He thought he was being very courteous, and cautioned himself against letting such consideration become a habit.
"Let me understand this," Jamie began. "You really think I'm going—"
"It's very simple, wife. If you're loyal to Scotland, you're loyal to me. You'l see the rightness of it once you've settled in."
"Once I've what?" Her voice was suspiciously soft.
"Once you've settled in," Alec repeated.
Her throat started aching with the need to shout at this arrogant man. Then she remembered Beak's suggestion not to nudge the laird's temper until she knew what kind of reaction she was going to get.
She'd better be cautious, she decided. It was common knowledge that Scots lashed out before thinking better of it. They all beat their wives as often as the inclination came over them. "Sheep settle in, Kincaid.
I'm a lady, if you haven't taken the time to notice."
The way he drew out that remark made her heart quicken. "Yes," she stammered. "Women, you see, don't settle in. It isn't at all the same."
"It is," he contradicted with a lazy grin.
"No, it isn't," she snapped. "You'l have to take my word on this."
"Are you chal enging me, English?"
His voice was hard enough to frighten her, but he was determined to make her understand her place.
He waited for her to cringe… and apologize.
"I am chal enging you," Jamie announced, nodding vigorously when he looked incredulous.
God's truth, he didn't know what to make of her now. Her voice and stance reeked with authority. She wasn't wringing her hands together, either, they were fisted at her sides. Alec knew he really shouldn't let her get away with her insolence. A wife should always agree with her husband. Jamie obviously hadn't heard of this sacred dictate, however. Why, she dared to stand up to him as though she were his equal.
That thought forced a deep chuckle. The woman was definitely daft, but she did have grit.
"I've been in England too long," he admitted, "else I'd find your arguments overbearing, wife."
"Will you quit cal ing me 'wife'? I have a name. Can you not cal me Jamie?"
"It's a man's name."
She wanted to throttle him. "It's my name."
"We'l find another."
"We will not."
"Dare you argue with me again?"
She wished she were as big as he was. He wouldn't dare laugh at her then. Jamie took a deep breath.
"You say my arguments are overbearing, yet perhaps once I've settled in, as you've so obscenely put it, you'l get rid of your confusion and see the lightness in what I'm saying."
"Since I haven't the faintest idea what it is you're saying, I doubt it," he countered.
"Now you've insulted me."
He shrugged his big shoulders. "It's my right, wife."
She began a prayer for patience. "I see," she whispered hoarsely. "Then I must assume it's also my right to insult you."
"It doesn't work that way."
Jamie gave up. The man was as stubborn as she was. "Have we crossed the border yet?"
Alec shook his head. "We've only a stone's throw to go."
"Then why were you smiling?"
Alec started to turn his back on her, but Jamie stayed the action with her next question. "Alec? You really dislike England, don't you?"
She hadn't been able to keep the amazement out of her voice. The very idea of anyone disliking her land was simply beyond her comprehension.
Everyone loved England, even dul -witted Scotsmen who liked to throw trees at one another. Why, England was the Rome of modern times. Its grandeur couldn't be denied.
"I do dislike England most of the time. There are exceptions, though."
He slowly nodded.
"Well? When don't you dislike England, then?"
"When I'm raiding."
"You actually admit to such a sin?" she asked, clearly appal ed.
Alec's grin widened. Her blush had intensified until she looked as if the sun had burned her. His wife was so refreshingly honest in all her reactions.
A deadly trait in a man, that, giving others advance warning of what he was thinking, yet most agreeable in a woman. Especial y his woman.
Alec let out a long sigh. It was a pity, but his wife didn't seem to have any sense of humor. She couldn't tel when he was jesting with her. "Gain your mount. The sun is already setting," he told her. "You may rest when we reach safety."
Jamie thought about asking him if he thought safety and Scotland were one and the same, then decided not to bother. She guessed his answer would just irritate her.
She had already learned two very unpleasant things about her husband. One: he didn't like being questioned or contradicted. That was going to be a problem, Jamie knew, for she was determined to question or contradict him whenever she wanted to. She didn't care if he liked it or not. Two: when he was scowling at her, she didn't like him much at all . The second flaw was almost as worrisome as the first. Alec's mood changed like the wind. The most innocent remarks made him scowl.
"Jamie, I'm not getting back on that damn horse again."
Mary pul ed on her sister's arm to get her attention. Alec heard the statement, but paid no attention to it.
He turned and walked back to his mount. Jamie watched him, thinking to herself that he'd just dismissed her with as much care as one would give a piece of lint.
"That man's rude by half," she muttered.
"Jamie, aren't you listening to me?" Mary demanded. "You're going to have to insist that we rest here for the night."
Jamie's heart went out to her sister. Mary's face was streaked with dirt. She looked as exhausted as Jamie felt. Jamie had a good deal more stamina than her sister did, but she'd been up most of the night before, helping one of the servants with her sick child.
She didn't dare offer Mary any sympathy, knowing that a firm hand was needed now. Mary would start crying if Jamie gave her an ounce of compassion. That thought was quite chil ing. Once Mary got started, she was worse than the twins.
"What have you done with your pride?" Jamie demanded. "It's unladylike to use a common word like'damn' when you speak. Only serfs use such crude words, Mary."
The thunder went out of Mary's expression. "How can you lecture me now, for God's sake?" she wailed.
"I want to go home. I miss my papa."
"Enough!" Jamie's command was given in a much harsher tone of voice. She patted her sister's shoulder to soften her rebuke, then whispered, "What's done is done. We're married to Scots, and that's that.
Don't disgrace us by carrying on. Besides, it's only a little farther to the Highlands," she exaggerated.
"Alec has promised me that we'l stop for the night just as soon as we cross the border. Surely you can last a few more minutes, sister. Let your husband see what a courageous woman you are."
Mary nodded. "What if he's too dense to notice my courage?"
"Then I'l be happy to instruct him," Jamie promised.
"Jamie, did you ever, in all your days, think we'd end up in this predicament? We're married to Scots!"
"No, Mary, I never once considered that eventuality."
"God must be very angry with us."
"Not God," Jamie qualified. "Our king."
Mary's pitiful sigh trailed behind her as she walked back to her mount. Jamie watched her sister until she'd reached Daniel's side. The Scottish lord was smiling. Jamie guessed he was amused by the sight of his bride walking like an old woman with rickety knees.
Jamie shook her head over her sister's pitiful condition until she realized she was in much the same condition. Her legs were as shaky as dried leaves. She placed the blame on the stupid saddle she was forced to put up with so Alec would think she was a lady.
It took her three attempts to climb up on Wildfire's back. She'd made her mount nervous with the distraction, too. The mare started prancing, and it took Jamie precious strength to get her calm again.
Wildfire obviously didn't like the saddle any more than Jamie did.
Daniel had assisted Mary into her saddle, but Alec hadn't shown any such gentlemanly consideration. He wasn't even watching her. She wondered what held his attention, for he was gazing intently toward the area they'd just come from, a frown of concentration on his face.
Jamie decided to ignore him as thoroughly as he was ignoring, her. She turned to cal a word of encouragement to her sister.
She never heard Alec approach. He was suddenly by her side. Before she could react, he'd pul ed her off her mount. Then he half carried, half dragged her to the ragged boulder adjacent to the bush Mary had split down the middle when she took her fal . Alec shoved Jamie up against the rock with one hand, slapped Wildfire's flank with other, then turned his back on her and motioned to Daniel.
"Whatever are you—"
The rest of Jamie's question was pushed from her mind when Mary was shoved up against her. Daniel positioned himself in front of his bride. His broad back kept both women pinned to the boulder behind him.
When Daniel drew his sword, Jamie understood what was happening. She took a deep breath while she watched Daniel motion to Alec and hold up three fingers.
Alec shook his head, then indicated the number was four.
Mary stil didn't catch on to the threat. Jamie slapped her hand over her sister's mouth when she started to stammer a protest.
Alec walked back to the center of the smal clearing. Jamie pushed Mary's hair out of her face so she could see him clearly.
He hadn't drawn his weapon yet. Then Jamie realized that Alec didn't have a sword. Good God, the man was virtual y defenseless.
Jamie was sick with fear for Alec's safety. With that fear came fury. What kind of warrior journeyed through the wilderness without a weapon at his side?
A damn forgetful one, Jamie decided with a scowl. He'd probably lost his sword somewhere along the way to London and hadn't bothered to replace it.
She'd have to intervene, of course. Alec Kincaid was her husband, and no one was going to put a mark on him as long as she lived. Refusing to understand the true reason she didn't want to see him harmed, she simply told herself she didn't want to be widowed on her wedding day, and that was that.
Jamie removed the smal dagger from the looped belt she wore around her waist, hoping there was stil time to pass the weapon to Alec. The dagger could inflict real injury if accuracy was employed. There was also Daniel's sword, Jamie remembered. She prayed Alec's friend knew how to wield his weapon and was just about to ask him to help her husband when Alec suddenly turned around.
He was motioning to Daniel. She could see his face clearly now and immediately started to shiver. The look of fury in those cold dark eyes terrified her. She could see the raw strength in his muscular arms and thighs. Anger was there, too. It washed over her like a hot wave. Power radiated from him until it became a thick mist surrounding them all .
She'd never seen such a look before, but she recognized it all the same: he was ready to kil .
Mary started crying. "It isn't a wild boar, is it, Jamie?"
"No, Mary," Jamie whispered. She kept her gaze on her husband when she squeezed her sister's arm. "It will be all right. Our husbands will keep us safe. You'l see."
Jamie almost believed her assurance until she saw the bandits slowly advancing toward Alec. She guessed then it wasn't going to be all right at all .
Alec had moved quite a distance away from the others. Jamie thought he was deliberately trying to draw the bandits as far from the women as possible.
The thieves slowly followed him. They took their time, too, acting as if they had all the time in the world to see their kil completed. Alec was much larger than his enemies, but he was unarmed. The odds certainly didn't favor him. Two of the four bandits carried blackened clubs. The other two waved curved swords in the air. The slicing motion made the air whistle. There was dried blood crusted on the blades, indicating their earlier attacks had been successful.
Jamie thought she was going to be sick. They were such evil-looking men. They looked as if they enjoyed their sport; two were actually smiling.
What teeth they had were as black as their clubs.
"Daniel, please go and help Alec," Jamie ordered, her voice weak with fear.
"There are only four of them, lass. It will be over in just a minute."
His answer infuriated her. She knew Daniel stood in front of them to offer protection, yet didn't think that was noble given the fact that his friend was about to be slaughtered.
Jamie reached over Mary's shoulder and shoved Daniel's back. "Alec doesn't have a weapon to defend himself. Give him my dagger or your sword, Daniel."
"Alec doesn't need a weapon."
He answered her in such a cheerful voice that Jamie was certain he'd lost his mind.
She stopped trying to argue with him. "Either you go and help him or I will ."
"Al right, lass, if you insist." Daniel shrugged Mary's hands away from his tunic and started toward the men circling Alec.
Yet when he reached the edge of the clearing, he stopped. Jamie couldn't believe what she was seeing.
Daniel calmly replaced his sword in his scabbard, folded his arms across his chest, and damn if he didn't grin at Alec.
Alec grinned back.
"We're wed to half-wits," Jamie told Mary. She decided she was stil more frightened than angry, as her voice actually shivered in the stil ness.
A deep bel ow suddenly gained her full attention. The battle cry came from Alec. The bone-chil ing sound sent Mary into a fit of screaming.
The circle had tightened around Alec. He waited until the first was within striking distance, then moved so swiftly he became a blur of motion to Jamie. She watched him grab hold of one man by his throat and jaw, heard the horrid sound of bone cracking when he twisted the enemy's neck into an unnatural position.
Alec hurled the man to the ground just as two others, shouting their intentions, attacked from his left side.
Alec slammed their heads together, then tossed them atop the crumpled man on the ground.