"It's fitting," Alec announced, his voice husky with emotion.
"Don't sound so pleased," Jamie teased. "I'm leaving instructions for you to be placed in the center, Kincaid. You'l have a wife on either side to keep you'settled in' for all eternity."
"God help me," Alec muttered.
"He already has," Father Murdock announced. "He's given you two good women in your lifetime, Alec, and that's a fact. Our Maker has a sense of humor, too."
"How's that?" Gavin asked between his groans.
"The sweet lass Alec happens to love comes from England, if you'l all remember, and if that isn't a trick on God's part, I sure as spit don't know what is."
"Oh, God, he's starting to sound like her," Gavin said with a laugh he immediately regretted, for his head started aching again.
Jamie noticed Edith across the room then. She could see how upset the woman was. "You aren't really meaning to send Edith away, are you, Alec?" she asked.
When Alec shook his head, Jamie motioned Edith closer.
"Edith, you aren't leaving us. It was just a plan to get Annie to try to kil me again."
"Again, wife? Then you knew the fire—"
"No," Jamie interrupted. "I didn't know until I heard Annie laughing just now. I recognized the sound. It was the same I'd heard when I was trapped inside the hut."
She paused to give Alec a good frown. "It was most unkind of you to use me as your bait, Alec."
"It wasn't supposed to happen that way," Alec replied, his tone hard. "Gavin was supposed to stay with you and Marcus was supposed to keep Annie in his sight at all times."
"It's my fault," Edith blurted out. "I didn't know you were planning a trap. I thought Annie was ill . She took to her bed after we were told we were being sent away. I was so upset, I didn't notice when she left."
"No, sister," Marcus interjected. He walked over to stand at Edith's side. "It's my fault. I take full responsibility."
"But I told you to ready the horses," Edith argued.
"It wasn't anyone's fault," Jamie said. "Edith, you do want to stay with us, don't you? I can't get along without you… until you decide on a proper husband," she added.
"You were never meant to leave," Alec told Edith. "But I wanted Annie to believe I was sending you both away because of your relation to Helena.
You'l remember when I ordered you to leave, I said I didn't want any reminders of my first wife."
Edith nodded. "I do remember."
Alec smiled. "You never questioned me. Didn't you wonder why Mary Kathleen wasn't included?"
Edith shook her head. "I was too upset to think it through," she admitted.
"I thought of it," Alec returned. "Though only after I'd left your cottage."
"Forgive your laird for causing you such distress," Jamie advised Edith.
Edith quickly nodded. "Oh, I understand now."
"Would you mind taking Mary up to her room now?"
Jamie asked, guessing Edith was close to losing her composure.
Jamie waited until Edith was carrying Mary up the stairs before she asked Alec the question most worrying her. "What will you do with Annie?"
He wouldn't answer her.
Alec was being impossible. He wouldn't let Jamie out of their bed for almost a week. He expected her to nap the days away and then sleep soundly through the nights. She thought it rather odd she was able to accommodate him.
Her convalescence was made easier by her sister's daily visits. Mary helped her sew the tapestry of Edgar's likeness, finally taking over the task in full when she realized Jamie didn't have the patience or the skil for the job.
During Mary's first visit, she whispered the news that Daniel had stil not bedded her. Jamie was more upset over this announcement than Mary was, but once she'd explained how truly wonderful this intimacy was—in careful y chosen, general terms, of course—Mary's interest was piqued.
"He keeps a mistress," Mary confessed. "But he sleeps in my bed each night."
"It's time to clean your house, Mary," Jamie advised. "Throw the woman out."
"He'd get angry with me, Jamie," her sister whispered. "I've grown to like his smiles too much to prick his temper. He's being very kind to me, too, now that I've quit crying. The man can't stand tears. I am beginning to care for him."
Jamie was thril ed with that admission. "Then ask him to bed you," she suggested.
"I have my pride," Mary countered. "I have thought of a plan, though."
"What is it?"
"I thought to tel him he could keep his mistress and have me, too."
"You cannot mean to share the man," Jamie argued.
Mary lifted her shoulders in a helpless gesture. "I want Daniel to like me, Jamie," she admitted.
She started crying then, just as Alec strol ed into the great hall . Jamie held her smile for Mary's benefit, but she did have to struggle. As soon as Alec saw Mary's condition, he turned around and walked back outside. "Men do hate tears," she said in agreement with her sister's earlier statement.
"Tel Daniel he must keep his mistress," Jamie advised. "Now don't look at me like that, Mary. Then you're to tel him you think he must need the practice and when he's gotten it just right, he can come to you."
Alec returned to the hall when he heard Jamie and her sister laughing.
Mary didn't come to see her sister for two long days. Jamie was in a fretful state, worrying about her sister, but when Mary finally did pay her call three days' later, she could tel by her happy smile that all was well.
Mary wanted to give Jamie the details. Jamie didn't want to hear them. Mary was insistent, and right in the middle of her whispers about how wonderful Daniel was, Alec, Gavin, Marcus, and Daniel came into the hall . They wanted to be included in the conversation. The topic immediately changed.
Alec kept Jamie up most of the night, making love to her. He wouldn't let her be as aggressive as she wanted to be, fearing her strength wasn't full y restored. In the end, he admitted to her the sorry fact that although he was stronger, she certainly had more stamina.
He left the fol owing morning on duties King Edgar required, and wasn't due back home for a full week.
Jamie used his time away to make another little change in his household.
She had the bed and its platform moved out of the great hall . The screen now enclosed a buttery. It was yet another English tradition, but once the soldiers realized it would make the ale easier to get to, they went along with her orders without voicing too many complaints.
Alec came home three days later. The soldiers took their place in line again, ready to defend her.
Alec sat at the head of the table. His jaw was clenched shut while she explained the necessity of a buttery to him.
He did have trouble accepting change. Jamie was pleased with him, though, for he hadn't raised his voice at all . She knew the effort cost him dearly. His face became flushed and the muscle was flexing in his cheek again. She was full of sympathy for him, too. For that reason, she didn't even bat an eyelash when he asked her in a low, control ed voice to leave him in peace for a few minutes.
Alec knew she wasn't upset with his request when she didn't pause to take a coin from the box atop the mantel. He'd caught on early to her subtle way of letting him know whenever he'd made her angry. She'd never say a word, just give him a good glare and then grab one of her shil ings. She didn't know Father Murdock replaced the coins in the box each night.
She was stil having trouble settling in. Some nights, Father Murdock had as many as nine shil ings in his hand.
Jamie's sister was just dismounting when Jamie came outside with Mary Kathleen on her hip.
"I've the most horrible news," Mary rushed out. "Andrew's on his way here."
"The man you were pledged to," Mary reminded her. "Honestly, Jamie, how could you have forgotten him already?"
"I haven't forgotten," Jamie answered. She handed Mary Kathleen to Mary when her sister reached for the child. While Mary hugged the little girl, Jamie tried to stay calm. "Mary, why would Andrew be coming here? And how did you find out?"
"I heard Daniel talking to one of his men. all the Highland clans know he's coming, Jamie. He and his army had to pass through their lands."
"Oh, my God, he's coming here with an army?"
"But why, Mary?"
"The loan," Mary whispered after she'd put her niece down. "Remember the coins Papa borrowed from Andrew?"
"How could I forget? Papa all but sold me to Andrew," she wailed. "Oh, Mary, I can't be humiliated in front of my clan. I can't let Andrew shame me this way. Good God, Mary, Alec is bound to kil Andrew."
Mary nodded. "Those were Daniel's very words."
"Then he knows the reason Andrew is coming here?" Jamie asked, clearly appal ed.
"Yes. Andrew has had to explain his reason for being in the Highlands. He wouldn't have gotten very far without being kil ed already if he hadn't explained. Sister, haven't you noticed the Scots don't like the English very much?"
"Well, spit, Mary, who doesn't know?"
"Jamie, you shouldn't be talking so unladylike."
"I can't help it," Jamie cried. "I'm always the last one to know anything around here. Do you think Alec knows Andrew is coming?"
Mary lifted her shoulders in a helpless gesture. "Daniel says all Scots know when someone comes near their holding. I would guess—"
"I can't let this happen. I won't be responsible for starting a war with England, too."
"England? Alec will probably only kil Andrew and his fol owers."
"You think King Henry won't notice one of his barons is missing, Mary? He's bound to think it odd when he cal s up his army and no one comes…"
She didn't bother to finish her explanation, but snatched the reins out of her sister's hands and quickly mounted Mary's horse.
"What are you planning, Jamie?"
"I'm going to find Andrew and reason with him. I'l promise to send the coins to him."
"Jamie, it's going to be dark soon. 'Tis the reason Daniel wouldn't let me come to visit you."
Jamie smiled. "Yet you came anyway, didn't you, Mary?"
"I had to warn you, sister. I thought you might want to hide for a while."
"It was a most unselfish, courageous thing you did, warning me, but you know very well I'd never hide."
"I hoped you would. I certainly didn't think you'd go chasing Andrew down. Was I truly courageous, Jamie?"
Jamie nodded. "Now listen well , Mary. I want your promise you won't tel anyone where I've gone. Please?"
"Watch over Mary Kathleen until I get back."
"What will I tel Alec?"
"Don't tel him anything."
"Cry," Jamie blurted out. "Yes, cry, Mary. Alec won't ask you any questions if you're weeping. I'l be back before he even notices I've left. Now point me in the right direction, Mary."
"You just head down the hil s, Jamie."
Mary made a quick sign of the cross while she watched her sister race down the hil . Father Murdock strol ed over to Mary, bade her good day, and then remarked that Lady Kincaid had certainly taken off in a hurry and did Lady Ferguson happen to know where the lass was going?
Lady Ferguson immediately burst into tears.
She kept her promise to her sister, too. She didn't tel Alec where Jamie had gone. She didn't have to.
Mary Kathleen told him everything.
The little girl went back inside as soon as her mother left. She ran over to Alec, climbed up on his lap, and drank a big gulp of ale before he realized what she was doing. Alec snatched the goblet away and then gave her a cup of water. When she'd finished her drink, he asked her almost absentmindedly where her mama was.
Mary Kathleen leaned back against her papa's chest and played with her toes and his belt while she repeated almost word for word the entire conversation she'd overheard.
For his daughter's sake, Alec didn't start shouting until he was outside. Once Jamie's sister saw Alec's face, she didn't have to put real effort into her sobs. She went into immediate hysterics.
Father Murdock did his best to try to console the poor, loud woman, but his efforts were all for naught.
By the time Alec had left with his contingent of soldiers, Mary was screeching like a trapped hen. The priest went inside the chapel to pray for peace. More specifical y, he prayed Daniel would come and fetch his wife.
Alec followed Jamie's trail. When it curved to the east, he began to relax. She was now headed for Ferguson land.
"Did she change her mind, then?" Marcus shouted.
"She's lost," Alec called over his shoulder. "And thank God for that," he muttered to himself.
He caught up with Jamie fifteen minutes later. He forced her to stop by motioning for his soldiers to encircle her.
Husband and wife faced each other. Neither said a word for a long minute. She was desperately trying to come up with a plausible explanation. He was wondering what outrageous lie she'd give him.
"You asked me to leave you in peace for a little while," she said.
She nudged her mount forward. When she reached Alec's side, she whispered, "I was just going to try to reason with Andrew. My sister told you all about my errand, didn't she?"
"Your daughter told me."
Her eyes widened in reaction to that announcement. "I must remember in future not to speak so openly."
"You'l remember not to attempt anything this foolish in future."
"Please don't be angry with me, Alec," she pleaded.
Alec grabbed her by the nape of her neck and gave her a long, hard kiss.
"Why didn't you come to me when you heard that Andrew—"
"I was ashamed," she whispered before he could finish his question. "Papa took coins for me. I didn't want you to think my father had actually sold me to Andrew, but even I was beginning to think—"
Alec shook his head. "What your father did has nothing to do with how I feel about you. I'l repay the bastard. Come along, wife. We might as well get this over and done with."