They disagreed only when it came to the topic of Baron Jamison. The stable master had made it quite clear that he didn't hold with the way the baron treated his youngest daughter. Since Jamie was content, she couldn't understand why Beak would feel this way. As they could not agree, they careful y avoided the issue of her father's character.

Jamie waited until Beak had sent Emmett out of the stable on an errand, then told him the full story. Beak rubbed his jaw again and again during the telling, a sure indication he was giving the matter his full attention.


"This is really all my fault," Jamie confessed.

"How do you figure that?" Beak asked.

"I should have seen to the col ection of taxes," Jamie explained. "Now my dear sisters will have to pay the price for my laziness."

"Laziness, my arse," Beak muttered. "The only chores you ain't responsible for are the taxes and the keeping of the watch, my girl. You're half dead from the work you do. God forgive me for ever teaching you anything. If I hadn't shown you how to ride like the best of them and how to hunt like the best of them, you'd not be acting like the best of them. You're a fair lady, Jamie, but you've taken on the chores of a knight. 'Tis I who am to blame."

Jamie wasn't at all fooled by his forlorn expression. She laughed right in his face. "Many a time you've boasted of my abilities, Beak. You're proud of me and that's that."

"I am proud of you," Beak said with a grunt. "Stil , I'l not be listening to you blame yourself for your father's sins."

"Now, Beak…"

"You say you ain't included in this wife-bidding?" Beak asked. "Don't you think that's a mite odd?"

"I do think it's odd, but our king must have his reasons. It isn't my place to question his decisions."

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"Did you happen to look at this missive, Jamie? Did you read it?"

"No, Papa didn't want me to bother with it," Jamie answered. "Beak, what are you thinking? You've got that mean look in your eyes all of a sudden."

"I'm thinking your papa's up to something," Beak admitted. "Something shameful. I've known your papa a mite longer than you have, girl.

Remember who trailed after your mama when she wed the baron. I was wise to your father's ways afore you could walk. Now I'm tel ing you your papa's up to something."

"Papa accepted me as his own," Jamie said. "Mama always told me it didn't matter spit to him that he wasn't my blood father. Please don't forget that kindness, Beak. Papa's a good man."

"Aye, he treated you fair by cal ing you daughter, but that don't change the facts none."

At that moment the groom, Emmett, came strol ing back into the stables. Jamie, knowing the groom's habit of listening in on others' conversations, immediately switched to Gaelic so their talk would continue to be private. "Your loyalty is suspect," she whispered, shaking her head.

"Spit! I'm loyal to you. No one else gives a hol er about your future. Now, quit looking so disgruntled and tel this old man when my fel ow Scotsmen will be arriving."

Jamie knew Beak was deliberately edging the conversation away from her father and was thankful. "One week's time, Beak. I must stay hidden away like a prisoner while they're here. Papa thinks it would be for the better if they don't see me, though I don't understand why. It's going to be difficult, too, what with my duties to be seen to each day. Who will do the hunting for our supper? How long do you think they'l be staying, Beak?

Most likely a week, don't you suppose? I'l have to salt more pork if—"

"I hope they stay a month," Beak interrupted. "You'l get a needed rest," he predicted. "Jamie, I've said it afore and I'l be saying it again. You're digging yourself into an early grave, working from sunup to sunset.

I worry about you, lass. I can stil remember the young days, afore your mama took ill , God rest her soul.

You were no bigger than a gnat, but a hel -raiser all the same. Remember that time I had to climb up the outside of the tower to fetch you down? You screamed my name over and over, you did. And me afeared of heights so shameful y I puked up my supper as soon as I got you down? You'd tied a flimsy rope betwixt the two towers, thinking you could walk across real nimble like."

Jamie smiled over the memory. "I remember you swatted my backside. I couldn't sit down for two days."

"But you denied to your papa that I struck you, didn't you, Jamie, guessing I'd get into trouble?"

"You would have gotten into trouble," Jamie announced.

Beak laughed. "So you got yourself another good swat from your mama. She wouldn't have punished you none if she'd known I'd already seen to your discipline."

"You saved me from sure death that time," Jamie admitted.

"I've saved you more than once and that's the truth of it."

"It was a long time ago," Jamie reminded him, her smile gentle. "I'm all grown up now. I've many responsibilities. Even Andrew understands the way of it, Beak. Why can't you?"

He wasn't about to touch that hot poker. Beak knew he'd hurt her feelings if he told her what he really thought about her Andrew. Although he'd only had the misfortune of meeting Baron Fancy Figure Andrew once, it had been quite enough for him to judge the man's spineless character.

Andrew's mind was as tight as his britches. all he had time to think about was himself. God's truth, every time Beak thought about his precious Jamie saddled with such a weakling, his stomach turned sour.

"You're needing a strong man, lass. Aside from me, of course, I don't rightly know if you've ever met up with any real men. And you've stil got a wee streak of wildness inside you. You're wanting to be free, whether you realize it or not."

"You're exaggerating, Beak. I'm not wild, not anymore."

"Think I haven't seen you standing on your mare's back while she races through the south meadow, Jamie? I'm sorry I ever taught you that trick. You dare the devil every once in a while, don't you?"

"Beak, you've been watching me?"

"Someone has to keep an eye on you."

Jamie let out a soft sigh, then turned the topic back to the Scotsmen. Beak let her have her way. He hoped that by listening to her talk out her worries, he was in some smal measure easing her burden.

When she took her leave to return to her tasks, Beak's mind was reeling with new possibilities.

Baron Jamison was weaving a deception, all right; Beak would have staked his life on it. well , he wasn't going to let his lord get away with it.

Beak determined to become Jamie's savior. First, however, he'd have to measure these Scots. If one turned out to be a true God-fearing, woman-caring man, then Beak vowed he'd find a way to take the lord aside and tel him Baron Jamison didn't have three daughters; he had four.

Aye, Beak would try to save Jamie from her sorry fate.

God will ing, he'd set her free.

The priest, Murdock, has just told us that Alec Kincaid will be coming home with an English bride. There are scowls aplenty, but they aren't because our laird has remarried. Nay, the anger is because his bride is English. Alec simply obeys the order of his king, others say in his defense. Still others wonder aloud how their laird can stomach the task.

God, I hope he falls in love with her. 'Tis too much to ask my Maker now, for Alec is as set against the English as the rest of us.

Still… it would make the kill so much sweeter.

Chapter Two

Alec Kincaid was in a hurry to get home. He'd honored King Edgar's request and stayed in London for nearly a month's time, studying the ways of the English court system and learning all he could about England's unpredictable king. In truth, Alec had little liking for the duty. He found the English barons a pretentious lot, their ladies dul -witted and painful y weak-spirited, and their leader, Henry, a little too soft in most of his decisions. Alec always gave a man his due, however, and therefore grudgingly admitted there had been a time or two when he'd been downright impressed with King Henry's spurts of brutality.

He had given swift punishment to those foolish barons who'd been proved guilty of treason.

Although Alec hadn't complained about the duty, he was stil thankful it was done. As laird over his own large clan of fol owers, he felt his many responsibilities pressing down on him. His domain in the rugged Highlands was probably in chaos now, what with the Campbel s and the MacDonalds at it again, and God only knew what other problems he'd find waiting on his doorstep.

Now there was a further delay. Damn if he didn't have to stop along the way to get married.

Alec considered his marriage to the unknown Englishwoman a minor inconvenience, nothing more. He would wed the woman to please King Edgar. She would do the same by order from King Henry, of course, for that was the way of things in these advanced days, since the two leaders had formed a tenuous bond with each other.

Henry had specifical y requested that Alec Kincaid be one of the lairds ordered to take an English bride.

Both Alec and Edgar knew why Henry had made that special request. It was an undisputed fact that the Kincaid, though one of the youngest lairds in all of Scotland, was a power to be reckoned with. He was chieftain over approximately eight hundred fierce warriors by last year's count, but that number would be doubled if he called up his trusted all ies.

The Kincaid's skil in battle was a whispered legend in England, a shouted boast in the Highlands.

Henry also knew that Alec didn't particularly like the English. He mentioned to Edgar his hope that the marriage would soften the powerful laird's attitude. Perhaps, Henry suggested, in time, harmony would be achieved.

Edgar was far more astute than Henry believed, however. He suspected Henry wanted to sway Alec's loyalty toward England.

Both Alec and his leader were highly amused by Henry's naivete. Edgar was Henry's vassal, aye, since the day he'd knelt at the feet of the king of England and given his pledge. He'd also been raised in the English court. Stil , he was king of Scotland, and his loyal clansmen came before all others…especial y outsiders.

Henry obviously didn't understand the bond of blood ties. Both Edgar and Alec believed England's king saw only the possibility of another strong al y in his back pocket. He'd misjudged the Kincaid, though, for Alec would never turn his back on Scotland or her king, no matter what the incentives.

Daniel, Alec's friend since childhood days, and soon to be named laird over the neighboring clan Ferguson, had also been ordered to take an English bride. Daniel, too, had spent a tiring month in London. He'd found the duty as unpleasant as Alec had, and was just as anxious to get home.

Both warriors had ridden at a furious pace since dawn, pausing only twice to rest their mounts. They full y expected to spend little more than an hour or two at Jamison's holding. That would surely be time enough, they'd reasoned, to eat a full supper, choose their brides, marry them if there was a priest in residence, and then be on their way.

They didn't want to spend another night on English soil. It mattered not if their brides had other inclinations. The women were simply property, after all , and neither Daniel nor Alec considered the wants of a bride significant in the least.

They would do as they were told, and that was that.

It was Alec who won the privilege of taking first choice by tossing the caber farther afield than his friend.

In truth, however, neither man had cared enough to give the feat of strength his all .

Aye, it was an errand they were completing, and a damn nuisance to be sure.

The devil and his disciple arrived at Baron Jamison's holding three days ahead of schedule.

Beak was the first to catch sight of the Scottish warlords, the first to give them those fitting names. He was sitting on the top rung of the ladder used to reach the loft, thinking to himself that it was time he had a proper snooze, for it was getting on high afternoon, after all , and he'd been working steadily in the warm spring sun without letup since his nooning meal. Stil and all , Lady Mary had dragged her sister, Jamie, off to the south meadow and he really should chase after them just to make certain they weren't getting into mischief. When Jamie was nagged into putting her chores aside, the streak of wildness sometimes got the better of her nature. It was a fact that she became too uninhibited for her own good, Beak thought. Yet another reason she needed a strong man to watch over her. Why, his sweet Jamie could talk a thief out of his stealings if her mind was set on the task, and God only knew what troubles she'd talked Mary into stirring up.

Just thinking about all the possibilities sent a shiver down Beak's spine. Yes, he'd have to go after the wild pair, all right.

He let out a loud yawn and started down the ladder. He was on the second rail from the top when he spotted the two giants riding toward him.

Beak almost lost his balance. He knew his mouth gaped open just like a baby sparrow's waiting on food from his mama, but Beak couldn't seem to get it closed tight. He stopped himself from making a hasty sign of the cross, though, and was thankful the warriors couldn't possibly hear his knees knocking together when he finally managed the rest of the climb down.

He could feel his heart slamming inside his chest. Beak reminded himself he had Scottish blood running through his veins, though it came from his ancestors in the civilized Lowlands. He also tried to remember he'd never been caught judging a man solely on his appearance. Neither reminder soothed his initial reaction to the giants watching him so intently.

Beak started shivering. He excused his cowardice by tel ing himself he was just an ordinary man, he was, and the sight of these two warriors would give the apostles goose-bumps.

The one Beak thought of as the disciple was tal and burly with wide shoulders, hair the color of rusty nails, and green-as-the-ocean eyes. The man had grim wrinkles at the corners of those chil ing eyes, too.

The disciple was a big man, aye, yet seemed puny in comparison to the other.

The one Beak thought of as the devil had hair as bronze as his skin. He was a good head tal er than his companion and had not a bit of softening fat on his unforgiving Herculean frame. When Beak stumbled forward to get a better look at his face, he immediately wished he hadn't made the effort.

There was a bleak coldness there, lurking in those brown eyes. That gaze could frost a summer bed of clover, Beak thought with growing despair.

So much for his foolish plan to save his Jamie. Beak decided he'd go to hel cheering like a happy man before he let either of these two barbarians near her.

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