, I'm your wife. Doesn't my position all ow for tel ing you—"
"It does not," Alec announced, his voice as hard as rock. "And if there's any bending to be done around here, you'l be the one doing it. Do I make myself clear?"
The look on his face suggested she not argue with him. Jamie ignored it. "A wife may not even give her opinion?"
"She may not." Alec let out a long sigh before continuing. "I can see you don't understand the way we do things here, Jamie, and for that reason I'l excuse your insolent behavior today. But in future—"