The Secret (Highlands Lairds #1) - Page 12

The Secret (Highlands Lairds #1) - Page 12

She didn't know what she would do if someone told her she could never see her aunt Millicent and uncle Herbert again. She got all misty-eyed just thinking about it.

"If you were to ask…" Margaret smiled at Judith while she waited for her to catch on.

Judith nodded. "Brodick might think that because I'm English, I don't know any better."

"Yes."

"I'll be happy to ask, Margaret," she promised. "Are all the clans in the Highlands like the Maitlands? Do they all isolate themselves from outsiders?"

"The Dunbars and the Macleans do," Margaret answered. "When they aren't fighting with each other, they stay to themselves," she explained. "The Dunbar holding sits between the Maitlands and the Macleans, and Cameron tells me they're constantly fighting over land rights. None of them attend the festivals, but all the other clans do. Are all the English like you?"

Judith tried to concentrate on what Margaret was asking. It was a difficult task, for she was still reeling from the woman's casual remark that the Macleans were the Maitlands' enemies.

"Milady?" Margaret asked. "Are you feeling ill?"

"Oh, I'm feeling very well," Judith replied. "You asked me if I was like all the other English, didn't you?"

"I did," Margaret replied, frowning over the notice that her guest's complexion had turned so pale.

"I don't know if I'm like the others or not," Judith answered. " 'Tis a fact I've led a rather sheltered life. Margaret, how in heaven's name do the men ever find mates if they never mingle with the other clans?"

"Oh, they have their ways," Margaret answered. "Winslow came here to barter for a speckled mare. He met Isabelle and took to her right away. I was set against the union because I knew I'd never see my daughter again, but Cameron wasn't going to listen to me. Besides, you don't say no to a Maitland, leastways I've never heard of anyone trying, and Isabelle had her heart set on marrying Winslow."

"Does Winslow look like Brodick?"

"Aye, he does. He's much more quiet, though."

Judith burst into laughter. "Then he must be dead," she remarked. "Brodick rarely speaks a word."

Margaret couldn't stop herself from chuckling. "They're a strange breed, the Maitlands are, but in their defense I'll tell you that if ever Cameron came under attack or needed any true assistance, he would only have to send word to Laird Iain.

"Before the marriage, every now and again a couple of our sheep would disappear. The thievery stopped as soon as word went out that our Isabelle married a member of the Maitland clan. Cameron's gained new respectability, too. Of course, his initial reaction to meeting you might have changed that status."

"Do you mean his surprise to find out I was English?"

"Aye, he was surprised all right."

The two women looked at each other and suddenly burst into laughter just as the men returned to the cottage. Iain was the first to walk inside. He nodded to

Margaret, then paused to give Judith a frown. She guessed he didn't think her amusement was proper behavior. That possibility made her laugh all the more.

"Go and take your place at the table," Margaret instructed.

"Aren't you joining us?"

"I'll serve first, then I'll join you."

Whether she realized it or not, she'd just given Judith an excuse not to sit next to Cameron. The men had all taken their same positions. Judith picked up the stool near the hearth and carried it over to the other side of the table. Then she nudged her way between Iain and Brodick.

If the warriors were surprised by her boldness, they didn't let on. Brodick even moved over so she wouldn't be crowded.

They ate in silence. Judith waited until the men had finished before bringing up the topic of Isabella's welfare.

She decided to ease into the discussion. "Margaret, this was a fine stew."

"Thank you," Margaret replied with a faint blush.

Judith turned to Brodick. "Do you see your brother very often?"

The warrior glanced down at her, then shrugged.

"Do you see his wife, Isabelle?" she prodded.

He shrugged again. She nudged him under the table with her foot. He raised an eyebrow over that boldness. "Did you just kick me?"

So much for trying to be subtle, Judith thought. "Yes, I did kick you."

"Why?"

Iain asked that question. She turned to smile at him. "I didn't want Brodick to shrug at me again. I want him to talk about Isabelle."

"But you don't even know the woman," Iain reminded her.

"I wish to learn about her," Judith argued.

Iain looked like he thought she'd lost her mind. She let out a sigh. Then she started drumming her fingertips on the tabletop.

"Tell me about Isabelle, please," she asked Brodick again.

He ignored her.

She let out a sigh. "Brodick, would you please step outside with me for just a minute? I wish to say something terribly important to you in private."

"No."

She couldn't restrain herself. She kicked him again. Then she turned to Iain. She missed Brodick's quick grin. "Iain, please order Brodick to step outside with me."

"No."

She drummed her fingertips on the tabletop again while she considered her next ploy. She looked up, caught Margaret's pitiful expression, and determined then and there that even if she looked the fool, she would get her way.

"All right then," she announced. "I'll just have to talk to Brodick tomorrow on our journey. I'll ride with you," she added with an innocent smile. "I'll probably talk from sunup to sundown, too, Brodick, so you'd better get your rest tonight."

That threat carried substance. Brodick shoved himself away from the table and stood up. The scowl on his face was scorching. He made it apparent to everyone at the table that he was angry.

Judith wasn't angry. She was furious. God's truth, she couldn't wait to get the insensitive clod outside. She forced a smile and even managed a curtsy to her host before turning and walking out the doorway. She kept right on smiling, too, when she turned and pulled the door closed behind her.

In her haste to blister Brodick, she forgot about the two windows on either side of the door.

Margaret and Gowrie were seated with their backs to the door, but Iain and Alex had a clear view of the grassy area outside the windows.

Needless to say, everyone's curiosity was caught. Gowrie half turned on his stool to see what was going on.

Iain kept his attention centered on Brodick. The warrior faced him. He stood with his legs braced apart and his hands clasped behind his back. He wasn't trying to hide his irritation from Judith, either. Brodick had a fierce temper. Iain knew the warrior wouldn't touch Judith, no matter how angry she made him, but he could hurt her with a few cruel remarks.

Iain waited to see if he needed to intervene. The last thing he needed tonight was a weeping woman on his hands, and Brodick was almost as good at intimidating tactics as he was.

A sudden smile caught him by surprise. He couldn't believe what he was seeing. Neither could Alex. "Will you look at that?" he whispered.

"I'm looking," Gowrie announced. "I'm just not believing. Is that our Brodick backing away?" He snorted with amusement. "I've never seen that particular expression on his face before. What do you think she's saying to him?"

She was giving the warrior hell, Iain decided. Judith's hands were settled on her hips, and when she'd started toward her adversary, she didn't stop. Brodick was literally backing away from her. He looked… astonished, too.

Her voice was muffled by the wind and the distance, but Iain knew she wasn't whispering. Nay, she was shouting, all right, and every now and then Brodick actually flinched.

Iain turned to look at Margaret. Her hands covered her mouth, and when she realized he was watching her, she immediately turned her gaze to the tabletop. She wasn't quick enough. He caught the look of worry in her eyes and knew that she was somehow involved.

The door opened. Judith forced a smile and hurried back to the table. She sat down, folded her hands in her lap, and let out a sigh. Brodick took his time following. When he was once again settled on his stool, the attention turned to him. Judith felt it safe enough to nod to Margaret. She winked, too.

Iain caught that action. His curiosity intensified.

Brodick cleared his throat. "Isabelle and Winslow have a cottage almost this size." He'd muttered that comment.

"Well now, that's fine to hear," Cameron replied.

Brodick nodded. He acted terribly uncomfortable. "She's due to have her baby any time now."

Margaret let out a happy gasp. Tears filled her eyes. She reached out and took hold of her husband's hand. "We're going to have a grandchild," she whispered.

Cameron nodded. His eyes, Judith noticed, were getting misty, too. He turned his attention to his goblet.

Iain finally understood what Judith's game had been. She'd thrown a tantrum, embarrassed herself, too, and all because she wanted to help Margaret find out how her daughter was doing. Judith was such a gentlewoman. It had never dawned on him to think Isabelle's parents might want news about their daughter, but an outsider had seen the obvious and had set out to help.

"Were there any specific questions you would like to ask about your daughter?" Brodick asked.

Margaret didn't just have one question. She had hundreds. Alex and Gowrie even answered a few of them.

Judith couldn't have been more pleased. It did chafe to know that the only reason Brodick was cooperating was because she had threatened to ride with him. The thought of having to touch her was more repulsive than talk about private family matters. Still, what did her feelings matter? The look of joy on Margaret's face was adequate compensation for Brodick's surly attitude.

The cottage was wonderfully warm, almost toasty. Judith tried to pay attention to the conversation, but exhaustion made that a difficult task. She noticed Cameron had tried to refill Brodick's goblet with more water, but the pitcher was empty.

Judith put the stool she'd been sitting on back against the wall near the hearth and carried another pitcher of water over to the table. Cameron nodded his thanks to her.

Lord, she was weary. The men swallowed up the space she'd occupied, and her back was aching too much to sit there anyway. She went over to the stool by the hearth, sat down and rested her shoulders against the cool stone wall. She closed her eyes and was sound asleep less than a minute later.

Iain couldn't take his gaze off her. She was so lovely. Her face looked angelic. He stared at her a long, long while, until he realized she was slumping herself off the stool.

He nodded to Brodick to continue the story he was telling, then went over to stand next to Judith. He leaned against the wall, folded his arms across his chest in a relaxed stance and listened to the tale Brodick was telling about Winslow and Isabelle. Margaret and Cameron were hanging on his every word. They both smiled when Brodick made mention that Isabelle was generous to a fault.

Judith lost her balance. She would have pitched forward if Iain hadn't reached down to steady her. He pushed her back against the wall, then nudged her head toward him. The side of her face rested against the lower portion of his thigh.

A good hour passed before Iain called a halt to the conversation. "We'll leave at first light, Cameron. We've still two full days ahead of us before we reach home."

"Your woman can have our bed," Cameron suggested. His voice started out loud, but then he turned and saw that Judith was sleeping, and his voice dropped to a whisper.

"She'll sleep outside with us," Iain replied. He softened his denial. "Judith wouldn't want you to give up your bed for her."

Neither Margaret nor Cameron argued over the laird's decision. Iain leaned down, transferred Judith into his arms, then stood up.

"The lass is dead to the world," Alex remarked with a grin.

"Would you like extra blankets? The wind's biting tonight," Margaret warned.

Gowrie opened the door for Iain. "We have everything we need."

Iain carried Judith through the opening, then suddenly stopped. He turned around. "Thank you for the supper, Margaret. It was a fine meal."

The compliment sounded awkward to him, but Margaret looked pleased. Her blush was as bright as the fire in the hearth. Cameron acted as though he'd been given the praise, too. His chest swelled until it was in jeopardy of bursting.

Iain continued on toward the trees across from the barn. The foliage would give them protection against the wind, privacy too. He held Judith while Alex fixed a shelter for her, then knelt down and placed her on the plaid Gowrie had spread inside the small fur-lined tent.

"I promised the lass she would have a warm bed inside tonight," Alex remarked.

Iain shook his head. "She stays with us," he announced.

No one argued over that statement. The men turned and walked away just as Iain was covering Judith with a second plaid. She never opened her eyes. The back of his hand deliberately brushed against her cheek.

"What am I going to do about you?" he whispered.

He hadn't expected an answer and didn't get one. Judith snuggled under the blankets and let out a little moan.

He was reluctant to leave her. He forced himself to stand up, and grabbed one of the plaids Alex offered him on his way over to the nearest tree. He scratched his shoulders against the bark, sat down, leaned back and closed his eyes.

A sound he'd never heard before awakened him in the dead of the night. The other men heard it, too.

"What in God's name is that noise?" Brodick muttered.

Judith was making all the racket. She was wide awake, miserable too. She thought she was in jeopardy of freezing to death. She couldn't quit shivering. Her teeth were chattering, and that was the sound the men were hearing.

"I didn't mean to wake you, Brodick," she called out. Her voice literally trembled with each word. "I was moaning over the cold."

"You're really cold, lass?" Alex asked. The surprise in his voice was evident.

"I just said that I was," she answered.

"Come here," Iain commanded, sounding a bit surly.

Judith responded in kind. "No."

He smiled in the darkness. "Then I'll have to come to you."

"You stay away from me, Iain Maitland," she commanded. "And if you think to order me to quit being cold, I'm warning you now—it won't work."

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