For his advanced years, Beak could stil move with surprising speed. He rounded the corner and caught Jamie and her sister Mary in the center of the hall way.
"Were you talking to someone, Beak?" Mary asked. "I thought I heard—"
"Just having a little visit with Wildfire," Beak lied.
"Jamie said you'd be napping and we'd be able to sneak right inside and take our mounts out for another quick run," Mary confessed.
"For heaven's sake, Mary, you needn't be tel ing him that."
"Well, you did say—"
"Shame on you, Jamie," Beak scolded. "I never nap and you shouldn't be sneaking around anywheres."
He gave her a ridiculous grin. "It ain't ladylike."
"Yes, you do nap," Jamie told him. She found his smile contagious. "You're in a fit mood today, aren't you?"
"That I am," Beak admitted. He tried to hide his eagerness, for he certainly didn't want Jamie to suspect he was up to mischief. Beak wondered if the lairds were stil lingering over Wildfire. Though the warrior Kincaid couldn't see Lady Jamie, Beak knew that her voice, so soft and husky, would certainly capture his attention.
"And what are the pair of you up to this fine afternoon, I'm wondering to meself?" Beak inquired.
"We wanted to go riding," Mary said. She gave Beak a puzzled look. "We just told you that. Are you feeling ill , Beak? Jamie, he looks flushed to me."
Jamie immediately reached up and touched Beak's forehead with the back of her hand. "He doesn't have fever," she told her sister.
"Quit your fretting over me," Beak said. "I'm fit as ever."
"Then you'l let us go riding for another hour or two?" Mary asked.
"You'l be walking and that's that," Beak announced. He folded his arms across his chest to show he meant what he'd said.
"Why can't we ride?" Mary asked.
"Because I've just bedded down the ladies," Beak said. "Your horses have been fed, pampered, and lul ed to sleep."
Beak had only just finished giving that lie when he remembered the two great stal ions feeding in the stal s adjacent to the front doors. He worried Jamie or Mary might take notice. The sisters usual y came flying through the stables, though, and there was a good chance he could get them back outside before they took a real look around them.
"You should be getting ready for your company," Beak blurted out. He grabbed hold of Mary's right arm and Jamie's left and started dragging the two of them toward the entrance.
"Mary has convinced me not to worry about our unwanted guests on such a fine afternoon," Jamie explained. "Do quit tugging on my arm, Beak."
"We have three full days of freedom," Mary interjected. "Jamie stil has plenty of time to get the household ready."
"You could try lending a hand, missy," Beak said. "It would do you good."
"Don't start nagging her, Beak. Mary would help if I asked her assistance."
Beak didn't look as if he believed that remark.
"Speaking of asking," Mary interjected, "there's something I want to ask you, Beak."
"Mary, don't bother Beak with questions now."
"I certainly am going to bother Beak," Mary told her sister. "I value his advice as much as you do.
Besides, I want to know if you've told me the truth."
"What a sinful thing to say," Jamie replied. Her smile told Beak she really wasn't the least offended.
"Jamie told me all about these horrible Scots, Beak. I'm thinking of running away. What think you of that bold plan?"
Beak tried not to smile; Lady Mary looked so sincere. "It would depend on where you'd be running to, I suppose."
"Oh, well , I hadn't actually thought of a true destination yet…"
"I'm wondering why you'd want to run away, Mary," Beak said. "What sorry tales has your sister fil ed your head with? Do you think they're true or false?"
"Now, Beak, why would you think I'd lie to my sister?" Jamie asked, trying not to laugh.
"Because I know how your mind works, Jamie," Beak answered. "You've been at it again, haven't you?
What stories have you teased your poor sister with today? I can see you got her quivering with fear. And I happen to know you don't know spit about the Scots."
"I know they've got the brains of sheep," Jamie answered. She winked at Beak when Mary wasn't noticing, then added, "Only those Scots born and raised in the Highlands, of course. The Lowland people are very intel igent, just like you, Beak."
"Don't try soothing me with pretty words," Beak countered. "It ain't going to work this time. I can see how worried Mary is. Why, she's wringing the skin right off her hands. What'd you tel her?"
"I merely mentioned that I'd heard the Scots were a lusty people."
"Well, now, Mary, that ain't so bad," Beak admitted.
"With big appetites," Mary interjected.
"And that's a sin?"
"It is," Mary answered.
"Gluttony," Jamie supplied, grinning.
"Jamie said they fight all the time."
"No, Mary, I said they fight most of the time. If you're going to repeat my remarks, do get them straight."
"Do they, Beak?"
"Do they what, Mary?"
"Fight all the time."
"I just said they liked to raid," Jamie announced with a delicate shrug.
Beak noticed the fine blush covering Jamie's high cheekbones. She was obviously embarrassed that her sister was tel ing on her.
Jamie was up to mischief, all right. She was looking just as guilty as she had the time she convinced Mary her papa had signed the order giving the convent guardianship.
She did like to jest. She was a sure sight to behold, too, dressed in Beak's favorite color, a deep royal blue. Her hair was unbound and the thick curls fel in chaotic splendor well past her slender shoulders.
There were smudges of dirt on her nose and chin.
Beak wished Laird Kincaid could get a clear look at Jamie now, for her violet eyes fairly sparkled with joy.
Mary looked just as appealing. She wore pink today, but the pretty gown was bothered with splotches of dirt. Beak wondered what trouble the two sisters had gotten into, then decided he really didn't want to know.
He was pul ed back to the topic of the Scotsmen when Mary blurted out, "Jamie told me the Scots take what they want when they want it. She also said they have special preferences."
"And what might those be?" Beak asked.
"Strong horses, fat sheep, and soft women," Mary said.
"Horses, sheep, and women?"
"Yes, Beak, and in that order. Jamie says they'd rather sleep next to their horses than their women. well ?
Is it true? Do the women come last?"
Beak didn't answer Mary. He stared at Jamie, silently will ing her with his frown to answer her sister. He thought Jamie looked a bit distressed, yet wasn't certain if she was about to burst into apology or laughter.
Laughter won out. "Honestly, Mary, I was only teasing you."
"Just look at the two of you," Beak announced. "Covered with dirt like peasant babies. Fine ladies, indeed! And you, missy," he added, pointing his finger at Jamie, "laughing like a loon. Just what were you two doing in that meadow, I'm wondering?"
"He's trying to turn the topic," Mary told her sister. "I'm going to get an apology from you, Jamie, before I move from this spot. And if I don't think you're sincere, then I'm tel ing Father Charles. He'l give you a penance you won't soon forget."
"It's your fault, not mine," Jamie countered. "You're as easy to lead along as a pup."
Mary turned back to Beak. "You'd think my sister would be a little more understanding of my predicament. She doesn't have to stand before the Scottish warlords and pray to God she isn't chosen.
Papa's bent on hiding her away."
"Only because I wasn't named in the king's order," Jamie reminded her sister.
"I ain't so sure you weren't named," Beak interjected.
"Papa wouldn't lie," Jamie argued.
"As to that, I won't be saying you're right or wrong, Jamie," Beak said. "Mary? Jamie hasn't told you anything terrible about the Scots as far as I can tel . You're fretting over nothing, lass."
"She told me other stories, Beak," Mary said. "I was suspicious, of course, because her stories were so outrageous. I'm not that gul ible, Beak, no matter what my sister thinks."
Beak turned to frown at Jamie again. "Wel , milady?"
Jamie let out a soft sigh. "I'l admit I did make up some of the stories, but just as many are really true, Beak."
"How could you be knowing what's true and what's false? You shouldn't listen to gossip anyway. I taught you better than that."
"What gossip?" Mary asked.
"Scots throw cabers at one another just for the sport of it."
"Pine trees, Mary," Jamie answered.
Mary let out a loud, inelegant snort. "They don't."
"Aye, they do," Jamie countered. "And if tossing cabers at one another isn't a barbaric ritual, then I don't know what is."
"You really think I'l believe anything you tel me, don't you?"
"It's true, Mary," Beak admitted. "They do throw cabers, though not at one another."
Mary shook her head. "I can tel by the way you're grinning at me that you're teasing me, Beak. Oh, yes, you are," she added when he started to protest. "And I suppose it's true the Scots wear women's clothing?"
"What—" Beak strangled on a cough. He hoped the warriors had already left the stables, after all , and couldn't overhear this shameful talk. "I think we should strol on outside to finish this discussion. It's too fine a day to be cooped up inside."
"It is true," Jamie told her sister, ignoring Beak's suggestion. "They do wear women's gowns. Don't they, Beak?"
"Where'd you hear that blasphemy?" Beak demanded.
"Cholie told me."
"It was Cholie?" Mary asked. "Wel , if you'd bothered to mention that fact, I wouldn't have believed any of your tales. You know as well as I do that the kitchen help tips the jug of ale all day long. Cholie was probably sotted."
"Oh, spit," Jamie muttered. "She wasn't sotted."
"Oh, spit?" Mary repeated. "Honestly, Jamie, you talk just like Beak."
"They do," Beak said, trying to stop the budding argument.
"They do what?" Mary asked.
"Wear clothing that stops at their knees," Beak explained.
"There, I told you so, Mary."
"Their clothing is called their plaid, Mary. Plaid," Beak repeated with a growl. "It's their sacred dress. I think they'd take exception to hearing it called a woman's gown."
"Then it's little wonder to me why they have to fight all the time," Jamie interjected. She hadn't really believed Cholie's tale, but Beak looked so sincere she was beginning to think he was tel ing the truth.
"Aye," Mary agreed. "They have to defend their gowns."
"They aren't gowns."
"Now look what you've done, Jamie. You've got Beak shouting at us."
Jamie was immediately contrite. "I'm sorry, Beak, for upsetting you. My, you are nervous today. You keep looking over your shoulder. Do you think someone's going to pounce on you from behind? What in—"
"I missed me nap," Beak blurted out. "That's why I'm surly."
"You must go and have a proper rest, then," Jamie advised. "Come along, Mary. Beak's been so patient with us and I can tel he isn't feeling at all well ."
She took hold of Mary's hand and started toward the door. "Good God, Mary, they actually do wear women's gowns. I didn't really believe Cholie, but now I'm convinced."
"I'm running away and that's that," Mary said, loud enough for Beak to overhear. She suddenly stopped, then whirled around. "One last question, please?" she called out.
"Would you be knowing if the Scots hate fat women, Beak?"
He didn't have any answer for that absurd question. After he shrugged his shoulders, Mary turned around and chased after Jamie. Both sisters lifted the hems of their skirts and started running toward the upper bailey. Beak let out a soft chuckle as he watched the pair.
"She was given a man's name."
The stable master nearly jumped out of his tunic. He hadn't heard Alec Kincaid's approach. He turned around and came face to shoulders with the giant warrior. " 'Twas her mama's way of giving her a place in this family. Baron Jamison weren't the man who fathered Jamie. He claimed her for his own, though. I'l give him that much kindness. Did you get a good look at her, then?" he added in a rush.
"You'l be taking her with you, won't you?" The Kincaid stared at the old man a long minute before answering.
"Aye, Beak. I'l be taking her with me." The choice had been made.
Jamie didn't find out about the Scotsmen's early arrival until Merlin, the keeper of the pasture cattle, chased her down to tel her there was yet another great commotion going on up at the main house and her papa wanted her to straighten it all out for him.
Merlin failed to mention the Scotsmen in his stuttered announcement. It wasn't his fault, however, for his beautiful mistress had turned her gaze directly upon him just when he was beginning his explanation.
Those violet eyes had made him quite awestruck. Then his mistress smiled, causing Merlin's heart to start fluttering like a sil y little lady's maid. His mind didn't flutter, though. No, it merely emptied of all thoughts save one: Lady Jamie was giving him her undivided attention.
The stutter only worsened, of course, but it didn't really matter. Jamie couldn't immediately obey the summons anyway. There was an injury that needed her immediate attention. Poor old Silas, his eyesight as weak as his hands, was carrying on something fierce, bel owing loud enough, in fact, to cause the pigs to squeal in protest.