She dared a quick look up, to judge Beak's reaction. She needn't have bothered. His bel ow of outrage nearly pushed her off her mount. "He took gold for you, Jamie? He sold you to Baron Andrew?"
"No, no, you misunderstand," Jamie said quickly. "It was just a loan, Beak. There isn't time to argue about this. Just give me your word you'l come for me if Papa needs help."
"Aye, lass," Beak said. His sigh sounded angry. "I give you my pledge. Any other worries I should know about?"
"I pray not."
"Then off with you. If your husband—"
"One last matter, and then I'l leave."
"You're deliberately stal ing, aren't you, girl? You want to poke his temper. He'l guess the truth about you then," Beak predicted with a grin. "And after all the trouble I had tel ing him my lies."
"Told him you were a sweet, gentle maiden, I did."
"I am a sweet, gentle maiden," Jamie countered.
Beak snorted. "As sweet as the taste of soap when your temper's riled."
"What else did you tel him?" Jamie asked, looking suspicious. "I'd better know the full of it, Beak, so I can defend myself."
"I told him you were timid."
"Said you were weak, used to be being coddled."
"And that you liked to spend your days sewing and churchgoing."
Jamie started to laugh. "Why would you tel such stories?"
"Because I wanted to give you a little advantage," Beak explained. His words fairly tripped over one another in his haste to hurry through the explanation. "I didn't tel him you could speak Gaelic, either."
"Neither did I."
The two confidants exchanged a grin. Then Jamie asked, "You're not sorry about all the skil s you taught me, are you?"
"Of course not," Beak answered. "But if your husband thinks you're puny, I figure he'l be on his guard to see to your safety, lass. He'l have more patience with you, to my way of thinking."
"I don't care what he thinks about me," Jamie returned. "My pride's pricked because you made me out to be so inferior, though."
"Most women are inferior," he countered.
"Do most women hunt for their family's supper? Do most ride their horses better than a warrior? Do most—"
"Don't turn hel ion on me now," Beak pleaded. "Just keep your talents to yourself for a while, Jamie. And don't go testing him just yet. It's best not to grab a wild dog by his tail unless you want the consequences, I always say."
"You've never said that before."
"Always meant to," Beak answered. He gave another worried glance toward the drawbridge. "Get along now, Jamie."
"I've been storing this up for a long while, Beak, and I won't be rushed."
"Well?" Beak demanded in a near shout.
"I love you. I've never told you before, but I love you with all my heart. You've been a good father to me, Beak."
The bluster went out of the old man. His eyes misted with tears and his voice was strained when he whispered, "And I love you, Jamie. You've been a fine daughter to me. I've always considered you mine."
"Promise me you won't forget me."
There was a frantic edge in her voice. Beak squeezed her hand. "I won't forget."
Jamie nodded. Tears streamed down her cheeks. She brushed the wetness away, straightened her shoulders, and then nudged Wildfire into motion.
Beak stood in the center of the courtyard, watching his mistress leave. He prayed she wouldn't turn around. He didn't want her to see him in such an undisciplined state.
Heaven take mercy, he was weeping just like a man who'd lost his only child. In his heart he knew the truth: he was never going to see his baby again.
Alec Kincaid was in a fine mood. He kept his smile and his pace restrained until his wife finally caught up with him. He wanted to laugh, for it was obvious to him that his naive bride had just tried to goad him into losing his temper. She took her own sweet time fol owing after him. Jamie didn't realize what a patient man he was, especial y when the matter was as insignificant as a woman. He found humor in the very idea that a mere woman would dare to chal enge him at all .
As soon as he heard her approach, Alec increased his speed until both mounts were cantering. Jamie stayed right behind him, valiantly trying to ignore the dust flying up in her face. She was determined to keep up the inhuman, neck-breaking pace without uttering a word of protest. She also waited for her new husband to look back over his shoulder so he could see how well she was faring. She was going to give him a most serene expression, even if it kil ed her.
Alec Kincaid never bothered to look back.
Although Jamie was skil ed, she wasn't used to riding in the stiff new saddle. She was more comfortable riding bareback.
Her backside and thighs were taking quite a pounding. The rocky, ill -tended north road made the beating all the more painful. Bushes barred the way and she had to dodge low-hanging branches while keeping firm control of her mount. She let her grimace show once she became convinced Alec wasn't even aware she was behind him, then began to bargain with her Maker that she'd give him twenty daily masses in a row without daydreaming once if he'd only make her demon husband slow down a little.
God wasn't in a bargaining mood. Jamie came to that conclusion when they caught up with Daniel and Mary. Alec immediately took the lead, never once breaking stride. Jamie stayed behind her husband.
Mary, looking as worn out as an old boot, trailed behind, with Daniel taking up the rear.
Jamie knew it was for safety's sake they rode at such a grueling pace. She'd heard the stories about the bands of roving misfits who preyed on unsuspecting victims. She guessed that one warrior protected the women from the front in the event of a surprise attack, while the other blocked the rear for just the same reason. If bandits did try to breach the foursome, they'd have to get through Alec or Daniel in order to reach their brides.
Oh, she understood the reasons all right, but she was soon too worried about Mary to care.
They'd ridden for almost two full hours before her sister finally broke down. Jamie was immensely proud of Mary because she'd been able to last so long without complaining. Mury wasn't one to suffer discomfort of any sort.
"Jamie? I want to stop for a few minutes," Mary called out.
Daniel shouted the denial. Jamie couldn't believe his cal ous attitude. She turned around just in time to see Mary's husband emphasize his denial by shaking his head.
The pained look on Mary's face upset Jamie. She had turned to shout her own demand to Alec for a brief respite when she heard the shril scream.
When Jamie turned around again, she found Mary's mount right behind her. Mary, however, was missing.
Everyone stopped, even Alec Kincaid.
Daniel reached his bride as Jamie and Alec had dismounted. Poor Mary was sprawled on her backside in the middle of a fat leafy bush. While Jamie dismounted, Daniel gently lifted Mary to her feet.
"Are you hurt, lass?" he asked, his voice fil ed with concern.
Mary brushed the hair out of her eyes before answering. "Only a little, milord," she said.
There were several leaves clinging to Mary's hair. Daniel took his time pul ing them free. Jamie saw the tender way he treated Mary and decided he had a few redeeming qualities, after all .
"What the hel happened?" Alec asked from behind Jamie's back.
She jumped at the sound of his voice, then turned around to face him.
"Mary fel off her horse."
"She fel off her horse."
Alec looked as if he didn't believe her. "She's English, Alec, or have you forgotten?" Daniel called out.
"What does that have to do with anything?" Jamie asked. She looked from one warrior to the other, then realized they were both trying not to smile.
"She could have broken her neck," Jamie muttered.
"But she didn't," Alec answered.
"She could have," Jamie argued, infuriated by his cold attitude.
"She's all right now," Daniel stated, drawing Jamie's attention back to him. "Aren't you, Mary?"
"I'm fine," Mary said, blushing at all the attention she was getting.
"She is not fine," Jamie announced. She turned back to Alec. He'd moved indecently close to her when she wasn't noticing and she almost bumped into him. Jamie took a quick step back, yet stil had to tilt her head all the way back just to look into his eyes.
"Mary fel because…" Her voice trailed off. She'd just noticed the sprinkle of gold in his dark brown eyes. They were very appealing. She turned her gaze to his chest so she could regain her thoughts.
"Because…?" Alec asked.
"Mary's too exhausted to go on, milord. She must rest. She isn't at all accustomed to riding such long distances."
"And you, English? Are you accustomed to riding such long distances?"
Jamie shrugged. "My wants aren't at issue here. Mary is more important. Surely you can see how tired she is. A few minutes won't matter much to you."
She glanced up then, took in his expression, and wondered what she'd said to cause such a fierce frown.
"Mary's a gentle lady," Jamie explained to his chest.
"And you're not?"
"Yes, of course I am," Jamie stammered. He was deliberately twisting her words around. " 'Tis most unkind of you to suggest otherwise."
She glanced up at his face again just in time to catch his smile.
She suddenly realized he wasn't trying to be insulting. And he really was smiling at her, a sincere, tender smile that made her stomach feel as if it were full of sugar. She felt flooded with contentment.
She didn't know how to react.
"Are you always so serious, wife?"
The question sounded like a caress to her and had much the same effect as if he'd just brushed his hand across her heart.
God's truth, she was having an unusual reaction to this barbarian. Jamie decided she was just as exhausted as Mary was. Surely that was the reason Alec Kincaid was beginning to appeal to her. He was almost handsome now, in a raw, primitive way, of course. A lock of his hair had fallen on his forehead, giving him a rascal's appearance. That was unfor tunate, a worry as well , for Jamie always did have a liking for glib-tongued carefree rascals.
Without a thought to the consequences, she reached up and brushed the errant lock back where it belonged. She didn't want him to look like a rascal; she wanted him to stay mean-looking. Then her heart would surely quit pounding so loud in her ears and she'd be able to catch her breath, wouldn't she?
Alec didn't move when she touched him, but he liked the feel of her hand on his forehead. The gentle ministration surprised him. He wanted her to touch him again. "Why did you do that?" he asked, his tone mild.
"Your hair is too long," Jamie answered, not daring to give him the truth.
"You'l have to cut it."
"I can't trust a man whose hair is almost as long as mine," she muttered.
Her explanation sounded ridiculous to her. She blushed and frowned to cover her embarrassment.
"I asked you if you were always so serious," Alec reminded her with a grin.
Heaven help her, she couldn't seem to keep her mind on the conversation. It was all his fault, of course, for smiling her thoughts right out of her mind.
Alec kept his amusement contained, for he guessed his bride would think he was laughing at her. For some reason he couldn't explain, he didn't want to harm her tender feelings. An odd reaction, he told himself, as he'd never been one to care overmuch for any woman's feelings.
He certainly cared now, he realized, even as he excused his behavior by reminding himself that she was English bred, after all , and therefore apt to be more skittish than a strong Highland lass.
Jamie was wringing her hands. Alec doubted she was aware of that tel ing action. It was a sign of fear, yet she contradicted the weakness by valiantly meeting his gaze now. Her high cheekbones were tinged pink with embarrassment. He knew she had to be as exhausted as her sister was. Neither woman seemed to have much stamina. The pace he'd set had been rigorous but necessary, because as long as they were on English soil, they were in danger. Yet his new bride hadn't complained or begged to stop, and that fact pleased him considerably. Gavin, Alec's second-in-command, would say she had grit. It was a high compliment for a Highlander to give a woman, and one Jamie had already earned just by standing up to him.
Gavin would have a hearty laugh if he could see his laird now, Alec decided. The smile faded from his face when he realized he was acting like a simpleton. He'd never spent this much time talking with a woman before. Yet now he was staring at his wife just like a man who'd never seen a pretty woman before. Hel , he was physical y reacting to her, too; he could feel himself getting hard.
It was time to dismiss her from his thoughts.
"You're wringing your hands," he muttered as he reached out to stop that action.
"I was pretending it was your neck," Jamie said in reaction to his sudden scowl. "And, yes, milord, I am serious most of the time," she rushed on, hoping to take his mind off her insult. "When I'm leaving England, I'm very serious. I'm leaving my cherished homeland."
"'Tis the same reason I'm smiling," Alec said.
He wasn't smiling now, but Jamie decided not to mention that fact. "You're happy because you're going home?"
"Because we're going home." His voice was back to sounding like steel again.
"England is my home."
"Was," he corrected, determined to set her straight. "Scotland is your home now."
"You wish me to give my loyalty to Scotland?"
"Wish?" he asked, grinning. "I don't wish it, wife. I command it. You'l be loyal to Scotland and to me."
She was back to wringing her hands. She had raised her voice to him when she asked her question, too, but Alec decided not to take exception to her behavior. He knew she needed time to sort the problem out in her mind. Because he was such a patient man, he decided to give her an hour or two to agree.