"Are you back to being afraid of me, English?"
"I was never afraid, Scot," she answered. "Only worried."
"Are you stil worried?"
"Then why are you trying to ease my arm away?"
"It isn't decent to touch like this in front of others, Alec."
She ignored the amusement in his voice. "No, it isn't," she repeated. "And my name is Jamie. You've stil to say it, Alec."
"It's a man's name."
"Are we back to that?"
"Aye, we are."
She refused to look at him until he finished laughing, then said, "My name certainly seems to give you vast amusement. I suppose that's all for the better, Alec, because you're in a fine mood, you see, and I wanted to tel you something you might take exception to, but once you hear me out, why, I'm certain you'l agree with my decision."
The seriousness in her tone puzzled him. "What is it you wish to ask me?"
"I would ask that you not… touch me. I don't know you well enough to all ow such liberties."
A shiver of dread passed down her spine. It was apparent from his tone of voice that he didn't care for her choice of words. "Alec? Do you want a wife who is unwil ing?"
"Are you asking me or your hands?" Alec countered.
"Then look at me."
The command was given in a hard voice. She needed all her determination to do as he ordered. It would have been easier if he hadn't been sitting so close to her. He wouldn't let her scoot away from him, either, no matter how many times she tried.
She finally managed to look into his eyes for a full minute, then lowered her gaze to stare at his mouth.
That error in judgment made her sigh. It didn't seem to matter where she looked. The man was hard all over. A day's growth of whiskers made him all the more fierce-looking.
Jamie had the feeling he was trying to read her thoughts when she glanced into his eyes again. It was an absurd feeling, but it was there all the same.
She was suddenly hot and cold and thoroughly confused.
"Now ask me your question again," he said.
"Do you want an unwil ing wife?" she repeated, her voice a low whisper.
"I don't particularly want a wife at all ."
She took immediate exception to that honesty. "Wel , you've got one."
"Aye, I have, and English at that."
If her back became any straighter, Alec thought her spine might crack.
His new wife was blessed with a giant-sized temper. She looked ready to let go of that precious control of hers, too. She was clasping her hands together now in a grip that had to be painful.
"I wonder why you say the word 'English' as though it were a blasphemy."
Her blush deepened when she realized she'd just shouted at him. She glanced up to measure Alec's reaction. He was frowning, but she didn't think he realized how very angry he was making her. She was well disciplined in hiding her emotions.
"You could never care for an English wife, then?"
"You know my meaning."
The man was as dense as fog. "Love," Jamie snapped. Noticing that Mary and Daniel were both staring at her, she paused to give them a smile, then turned to glare at Alec. "You could never love an English wife?" she whispered.
"I doubt it."
"You doubt it?"
"You needn't shout," Alec remarked. He was thoroughly enjoying her outrage. "Does my honesty upset you?"
She had to take a deep breath before answering him. "No, your honesty doesn't upset me, but I do find your amusement most insulting, milord.
We're discussing a serious topic."
"Serious by your measure, not mine."
"You don't consider marriage an important undertaking?"
She looked appal ed and furious. Alec thought it was an enchanting combination. "You're only an insignificant part of my life, wife. When you understand the way of life in the Highlands, you'l see how foolish your fears are."
"I'm insignificant and foolish? Alec, you must find me most inferior," she countered. "Yet you're ready for sainthood, aren't you? Why, you never lose your temper or get angry. Isn't that what you told me?"
"True," Alec admitted, grinning. "I did say that."
"I didn't particularly want to marry you either, Kincaid."
She actually seemed surprised. Alec let her see his exasperation. "You wore a black gown to your wedding," he reminded her.
"I happen to like this gown," she returned, pausing to brush a bit of dust off the hem. "I might wear it every other day."
"Ah, so you could never come to care for me?" he asked.
"'Tis most doubtful."
Alec did laugh then, a low, rumbling sound that made Jamie think the earth was trembling.
"Why does my honesty make you laugh?"
"'Twas the way you gave it."
"I don't want to continue this discussion, Alec. If you've finished your meal, I'l put the food away."
"Let your sister see to that duty."
"It's my responsibility," she explained.
"Just as it was your responsibility to protect her?"
"Mary believes this nonsense, too, doesn't she?"
"Nonsense? Since when is doing one's duty nonsense?"
"Daniel and I heard your sister order you to guard her when the English bastards attacked. We saw her use you as her shield."
"They weren't English bastards," Jamie corrected, concentrating on that remark. He was determined not to understand about Mary and she wasn't in the mood to argue. "I'm certain the infidels came from…"
She was about to tel him she was sure the scoundrels had crossed over the border from Scotland, then thought better of it. "They belong to no country. That is why they're called outcasts, don't you suppose?"
"I suppose," Alec all owed, letting her have her way. She was frowning enough to make him think that issue was of grave importance to her. "I thought you were the youngest daughter," he stated. "I heard your father cal you his baby." He smiled after making that comment, then added, "I was mistaken?"
"No, you weren't mistaken," Jamie replied. "I am the youngest. And Papa does like to cal me his baby."
She blushed after making that confession.
"Yet Mary forced you to be her shield."
"Oh, no, she didn't force me," Jamie argued.
"Aye, she did."
Her voice had gone suspiciously soft. Jamie didn't retreat from his frown this time. "You can't possibly understand, Alec. You're a Scot, if you'l remember, and can't possibly know how the English do things.
You'l just have to take my word on this issue. It has always been my duty to protect my older sisters. It's probably the same in every household in England."
"Your opinions displease me."
She didn't particularly care if her opinions pleased him. She shrugged to show her indifference.
"You're the baby," he continued. "For that reason, your older sister should have looked after you."
She shook her head. The man seemed determined to make her change her mind. "No, it's the other way around, milord."
Now Alec shook his head. "The strong must always protect the weak, wife; the older must always protect the younger. And that's the way it is everywhere, even in the hall owed country of England."
While he watched in fascination, Jamie's eyes turned a deep violet. She wasn't at all happy with his views.
That truth was emphasized when she jabbed at his shoulder. "I am not weak."
Alec resisted the urge to take her into his arms and kiss the outrage out of her. Lord, she was really too beautiful for his peace of mind.
"No, you're not weak," he admitted.
The bluster went out of her then. "It was good of you to notice," she said.
"Yet you were afraid of me."
"Do you have to keep bringing that up? It's most unkind of you to remind me of that incident, Alec."
"Perhaps I have an unkind nature."
He was surprised by her quick, vehement denial. "You sound very sure of that."
"I am," Jamie admitted. "You were kind to my father when he carried on so," she reminded him. "You were patient and understanding. Most men wouldn't have shown such compassion."
She thought she'd just praised him, yet his shout of laughter told her he was more amused than appreciative.
"It's bad manners to laugh when given a compliment, Alec. Damn rude, too."
"Compliment? Wife, you just insulted me when you called me compassionate. Never has that word been put to me."
"I disagree," she countered. "Just because you haven't been called compassionate before doesn't mean—"
"A wife should never disagree with her husband."
He looked sincere. It was high time, she decided, to set him straight. "A wife must give her husband her opinion," she stated, "whenever it seems needed. It's the only way a good marriage survives, Alec. You must take my word on this matter," she added before turning away from the incredulous look on his face.
"Stop trying to push my hands away. You belong to me now. I won't all ow you to pul away when I touch you."
"I've already explained that I'm not ready to belong to you just yet."
"It doesn't matter if you're ready or not."
He sounded downright cheerful when he stated that truth. "Alec, I'm not going to sleep with you as wife until I've gotten to know you better. Surely you can understand my reticence."
"Oh, I understand," he said.
Jamie dared a quick look up, saw the laughter lurking in his dark eyes, and suddenly realized how much he was enjoying her embarrassment. She knew she was acting foolish. Her hands were clenched tight and she'd started trembling again.
"You're frightened. Beak explained that you…"
"I'm not frightened. I'm… worried."
He stated the obvious then. "You're blushing like a virgin."
She gave him a disgruntled look before answering. "I can't help that. I am a virgin."
Alec laughed in spite of himself. She sounded ashamed, as if she'd just confessed a dark sin.
"Will you please stop laughing at me? It's insulting."
"Your virginity belongs to me, Jamie. A bride shouldn't be embarrassed by her purity."
He'd finally used her name. Jamie was so pleased that she smiled.
"Alec? Would you have chosen me if I hadn't been… pure?"
"I would," he answered immediately.
"Aye, and don't make me repeat myself, Jamie."
He sounded irritated now. "You're a most unusual man, Alec. Most knights wouldn't have a woman who'd given herself to another man."
"Oh, I'd have you all right," Alec returned. "But I'd also gain the name of the man who dishonored you before marriage."
"I'd kil him."
Jamie believed he meant what he said. She shivered in reaction. Kil ing certainly didn't bother him much.
"The question isn't relevant since you're a virgin, is it?"
"No, I suppose not," she admitted. "Wel , Alec? Are you will ing to wait until I know you better? Before you… that is, before we…"
The poor lass couldn't even get the words out. Alec suddenly wanted to ease her fear, though he didn't have the damnedest idea why. He would take her, of course, but he didn't want her cringing away from him or waiting in dread. He decided to use a little diplomacy. "Until you wear my plaid, Jamie. We'l wait until then."
She looked as though she'd just been given a reprieve from purgatory. Her reaction did chafe his good mood.
"Will you give me your word, Alec?"
"I've just given it," he stated. He suddenly hauled her up against his side, tilted her chin back until she was forced to look into his eyes. "Never ask me to repeat my word to you in future, wife."
She would have nodded agreement if he had let go of her chin. Alec slowly leaned down and kissed her.
She was too stunned to resist. His mouth was hard, yet wonderful y warm, too. Once again, just as she was beginning to respond, Alec pul ed away.
"I thank you for your understanding," Jamie murmured.
"Your feelings are of little significance to me. You're simply my wife, my chattel. Remember that and we'l get along well together."
"Your chattel?" Jamie all but strangled on her words. God's truth, she'd never felt this humiliated, this inferior, in all her days.
Alec reached up and gently tapped her between her shoulderblades. "Chew your food, lass, before you try to swal ow it," he advised.
He knew damn good and well she hadn't eaten anything. "You're doing it on purpose, aren't you, Alec?"
"You needn't look so innocent, husband. You're trying to make me angry."
Alec nodded. That slow grin was back in evidence.
"To show you it's acceptable."
"I don't understand."
"No matter what you do or what you say, I will never lose my patience with you. It's my duty to keep you safe, Jamie. It's really very simple, this lesson I've just given you, and when you think about it, you'l see how I just all owed you to speak your thoughts without reacting the least unpleasantly."
"Are you tel ing me this entire conversation was just a lesson for your ignorant English bride?"
When Alec nodded, Jamie started laughing.
"And so, Alec, if I tel you I think you're the most insulting warrior I've ever had the misfortune to meet, you wouldn't be at all bothered?"
"You've just given me your promise not to touch me until I wear your plaid, milord, and now I'l give you a promise. You'l rue the day you ever boasted of never losing your patience with me, husband. I give you my word."