"Gavin? I want ten more men riding with you," he shouted.
The soldier immediately turned his mount back toward the stables.
"Jamie, you've forgotten something," he said when she tried to take the reins back in her hands.
"Oh…" She immediately started to blush, then motioned him closer and leaned down to kiss his brow.
He couldn't hide his exasperation. "I meant you forgot your saddle," he told her.
"I don't like it, Jamie argued. "It's too new. It makes me stiff, Alec."
"Marcus, get my wife one of my old saddles. Why didn't you tel me you could ride bareback? I thought you unskilled. You did fal off your mount today."
"I didn't tel you because you would have thought me unladylike," she answered.
He had to smile over that foolish statement. "I could never think you were unladylike."
She smiled. "You're forever reminding me," he added. "I should have realized you were skil ed," he admitted then. "Beak told me you were the only one who could seat the mare. Stil , he added that you didn't ride often."
"He was protecting me," Jamie explained. "He thought you'd be more considerate if you thought I wasn't properly trained."
Alec grinned. "Jamie? Don't ever kiss me the way you just did."
She thought he meant not to show any affection in front of his men. He motioned her toward him with the crook of his finger again and when they were almost nose to nose, he whispered, "Kiss me like this."
He didn't even give her time to smile. His mouth settled on hers in hard, hungry demand. She didn't open her mouth quickly enough to please him, but his low growl gained her full cooperation. His tongue drove inside just in time to taste her sigh.
She didn't hear the men yel ing their pleasure at being witnesses to such a blatant display of passion. Alec heard them, however, and reluctantly eased his mouth away.
Jamie looked total y confused. He was arrogantly pleased that he could so easily rob her of all her thoughts, then realized he was holding her in his arms. He didn't recal taking her off Wildfire's back.
They both smiled. "You've wasted enough of my valuable time," he told her.
Jamie laughed. The sound of soldiers riding down the hil turned her attention then. "Why must I have so many soldiers accompanying me?"
"They also like to hunt," Alec replied. He let her slide to the ground when a soldier tossed him the saddle he'd requested. Jamie held the reins while Alec adjusted the straps around the mare's bel y. He lifted her onto Wildfire's back. "Have a good ride, Jamie," he told her.
"I won't be coming back empty-handed," she announced.
"I know you won't," Alec told her.
She really didn't like skirting the truth this way, but she deliberately let Alec believe she was hunting food.
Besides, she thought to herself, he'd settle in once he'd gotten over his initial bluster. He'd make a proper father, too.
Jamie turned back to Marcus when they'd reached the drawbridge. "Which way, Marcus?" she called out.
"The west, milady."
Wildfire was in a full gal op when Marcus gained her side. He motioned her to fol ow his lead, then made a half-circle, backtracking from the way they'd started.
Marcus was polite enough not to mention her poor sense of direction. Gavin, however, took great delight in reminding her.
Jamie was too pleased with both men to take exception. They hadn't told Alec what her true destination was, after all , and she was most thankful for their silence. She didn't care if it had been deliberate or not.
Alec kept tel ing himself he wasn't worried, but he found himself pacing in front of the hearth after dinner was finished and his wife stil wasn't home.
No, he wasn't worried. Marcus and Gavin would keep her safe. She'd be home any minute now. When the sun was completely gone, then he'd worry, he told himself for the tenth time.
He had used the time of separation well . As soon as Jamie left, he had called for his mount and gone directly to Helena's clan. He'd spent several hours talking with the cousins who remembered Helena, and had learned some rather interesting facts about the woman who'd found marriage to him so foul she'd ended her life in desperation.
He found Father Murdock as soon as he returned and spent a good long while listening to his opinions.
The priest was clearly amazed that his laird was now speaking of his dead wife. He hadn't even mentioned Helena's name since the day of the burial. The laird's questions were perplexing to him, but he knew better than to try to find out exactly what Alec was looking for. It wasn't his place to question.
Now Alec paced a path in the great hall while he sorted through the information.
Jamie, having just returned to the castle, stood at the top of the steps, waiting for Alec to notice her. She was just about to cal out to him when he suddenly turned around.
He was so relieved to see her that he gave her a good frown.
She retaliated by smiling.
He noticed her skirt was swaying back and forth, then saw the dusty little face peeking out at him.
Gavin and Marcus flanked Jamie. They were both staring down at the child.
Jamie took a deep breath and reached for Mary Kathleen's hand. "Come and meet your father," she whispered to the little girl.
Mary Kathleen didn't want to cooperate. Alec's size obviously intimidated her. Her golden brown eyes were as wide as round trenchers. "He's going to love you with all his heart," she promised.
Before the little girl could shake her head, Jamie clasped her hand and led her down the steps.
Alec didn't have any idea what was going on. The barefoot cherub was wearing his plaid, though, indicating she belonged to a Kincaid. The ill -fitted piece of blanket was wrapped around her and tied in a knot below her chin. Alec couldn't remember ever having seen her before.
She was an appealing little girl with a mop of honey-colored curls that hung lower on one side of her face than on the other.
"Who is this?" Alec asked.
Jamie ignored her husband's astonishment. "Wel , actually she's our daughter now," she explained. "Say hel o to your papa, Mary Kathleen."
The little girl was stil frightened. She continued to stare up at Alec while she twisted a lock of her hair into a knot on top of her head.
Jamie leaned down and whispered to the child. She was trying to soothe the little girl and also trying to give Alec a little more time to get used to the idea.
When Jamie straightened up again, she could tel from her husband's expression that he was going to need a lot more time.
"She's Helena's daughter," Gavin called out just to break the staring contest.
"She's my daughter now," Jamie countered. She let Mary Kathleen hide behind her back again. "It's really quite simple to understand, Alec. When you married Helena, you became Mary's papa. You were going to bring her here to live with you, weren't you? And when I wed you," she continued before Alec could answer her, "wel , I then became Mary's new mother. We have both been errant in our duties to this child, husband."
"The Kincaid provided well for Helena's child," Marcus interjected.
"Her grandmother died three months past. Did you know Mary was given over to a distant relation who wanted only your grain? It pains me to admit the woman was English, Alec. And do you know there are bruises up and down your daughter's back and on her legs, too? She would have been dead in another month's time if I'd left her in such care."
He hadn't known. He looked furious, too. Jamie nodded. Then everyone started talking at once. Alec just stood there, his hands clasped behind his back, staring down at the little innocent peeking out at him from behind Jamie's skirts.
"Come here, Mary," he ordered the child.
She shook her head at him while she tried to put a good portion of Jamie's gown into her mouth.
Alec started laughing. "God help me, she's been with you less than a day and she's already taking on your stubbornness," he told Jamie.
He scooped the little girl up into his arms and held her so that they were face to face.
"Be careful of her back, Alec. She's tender."
Alec whispered something to the child, then smiled when she nodded.
"Can you get her to speak to you? She hasn't said a word to me," Jamie whispered. "You don't think something's wrong with her voice, do you?"
"Quit your worrying," Alec ordered. "She'll talk when she wants to. Won't you, Mary?"
The little girl nodded again. "She was wearing Kevin's colors," Gavin stated. "He'd rol in his grave if he could see how filthy the garment was."
"Who changed her clothes?" Alec asked.
"I did," Jamie answered. "That's when I saw all the bruises. I knew I had to bring her to you then," she added.
"Nay, wife. You'd already made that decision when you put my plaid on her."
The man was too cunning for her. "Yes, Alec," she admitted.
"You knew you were going to bring her back when you left today," he continued. "That's what you meant by not coming back from your hunt empty-handed, now, isn't it?"
He didn't sound angry, but Jamie stil wasn't sure what he was thinking. "Yes," she answered. "I had already made the decision."
Alec gently tucked the little girl under his arm, treating her much like a burlap bag of feed. "That isn't how you hold a baby," Jamie blurted out. "She's only three summers, Alec."
Mary Kathleen didn't seem to mind, however. She let out a giggle.
"What happened after you saw the bruises?" Alec asked her.
"I became… angry."
"I threw the plaid on the ground," Jamie blurted out. "It was a deliberate insult. I did it on purpose. I restrained myself though. I wanted to give that horrible woman a few good bruises to remember me by."
"I spit on it."
Marcus had made that announcement. "In front of witnesses, Alec."
Marcus lost his frown when he'd gained his lord's approval. "It means war," he reminded Alec.
"Two wars," Gavin interjected. "You're forgetting Helena's family. They'l also get involved."
"No," Alec countered. "They won't care. Why do you think Annie came with Helena when she wed me?
The two sisters had been sorely mistreated by their family. The king was aware of this, of course."
"And that's why you were married to her so soon after her first husband's death? To protect her?" Jamie asked.
Alec nodded. When he finally looked at his wife, he was smiling. "Thank you."
"Why do you thank me, Alec?"
"For bringing our daughter home," he answered.
She was nearly overwhelmed by his compassion. Her eyes fil ed with tears and she would have burst into sobs if Alec hadn't pretended to drop Mary Kathleen just then. Jamie shouted instead.
Both father and daughter laughed. Alec all but flipped the child over his arms, then held her up to face him again. "Wife? This babe smel s as rank as Murdock. Bathe her," he ordered. "Marcus, have someone go find Edith and Annie. They'l want to meet their niece."
"Then you truly claim Mary Kathleen as your daughter," she asked, her worry stil obvious.
He stared at her a long moment before answering. "How could I not?"
She was too overcome with emotion to give him answer. When Alec handed the child to her, Jamie settled her on her hip.
Angus and Elizabeth walked into the hall just as Jamie started for the tub behind the screen. She quickly explained all about her new daughter. Mary Kathleen turned quite shy and hid her face against the crook of Jamie's neck. Elizabeth offered to help bathe the little girl. Jamie agreed, then caught Angus's remark about arrangements being made for their king's visit.
"Your king is coming to see you?" she asked Alec. She looked appal ed.
Alec raised an eyebrow over such a bizarre reaction. "He is."
"'Tis the only Scottish king we have," he answered.
"When does he arrive?"
"Tomorrow. Does this news displease you, Jamie? You look upset."
"He's known for his cruelty," she blurted out.
Everyone in the hall gave her incredulous looks. "Edgar?" Alec asked. "Jamie, he's known for his kindness."
The grumbles of agreement made her feel much better. She smiled down at Mary Kathleen and then said, "I shouldn't have believed those stories. No, he couldn't have done what I heard he'd done if he's as kind as everyone says."
"What story?" Marcus asked.
"Tel us the worst," Gavin suggested. "And we'l tel you if it be true or not."
"I heard that when Edgar took over the throne, he had to unseat another and he… well , he blinded him so he wouldn't cause him any trouble."
No one said anything about that statement. They all looked at one another.
"I know," Jamie rushed out. "You all think me shameful for believing such gossip."
"Now, Jamie, lass, that story happens to be true," Gavin finally admitted when he realized no one else was will ing to explain. "But he didn't kil his predecessor. He only blinded him."
"Aye, the man's stil alive," Marcus interjected.
Alec watched the way his soldiers tried to all ay Jamie's fears. He realized they wanted to protect her feelings as much as he did.
"How can you be smiling, Alec, over such a sin done by your own king?"
"England's king is far more ruthless," Alec stated.
"You shouldn't speak ill of Henry," she countered.
"Speak ill ? Jamie, I just praised him."
He looked as if he meant what he'd just said. She gave him a good frown to let him know what she thought of his praise.
"What's your real worry, wife?"
"What if he won't let Mary stay with us?"
"He will ."
"You're certain, Alec?"
Alec nodded. "Wil I kneel before him, do you suppose?" she asked.
"If you want to."
"Will it make me disloyal to Henry?"
His smile was gentle. The woman was certainly lacking in her history lessons. "I doubt you'd be disloyal, Jamie. Edgar is Henry's brother-in-law."