He touched her forehead at the very same moment.
"I promised you I wouldn't leave you." Her voice sounded like a gruff old man's.
"I'l never let you." His voice sounded like dried leaves being stomped on.
They shared a smile. "You're all right now, Jamie? You weren't hurt?"
The caring in his eyes stunned her. "I knew you'd save me."
"How would you be knowing that?" he asked.
"Because you care, Alec Kincaid."
She had imitated his burr perfectly. Alec nodded, pleased with her answer. He stood up, keeping her head tucked under his chin. He noticed the crowd of soldiers when he turned to walk down the hil .
"She's none the worse for her mishap," he called out.
Jamie tried to pul away just a little so she could nod to his men, but Alec slammed her back against his chest in a hug as fierce as a bear's.
He inadvertently squeezed another cough out of her, too. The man simply didn't know his own strength, she thought happily. He didn't know his actions were so tel ing, either. She could feel the tremors in his arms. And when she'd been waiting for him to save her, it was her name she'd heard him bel owing. He was beginning to love her, if only just a little, whether he was will ing to admit it or not.
That realization made her forget all about her brush with death. "You took your sweet time coming after me, Kincaid," she reminded him.
"The hel I did," he countered with a grin. "I ran like Satan."
"I'm not so insignificant to you after all , am I?"
He didn't answer her until they'd reached the castle doors. "No, you're not."
She realized after a long minute that he wasn't going to give her any more than that. But all the same, she was enormously happy with him. One bite at a time, she reminded herself. That was how she'd boasted to Father Murdock she could eat a giant bear, and that was how she was going to conquer Alec Kincaid.
She laughed again, though this time over her own foolishness. Why had it taken her so long to realize she needed his love as much as he needed hers?
"How can you be laughing now, Lady Kincaid?" Gavin asked. He saw the doors opened for them, then followed the pair inside. "I'm stil shaking with anger."
"I was laughing because I've just realized something quite important," Jamie answered. "It's not going to be one bite at a time, you see, but one kiss at a time. There is a marked difference. And that's the only explanation you'l be getting out of me."
"The smoke has obviously affected her mind," Alec interjected, shaking his head.
"Why are you so angry, Gavin?" Jamie asked. She glanced over Alec's shoulder to see the soldier's face.
"You can't be thinking this is all my fault, can you?"
Before Gavin could respond, Jamie turned back to Alec. "The wind caused my mishap, husband. It was so strong, it pushed the door right into my backside. It was high, all right," she continued when both men looked as if they didn't believe her. "The howling noise was eerie, too. Do you know it sounded as though someone was laughing at me? Alec, why are you looking so doubtful? Don't you believe me?"
"I believe you," Alec told her.
"We know it wasn't your fault, milady," Gavin interjected. "The door was…" He didn't finish his explanation when he caught Alec's signal.
"The door was what, Gavin?"
"Stuck. It was stuck," he blurted out.
"Aye, it surely was," Jamie agreed.
"Gavin, go and order a bath for Jamie. Then return to the hil and begin questioning the servants. Surely one of them will have a few important answers for us."
Alec carried Jamie behind the screen and gently placed her on his bed.
"After your bath, you'l stay in bed the rest of the day," he ordered.
"Why, Jamie? Because you need to recover," Alec explained.
"I've already recovered," Jamie argued.
Alec had to shake his head over her attitude. "You should be weeping now, lass, not smiling so sweetly up at me. Don't you know how soft you are?"
"I must stay in bed because I'm… soft? Alec, that doesn't make a bit of sense."
She sat there on the side of the bed, her face streaked with dirt, her hair tangled, her soot-marred hands folded demurely in her lap; she sat there looking absolutely beautiful to him. The servants marched in with buckets of water. Jamie gave each one a cheerful greeting. She not only remembered their names but also the names of their husbands and children. Alec was impressed. Her memory was really quite remarkable. When she asked each woman about her kin, she was letting her know how much she valued her.
The women, he noticed, gave Jamie just as much affection in their greetings.
Why, even dour-faced old Hessie, the main cook, was smiling at her mistress. "Wil you be up to directing the men with the… kitchen work?" she asked, after giving her laird a timid look.
Jamie held her smile. "He noticed the hole, Hessie," she whispered. "And I have no intention of putting off the work. I'l —"
"I'l take over that duty," Alec announced.
"You will ?"
She looked extremely pleased with him. He wondered then if that wasn't her goal all the while. "Angus can direct the soldiers," Alec stated, "after I've explained what I want done." He'd stressed the word "I"
in his announcement, but he could tel by Jamie's smile that she stil thought she was getting her own way.
"The hole will be boarded up until the hall is finished."
"Hal ? I don't understand," Jamie confessed.
"I don't want the kitchen directly attached," Alec countered. "The smoke from the cooking will fil the hall by noon. We'l make a covered hall way to connect the two buildings. Does that satisfy you?"
He guessed it didn't satisfy her when she gave him a suspicious look. "How long will this hall way be?"
"Not long," he heard himself promise.
She nodded, pleased now. "There, Hessie," she announced. "I told you Alec would see the rightness in this change." She noticed her husband's frown and hurried to add, "Al of his clan is important to him."
She turned back to Alec and added, "I've told Hessie that your soldiers and your servants deserve equal status in your mind."
He did surprise her then. "That is true," he said. "You needn't have told Hessie," he added with a nod toward the servant. "She understands her value."
The servant immediately straightened her shoulders with pride. Then she bowed to her laird and hurried to leave.
"Have your bath now, wife, before the wind turns your water to ice," he announced.
Alec had kept his smile firmly in place, yet when he was again on the other side of the screen, he quit his pretense. He started pacing in front of the hearth while he tried to reason through this atrocity. Someone had actually tried to kil his precious Jamie. If he hadn't gotten there in time… If he'd stayed inside the stables just a few minutes more…
"Alec? No one saw a damn thing."
Alec stopped pacing when Gavin called out to him. "Lower your voice," he ordered. "I don't want Jamie overhearing any of this talk."
"She's already overhearing," Jamie called out from behind the screen.
Alec let his exasperation show, then beckoned Gavin closer. "Jamie, don't listen," he called out.
"I can't help listening," she called back. "Have you noticed, Alec, the horrible lack of privacy? I asked Father Murdock if he thought I could move our things up to one of the bedrooms above the stairs, husband. Did he mention that request to you yet?"
"You should have asked me."
"You were busy," she shouted.
"She sure as hel doesn't sound as if she just went through a fire, does she, Gavin?"
"She's a lot stronger than we think she is," he told his lord quietly. "Father Murdock might be right, after all ." Gavin had kept his voice low so his mistress wouldn't overhear him. His bid to exclude her didn't work, however.
"Of course Father Murdock is right, Gavin," Jamie sang out. "He's a man of God, if you'l remember."
"Alec, I'l close my ears to your conversation just as soon as you give me your answer. Surely you can see the wisdom in my request. We could be moved upstairs before—"
"What? well , yes, of course," she called out Alec grinned. She hadn't meant to move upstairs by herself after all . He told himself he never actually believed she'd entertained such a vile thought of having her own quarters. Stil , she hadn't properly explained her plan, either.
"We'l move upstairs tomorrow," he called out.
"Thank you, Alec."
"A wife doesn't thank her husband. Now, have your bath without interrupting me again."
Alec had made his tone as harsh as he could manage. Jamie's laughter indicated it hadn't been harsh enough, however. His shoulders slumped with disappointment. "Tel me what you learned," he ordered Gavin as he leaned back against the mantel.
"Henry had a long conversation with Jamie, then went back to his duties. As you know, our blacksmith's hearing is anything but sound. He said he was bent over his worktable and didn't notice anyone coming or going. I questioned all the others, Alec."
Gavin shook his head. "They'd gone for their nooning meal."
"Someone must have seen—"
"Alec, the hil was all but deserted," Gavin interrupted. "Why don't you want to tel Jamie?"
"I don't want her to worry," Alec admitted.
"She needs to be on her guard."
"No, we'l be on our guard for her. Once we've found out who it was, then I'l tel her. She isn't going to be left alone again. When I can't be by her side, either you or Marcus will be."
Gavin nodded. "I don't want her frightened, either," he whispered. "She has come to mean a great deal to me," he admitted. "I cannot believe this treachery."
"It's one of our own," Alec stated. "And when I find him…"
Jamie's voice reached the men then. She was singing to herself while she had her bath, a rather bawdy English bal ad it was, which drew smiles and raised eyebrows from her appreciative audience. "She acts as though nothing out of the ordinary has taken place," Alec remarked, shaking his head over that odd fact.
"I understand why she wants her bedroom upstairs," Gavin said." 'Tis the truth, milord, you can hear every little sound."
Alec nodded. "Keep everyone outside the hall ," he ordered. He moved away from the hearth.
"Where are you going, Alec?"
"To bed?" Gavin repeated, looking incredulous. "It isn't even noon yet."
Alec turned around and gave his second-in-command a most exasperated look.
"See that I'm not disturbed," Alec stated.
Gavin finally understood. The soldier grinned as he walked toward the entrance. His intent was to stand guard in front of the double doors. "Have a fair rest, Alec," he called out, the laughter in his voice quite obvious.
Jamie had finished her bath and had just stood up in the tub when Alec came strol ing around the screen.
As soon as she saw him, she let out a loud gasp and sat back down. She tried to cover her br**sts by bringing her knees up and leaning forward.
"I don't have any clothes on," she informed him, stating the obvious.
He never paused in his stride. Jamie suddenly found herself hauled up against his chest. He turned with her in his arms. Before she could even think to ask him what in heaven's name he was doing, he had her flat on the bed. She didn't have time to blush. Alec trapped her hands above her head and covered her with his body.
He didn't kiss her but seemed content to grin down at her with that rascal's look on his face.
Her br**sts were warmed by his bare chest, her thighs heated by his own heavy ones, and she couldn't seem to stop rubbing her toes against his bare legs.
He'd taken his boots off. That thought registered in her befuddled mind just as the realization he might want to make love to her hit. "Alec, are you thinking what I think you're thinking?"
"You're wearing my plaid now," he countered. "That's what I'm thinking."
"I'm not wearing anything," she whispered.
"Aye, you are. Your back is covered by the plaid blanket and I'm covering your front with my plaid. Yes, you're wearing my plaid all right."
She couldn't fault that reasoning. "Is this how you think to get me to rest, husband?" she asked, a teasing lilt in her voice.
He nodded. Her disappointment couldn't have been more obvious.
"You will rest," he told her.
"I'm not at all tired."
"You will be." He nudged her legs apart and settled himself between her thighs. "You'l be very tired when I've finished with you. I promise."
He was looking a little too arrogant, to her way of thinking. She pul ed her hands away from his easy grip and put them around his neck. "You'l be just as tired, husband, when I've finished with you. I promise."
He might have managed a smile, but the passion in her was already affecting him. Her eyes had turned a deep violet. Her legs were moving restlessly against him. When she moved so she could keep him pressed more intimately against her, he let out a low growl of desire.
He nibbled at her lips, just to make her frustrated, then slowly drew her full lower lip inside his mouth.
She sighed, tel ing him without words how much she liked what he was doing to her. His hands moved to cup the sides of her face to keep her just where he wanted her while he took his sweet time ravishing her.
He was going to make slow love to her, no matter how much she provoked him.
Her lips were so soft, so pliant, and when his tongue finally sank deep inside her warm mouth, she started to make those sexy little whimpers in the back of her throat. He stroked, plundered, gave, and took, until Jamie was pul ing on his hair with her demand for more.
The sounds she gave him made him forget his good intentions. The sleek thrusts of his tongue made her bolder. He placed wet, hot kisses along her neck, drawing shivers from her. She caressed his shoulders, his back, his buttocks, drawing tremors from him.