"There. Are you happy now, wife?"
He sounded surly enough for Father Murdock to intervene once again. "Why, the seat's big enough to swal ow me whole."
"My sisters would sit on Papa's lap after supper, and he would tel the most wonderful stories," she confessed, a soft smile on her face over that remembrance.
Her voice held a wistful quality Alec hadn't heard before. He was puzzled by her comment, too, for she'd inadvertently failed to include herself. Or had it been inadvertent? Alec beckoned her forward with a crook of his finger.
When she stood directly in front of him and no one could overhear their conversation, he asked her to explain. "Where did you sit, Jamie? Were you squeezed up next to Mary on one knee or next to one of the twins on the other?"
The picture of four little girls sitting on their father's lap for their bedtime story made Alec smile. The twins were probably crying, Mary was probably complaining, and Jamie was probably trying to soothe everyone.
"Eleanor and Mary usual y sat on one knee and the twins took up the other side."
"The eldest daughter," Jamie explained. "She died when I was seven summers. Alec, why are you frowning now? Did I say something to upset you?"
"As usual, you haven't given me a direct answer," Alec pointed out. He was already beginning to understand, yet he wanted to make certain his guess was correct. "I asked you where you sat."
"I didn't. I usual y stood by Papa's chair," she answered. "Or across the way. Why is it so important to you where I sat?"
It wasn't important to him, but he believed it had been very important to her. "Did you never have a turn?"
"There wasn't room."
That simple statement, given so matter-of-factly, all but shattered his composure. She had been the outsider. Alec suddenly wanted to beat her unfeeling stepfather to a bloody pulp. The man damn well should have made room for her.
She'd just revealed to him exactly how her mind worked, too. She'd made her father notice her. The duties… yes, it was clear to him now. By making herself indispensable to her papa, she'd forced him to value her. Jamie had confused love with need. He thought that perhaps, in her mind, she really didn't know the difference.
And now she was trying to get him to treat her the same way. The more duties he piled on top of her, the more importance he would be giving her.
He was damned if he did and damned if he didn't. The woman was daft, but she was his woman, and he wanted her to be happy. Stil , he wasn't about to shorten her life by watching her work herself into an early grave.
There was much to consider now. Alec decided not to discuss the issue further until he'd found a way to give her proper instruction in loving and needing. He instinctively knew that simply tel ing her how much he cared for her wouldn't be enough. He was going to have to find a way to show her.
"No one's every going to sit in that ill -designed chair, wife," Alec announced.
"You're afraid to try it?" she chal enged.
He let her see his exasperation with her before giving in to her. The chair squeaked under his weight. It fit his back quite nicely too, even when he deliberately pushed the chair to make it rock. He was sure he was going to go flying backwards. He didn't topple over, though, and he had to smile over that fact.
"I fear you're right, wife," Alec stated. "It will never catch on. Stil , if you're up to the jesting you'l be getting when the soldiers see this contraption, I'l all ow you to keep your chair."
"Well, of course you'l all ow me to," Jamie snapped. She had her hands on her h*ps again.
Alec bounded out of the chair so he could tower over her when he deliberately intimidated her. "You may keep this by the hearth," he announced.
"And now I'l have your appreciation."
"And will iam?" she asked, ignoring his suggestion that she give him proper thanks.
"Will iam can go to—"
"The bedroom?" Father Murdock blurted out as he bounded down the steps.
"He isn't the last face I want to see before I fal asleep," Alec snapped. "Put him in the wine cel ar if you're bent on hanging him someplace, Jamie, but I don't want to see his face again."
Jamie looked as if she wanted to argue with her husband. Father Murdock clasped her hand in both of his. "One bite at a time, sweet lass," he whispered to her.
Alec gave the priest a hard look, then went over to the table and poured himself a goblet of ale. The priest chased after him, pul ing Jamie in his wake.
"Il have me a goblet of water," he told Alec. A sudden thought made the priest's eyebrows wobble again. "Do you know, Alec, what you get when you mix water with ale?"
Alec nodded. "Watered-down ale," he announced.
"And once you've mixed the two, you can't separate them, can you?"
"Of course not," Alec returned. "What are you trying to tel me, Father?"
"You're wanting her to settle in," Murdock answered. "I've heard you say so many times."
"I don't deny it," Alec answered. "She will settle in."
"Do you want her to change? Do you want her to become someone else?"
"No, she pleases me the way she is," Alec admitted.
Jamie knew he'd just complimented her, but his gruff voice and frown certainly soured his praise.
"Then you don't want her to become a Scottish lass?"
"Of course not"
His voice was so emphatic that Father Murdock guessed he was as surprised as Jamie was by his own strong conviction. "She's English. She can't change that fact. But she will settle in."
"And so will you."
The priest's remark fel between them. A long minute later, Alec responded. "Explain yourself. My patience wears as thin as watered-down ale."
"Jamie's rich in her own special way of doing things. Her traditions are part of her," Father Murdock said.
"Just as you have your own traditions. Can you not blend the two in a peaceful manner? A fine tapestry of our King Edgar would look handsome hanging right next to will iam. What think you of that idea?"
Alec didn't much like the idea, but he could tel by his wife's smile she thought it had merit. Her tender feelings got in the way of his true opinions, however, and he found himself reluctantly agreeing.
"Very well ," he stated. "But the dimensions will be larger than will iam."
Jamie was too happy with his compliance to argue over the size of the tapestry. She personal y thought Edgar's likeness should be fashioned in half the size, but she guessed she'd have to make them equal.
Alec would be bound to notice. Yes, she'd make them equal. She wasn't going to put a halo atop Edgar's head, though, and that was that.
"Thank you, Alec," she murmured.
The smile she gave him told him she thought he'd just done the bending. He was determined, however, to have the last word. "Marcus, remove that tapestry until Edgar's is completed. The soldiers will be coming inside for their meal soon. They'l be too sick to train this afternoon if they have to look at him while they eat."
Father Murdock waited until his laird had left the hall before he let his amusement show. The old man gave Jamie a slow wink, then strol ed out of the hall , whistling a snappy Scottish tune between his chuckles. The priest couldn't wait for the next storm to start brewing.
In the Highlands, when it rained, it hailed. Jamie had just asked Marcus and Gavin if they didn't have something they needed to do. She'd just started back up the stairs and noticed the two of them chasing after her.
Both soldiers shook their heads. She put them to work then, carrying her baggage up to the clean bedroom. She thought it strange the important soldiers would want to do servants' work.
When her tasks were finished, she came back downstairs to repair her appearance. She noticed Annie and Edith standing together near the hearth. They'd been staring at her chair, but both turned when she called out a greeting to them.
Annie was smiling until she caught Edith's dark scowl. Then she joined in and scowled, too.
Jamie didn't pay any attention to Annie. The child couldn't help the way she was. Edith was another kettle of fish altogether.
Jamie thought Edith had to be the most unbending woman in all of Scotland. There was a rigidness in her bearing and appearance that wasn't at all appealing. The woman always had her hair plaited into a crown atop her head. There was never a single strand left unattended. Her plaid gown was always spotless, too.
Jamie had never seen her disheveled. Yes, Edith was as thorough in her grooming as she was in her hatred for her mistress.
And her mistress had had enough.
"What happened to you?" Edith called out, a snarl in her voice. "Did you fal into a bucket of suds?"
Marcus had been standing behind Jamie. He took a step forward, all but blocking her view with his broad back, and shouted at his sister. "Don't you dare use that tone of voice with your laird's wife."
Jamie felt as though she were in the middle of thunderclouds. Marcus's roar made her head start pounding. She prodded Marcus's shoulder, and when he'd turned around, she asked him for permission to handle his sister.
He immediately nodded agreement.
Jamie walked to the center of the hall . "Annie, go outside, child. Edith, you'l stay right where you are."
Her voice must have lacked authority, she guessed, when Edith completely ignored her command and started for the doorway.
Marcus intervened once again. His harsh command made Edith come to an abrupt stop.
Jamie turned to thank him, then asked if she could have a few minutes alone with Edith. In truth, she didn't want any witnesses to her conversation.
Gavin answered her. He stood on the bottom step, scowling fiercely at Edith. "Neither one of us is leaving."
She decided not to argue with the soldier. He did look quite determined. She walked back over to Marcus. When she was standing directly in front of him, she brushed her hair out of her eyes and motioned him closer to her.
Her whisper was so soft that only he could hear what she was saying. Marcus's expression didn't change, but when she was finished, he gave her a quick nod.
She thanked the soldier, then turned to confront his sister.
"Since the moment I arrived here, you've treated me like a leper," she told Edith. "I'm quite tired of your attitude."
Edith snickered right in her mistress's face.
"You're unwil ing to try to get along, then?" she asked, her voice harder.
"I see no reason to get along with the likes of you," Edith muttered.
"Marcus?" Jamie called out. She hated having to ask his assistance, but she wanted to push through Edith's anger.
"If I ask Alec to have Edith removed from Kincaid land by nightfal , will he agree?"
Edith let out a loud gasp.
"He will ."
"Where will I go?" Edith asked. "Marcus, you cannot let—"
Neither Marcus nor Gavin had ever heard Jamie use that tone of voice. Gavin smiled in reaction. The look of outrage on Edith's face made him want to laugh.
Edith's hands were clenched at her sides. She was obviously furious. That wasn't good enough. Jamie wanted to push her beyond reason. She hoped that once her anger was completely out of control, she wouldn't guard her words. Then Jamie would be able to find out why her hatred was so fierce.
"I'm mistress here, Edith," she said in a low, arrogant voice. "If I wish you to become an outcast, I will get my way."
"Marcus would never let you."
"He would," Jamie boasted. Lord, she hated the horrible lies she was tel ing. "He's your brother, and your guardian, too, but Alec is his laird. Marcus is loyal to my husband," she added. "Unlike you. Yon aren't loyal to anyone, are you?"
"I am," Edith shouted.
"Perhaps once you were," Jamie countered, affecting a shrug. "Yes, you were probably loyal to Alec when he was wed to Helena. Father Murdock told me you were very close to Alec's first wife."
"You can't replace her. I won't let you."
"I already have."
Those last taunting words snapped the shreds of control to which Edith was clinging. Before she could stop herself, she lashed out at her mistress.
Al she wanted to do was take the smug look off Jamie's face.
She wanted to hurt her mistress as much as Jamie was hurting her.
Jamie had been waiting for the attack. She was smal er than Edith in stature, but much stronger. She'd captured Edith's wrist and had the woman kneeling on the floor before she'd finished her first scream.
Both Marcus and Gavin had rushed forward to intervene. They stopped when they reached Jamie's side.
"Stay out of this," she told the men while she kept her stare on her prey. She wasn't holding Edith's wrist now, but clasping her hand against her waist. She was gently stroking Edith's shoulder, too, and trying to maintain her balance at the same time. Edith was sobbing against Jamie's skirts.
No one said a word until Edith had gained a bit of control. "Oh, my God, I was going to strike you! I'm so sorry," Edith whispered. "When I saw you and Father Murdock moving Helena's chest out of the bedroom, I was so incensed. I didn't want you to throw her things away. I've been so fil ed with —"
"I wasn't going to throw Helena's things away," Jamie explained. "I just moved the chest to the other bedroom, Edith."
"Her baby's clothes were in the chest," Edith continued, as if she hadn't heard Jamie's explanation. "She'd worked so diligently on the little gowns."
"She wanted to have Alec's child, then?" Jamie asked, her voice a gentle caress.
"Please say you forgive me, milady," Edith sobbed, returning to her other worry. "I didn't mean to hurt you."
"You didn't hurt me, Edith. And I'm sorry, too."
"You're sorry?" Edith asked. She stil knelt on the floor and turned her face up to Jamie. Tears were streaming down her cheeks. Jamie used the hem of her bliaut to mop the wetness away. "I'm sorry for all the hurtful lies I just told you. Edith, you were so set against me; I did have to use a little trickery to get your attention."
"You aren't going to send me away?"