It's important to me, even though it's last on my list."
"I'm not soft," Mary blurted out.
"Aye, you are," Daniel countered. "And as lovely as a spring morning," he added.
Mary's blush deepened until her face was the color of fire. "I'm neither lovely nor will ing, milord," she announced. She folded her arms across her chest and concentrated on giving him a good frown. She wanted to discourage the handsome devil, yet was horribly confused by her own reaction to him. His flattery was making her light-headed. Did he really think she was lovely?
The twins started crying again. Jamie was about to give them another rebuke when it occurred to her that one or both had been chosen as brides. If that was the case, and she guessed it was, Alice and Agnes were certainly entitled to their tantrum. They could wail like wolves and it would be fine with her.
Alec simply waited for the truth to hit her. He saw the sympathetic look she was giving her sisters, wondered how long it would take her to notice they were looking at her with the identical expression.
Baron Jamison would certainly set Jamie straight, once he'd regained his composure, Alec decided. The man was stil close to weeping. He'd argued something fierce when Alec had casual y stated he'd chosen Jamie for his bride.
Alec had been firm with the baron. He had control ed his temper until Jamison quit sputtering and began to list all the selfish reasons he had for being against the union. None of the reasons had anything to do with Jamie's well -being. Alec's attitude hardened then. He was infuriated with the Englishman. The list of duties certainly explained the cal uses on Jamie's hands. Jamison didn't want to keep his youngest by his side because of love. He wanted only a slave at his beck and cal . The youngest, in Alec's opinion, was literal y in bondage.
A worried-looking servant came rushing into the great hall . He gave Baron Jamison only a brief glance before hurrying over to Jamie. After completing an awkward bow, the servant whispered, "The priest be on his way, mistress. He's dressed in his wedding vestments."
Jamie nodded to the servant. "It was good of you to quit your duties to fetch Father Charles, George.
Would you like to stay for the weddings?"
The servant had a look of adoration in his eyes. "I ain't dressed for it," he whispered.
"Neither are we," Jamie whispered back.
"Go and change your gown, Mary," Daniel interjected. "I'm partial to gold. If you've a gown in that color, wear it to please me. If not, white will do well enough. I'm wedding you, Lady Mary."
Lord Daniel Ferguson caught Lady Mary before she hit the floor. He wasn't at all irritated that his intended had just fainted dead away, and he Actually let out a full burst of laughter as he swept Mary up into his arms and held her against his chest.
"She's overcome with gratitude, Alec," Daniel called out to his friend.
"Aye, Daniel, I can see she is," Alec answered.
Jamie couldn't keep her anger control ed another minute. She turned to confront Alec. Her hands rested on her h*ps in a stance that was clearly a chal enge. "Wel ? Which one of the twins are you going to wed?"
She stil hadn't caught on. Alec sighed. "Change your gown, Jamie, if that's your inclination. I prefer white. Now go and do my bidding. The hour grows late and we must be on our way."
He'd deliberately lengthened his speech, giving her time to react to his announcement. He thought he was being most considerate.
She thought he was demented.
Jamie was, at first, too stunned to do more than stare in horror at the warlord. When she finally gained her voice, she shouted, "It will be a frigid day in heaven before I marry you, milord, a frigid day indeed."
"You've just described the Highlands in winter, lass. And you will marry me."
Exactly one hour later, Lady Jamison was wed to Alec Kincaid.
She wore black to her wedding. Her choice of attire was a purely defiant gesture meant to infuriate the Scotsman. Jamie knew her plan had failed, however, the minute she walked back into the great hall . Alec took one look at her and started laughing. The booming sound nearly fel ed the rafters.
Jamie didn't have any idea how much her rebel ious nature pleased him, else she never would have gone to such lengths to provoke him, Alec decided. Had she known how much he detested tears, she probably would have wept. Alec didn't think she'd be as convincing as her twin sisters, though. Jamie moved like a queen. Her back was as straight as a clean lance, she bowed her head to no man, and he decided it would have cost her mightily to affect any female weakness.
She was dressed for mourning, but she stil looked magnificent. Her eyes continued to captivate him. He wondered if he'd ever get used to her beauty. Lord, he certainly hoped so. He couldn't all ow any interference in his primary duties.
The lass was turning out to be quite a puzzle. He knew she was English born and raised, yet she didn't appear to be the least bit cowardly. Alec wondered how that miracle had come about, then concluded her innocence and lack of fear stemmed from the fact that she'd never been tainted by King Henry's sordid court life. By the grace of God, Lady Jamie hadn't been exposed to the English inclination for debauchery.
The Kincaid had Baron Jamison to thank, he supposed, for failing to do his duty for his daughters. He wasn't about to mention his gratitude, though, and doubted Jamie's father would have heard a word anyway. The man was actually crying now. Alec was too disgusted to speak to the man. He'd never seen a grown man humiliate himself in such a foul way. It turned his stomach.
"We're all very close to our father," Jamie whispered when the baron couldn't answer the priest's question as to who was giving the brides away.
The baron's face was hidden in his soggy linen cloth.
"Papa's going to miss us, milord. This is most difficult for him."
She hadn't looked up at Alec when she made her whispered excuse for her father's shameful conduct, but the plea was there, in her husky voice.
She was asking for his understanding, he knew, and he found her defense of her father worthy enough to make him keep his unfavorable opinion to himself.
She'd just given him another glimpse into her character, for her plea told him she was loyal to her family.
He thought that was a noble quality under any circumstance, and given the character of the members of her family, Jamie's loyalty bordered on sainthood.
Jamie was too terrified to look up at her intended. She and her sister stood side by side, holding on to each other's hands for comfort. Daniel stood on Mary's right and Alec was positioned on Jamie's left.
Alec's arm touched her shoulder and his thigh brushed against her. Deliberately, repeatedly.
She couldn't move away from him. Mary was squeezed up against her side and Alec's arm blocked the possibility of a step back. Lord, how she hated being frightened. She wasn't used to such feelings. She told herself it was because he was so big. He towered over her like a huge, angry cloud. He smel ed of heather and masculinity, a bit of leather, too, and under more pleasing conditions, she might have found his scent appealing.
Now, of course, she detested his size, his scent, his very presence.
The priest finished his homily on the sacrament of marriage, then turned to address Jamie's sister. Mary, honest to a fault, gave Daniel a good laugh when Father Charles asked her if she'd take Daniel for her husband. Mary took a long while pondering over the question, acting as though she'd just been asked to explain the significance of the Norman Conquest, then finally blurted out her answer. "'Tis the truth I'd rather not, Father."
Jamie was nearing the point of true hysteria. She was not supposed to be marrying this warlord named Alec Kincaid. He wasn't making the situation any easier to endure, either, standing so close to her that she could feel the heat radiating from him.
While Father Charles was begging Mary to give a proper response, Jamie tried to move away from Alec.
In the corner of her mind was the cowardly thought that she could just push his arm away, back up a step, and then run like lightning out of the room.
He must have read her intention, for his arm settled on her shoulders. Before she could protest, she was hauled up against his side.
She couldn't shrug herself away from him. She tried—several times, in fact—before she whispered her demand that he unhand her.
He answered her by ignoring her.
In her frustration, she turned to her sister and said, "I don't think it matters what our rathers be, Mary. If you don't agree to marry Daniel, you'l be going against your king."
"But if I say I want to take this man for my husband, then I go against God, don't I?" Mary argued. "I wouldn't be tel ing the truth," she ended with a wail.
"For God's sake, Mary, answer the priest," Jamie snapped.
Mary took exception to Jamie's hostile tone. She glared at her sister before turning back to the priest.
"Oh, all right. I'l take him." Turning back to Jamie, she muttered, "There, sister, are you happy now?
You've forced me to lie to a man of the cloth."
"I forced you?"
The gasp in Jamie's voice wasn't due entirely to her sister's outrageous statement. Alec's hand had curved around the base of her neck. His fingers were stroking her sensitive skin.
Father Charles nodded his approval of Mary's answer.
It was now Jamie's and Alec's turn. "Your full name, milord?" the priest asked.
The priest nodded. He was in a hurry to get through this marriage ordeal, for the look in his sweet Jamie's eyes had turned murderous. In his haste, Father Charles threw in the word "wil ingly" when he asked her if she would have Alec for her husband.
"Will ingly?" Jamie asked. She took a deep breath, preparing herself for the true opinion she was going to sting the priest with, then felt Alec's fingers tighten around her throat.
The man was obviously trying to intimidate her. Jamie reached up to pul his hand away, but Alec wouldn't be budged. He simply captured her fingers and continued to apply pressure.
He wasn't being the least bit subtle. Jamie got his silent message quick enough. The arrogant man was going to strangle her to death if she provoked him any further, and being Scots, as he was, she was certain he'd carry out his threat.
Her neck was starting to sting. "I'l take him," she blurted out. The priest sighed with relief, then rushed through the rest of the ceremony. As soon as he gave his blessing, Mary tried to run out of the hall .
Daniel caught her in two strides. He lifted her into his arms and kissed the scream right out of her, in front of Father Charles and the family. When he finished his gentle attack, Mary sagged against him. Jamie thought she looked like a wilted flower.
The twins started whimpering again, Papa began to sniffle, and Jamie wanted to die a quick death.
Alec Kincaid wasn't as forceful in his demand for a kiss to seal the vows. He merely moved to stand directly in front of his bride. His hands were settled on his hips, his muscular legs were braced apart, and his gaze was directed at the top of Jamie's bowed head.
He didn't say a word. Yet his rigid stance suggested he'd stand there all night if that was what was needed to get her to look at him. Jamie took comfort in the fact that he wasn't trying to strangle her any longer.
She could feel her heart pounding. She supposed Alec Kincaid would dare just about anything he wanted to. She gathered her courage and slowly lifted her gaze to meet his.
He really was frightening. His eyes were such a deep brown. Jamie could find very little warmth there, and after meeting his gaze for as long as she could manage without visibly cringing, she started to turn away.
Alec suddenly reached out and pul ed her into his arms. His hand cupped her chin just as his mouth came down on hers. The kiss was hard, unyielding… and unbelievably warm.
Jamie felt as though she'd just been scorched by the sun. The kiss ended before she could even think to struggle, before she really wanted to move at all . She was temporarily speechless. She stared up at her husband a long while, wondering if the brief kiss had affected him as much as it had her.
Alec was amused by the confusion he could see in Jamie's eyes. It was apparent she hadn't been kissed much. She was blushing with embarrassment now. Her hands were clinging to each other in what looked like a death grip.
Aye, he was pleased with her, and he realized he hadn't been unaffected by the brief kiss, either. He couldn't quit looking at her. Hel , he wanted to kiss her again.
Mary's sudden bel ow broke the spel .
"Now?" Mary shouted the word as though it were an obscenity. "Jamie, they mean to leave now!"
"Surely my sister misunderstood," Jamie told Alec. "You aren't really leaving now, are you?"
"We are," Alec answered. "Daniel and I have many responsibilities back home. We're leaving within the hour."
He hadn't mentioned Mary or her in his explanation. That realization captured her full attention. She almost smiled over the joyful possibility, then decided to make certain her guess was correct before getting her hopes up.
"Do you wish to share our humble dinner with us before you and Daniel leave?" she inquired.
He knew exactly what she was thinking. She'd betrayed herself when she stressed the word "you" in her question. The daft woman actually thought he was going to leave her behind. Alec felt like laughing. She looked so serious now, and so damned hopeful.
Alec shook his head.
Jamie felt as though a prison door had just been unlocked and she was once again free. She desperately tried to hide her joy, for it would have been rude by half to show such open pleasure over his leave-taking.
The marriages were to be in name only. Oh, why hadn't she realized that before? Alec and Daniel were simply doing the bidding of their overlord by marrying. Now they would go back home and resume their duties, whatever in God's name those might be, and leave their appreciative brides in England where they belonged.
It really wasn't such an unusual arrangement. Many marriages were settled in such a satisfying manner.
Jamie actually felt a little foolish for not understanding sooner. She could have saved herself a good deal of worry.
Relief swept over her with a force that nearly made her knees buckle. Since she was used to making bargains with her Maker, she immediately promised God a twelve day novena for giving her this wonderful reprieve.