The Secret (Highlands Lairds #1) - Page 20

The Secret (Highlands Lairds #1) - Page 20

The change in her astonished Iain. There wasn't a hint of panic in her expression or her voice. Judith looked serene… and in command.

She slowly walked across the room to stand in front of Isabelle.

"Good Lord, Isabelle, it's as hot as purgatory in here," she announced with forced cheerfulness.

Isabelle didn't look up at her. Judith knelt down on the floor in front of her. She slowly removed the cocoon of covers from Isabelle's head and shoulders. Then she gently tilted her face up so she could look at her.

Tears streamed down Isabelle's cheeks. Her hair was dripping wet too, and hung in limp clumps around her shoulders. Judith brushed her hair back over her shoulder, then mopped her cheeks dry with the edge of the quilt. When she was finished with that motherly task, she took hold of Isabelle's hands.

The fear in Isabelle's eyes made Judith want to weep. She didn't, of course, because her new friend needed her strength now, and Judith was determined to see that she got it. She could weep later, after the two of them had gotten through this frightening experience.

She squeezed Isabelle's hands. "I want you to listen carefully to what I'm going to say to you," she instructed. She waited for Isabelle's nod, then continued. "We're going to do just fine."

"You'll stay with me? You won't leave?"

"I'll stay," she answered. "I promise."

Isabelle nodded.

"How long have you been having these pains?" Judith asked.

"Since early morning," Isabelle answered. "I didn't even tell Winslow."

"Why did you wait?"

"I was hoping the pains would go away," she answered in a low whisper. "And I was worried he wouldn't listen to me and insist on going to get Agnes to help me. It took me a long time to convince my husband to ask Iain for permission to get you."

Tears started down Isabelle's cheeks again. She gripped Judith's hands now.

"Thank you for coming."

"I'm pleased to be here," Judith answered, hoping God would understand and forgive her for not wanting to come here at all. She was still so worried inside, her stomach was aching, and the heat in the room was draining her of her strength.

"Isabelle, it's all right for you to be a little afraid, but you should also be very excited and joyful, too. You're about to bring a new life into this world."

"I would rather Winslow do it."

Judith was so surprised by that remark, she started laughing. Isabelle smiled.

"We'd better get organized," Judith said then. "Is the heat in here comforting to you?"

Isabelle shook her head. Judith stood up and turned to the two men standing at the door. She smiled when she saw the look on Iain's face. The poor man was very ill at ease. He was trying to leave the cottage. Winslow wasn't letting him. Isabelle's husband was blocking the door while he frowned at Judith.

She smiled at him. "Winslow, please pull the furs back from the windows. We need fresh air now."

She turned to Iain next. He was reaching for the door latch. She stopped him with her question. "Is that beam of wood above strong enough to hold your weight?"

"It should be sturdy enough," he answered.

He tried to leave again. "Wait," she called out. She hurriedly looked through the piles of linen stacked on the foot of the bed but couldn't find anything long enough to suit her purposes. Then she remembered the plaid. The material was quite long, narrow in width, and perfect for her needs. She took the plaid over to Iain. "Will you please loop this over the beam for me? Test your weight against it, too. I wouldn't want the wood to come crashing down on Isabella."

"You think to tie her?" Winslow blurted out.

She shook her head. "I want to give Isabelle something to hold on to when she's standing," she explained. "This is for her comfort, Winslow."

The warrior wasn't convinced until his wife nodded. Then he helped Iain see to the chore. When they were finished, the narrow strips of the plaid hung down at equal lengths on both sides of the beam.

Winslow wanted to add another log to the fire. Judith wouldn't let him. She excused both men from the cottage. Winslow hesitated. "I'll be standing right outside the door, wife. If you want me to get Agnes, just call out. I'll hear you."

"I won't be sending for her," Isabelle replied, her voice an angry shiver.

Winslow let out a weary sigh. His worry for his wife was evident. So was his frustration. He threaded his fingers through his hair, took a step toward Isabelle, then stopped. Judith thought he wanted a moment of privacy. She quickly turned around and pretended to be busy poking at the fire with the prod.

She heard whispering behind her. A moment later the sound of the door closing reached her. She went back to Isabelle to get to the chore of preparing her for the birthing. She tried to pull the quilts away, but Isabelle held tight. She was trying to hide under the covers, too.

"Isabelle, are you having a pain now?"

"No."

"Then what is it?"

It took Isabelle a long time to gather enough courage to tell Judith what was wrong. She whispered her confession that her water had broken and she'd ruined the bedding. She sounded ashamed, humiliated. And after she had finished explaining, she burst into tears.

"Please look at me," Judith asked in a gentle voice. She waited until Isabelle finally turned her gaze up to hers, then forced a very matter-of-fact tone of voice. "Giving birth is a miracle, Isabelle, but it's also messy. You're going to have to put your embarrassment aside and be practical about this. Tomorrow you can blush all day long if you want to, all right?"

Isabelle nodded. "You aren't embarrassed?" she wanted to know.

"No," Judith answered.

Isabelle looked relieved. Her face was still bright red, and Judith wasn't certain if it was from blushing or from the horrible heat inside the cottage.

The next hour was spent on necessary preparations. Judith kept up a constant chatter while she stripped the bed, bathed Isabelle from head to foot, washed and dried her hair, and helped her into a fresh nightgown. All those duties were performed in between the growing contractions.

Maude had told Judith that she'd learned over the years to give the mothers as many instructions as possible. She even made some up just to keep them occupied. She explained that if the woman had plenty to do, she felt more in control of the situation, and the pain. Judith followed that advice now, and it really did seem to help Isabelle. The contractions were strong, and coming close together. Isabelle found she preferred standing during the pains. She wrapped the ends of the hanging plaid around her waist and held on tight. She had moved from whimpers to low, gut-wrenching groans. Judith felt completely helpless during the pains. She tried to soothe her with words of praise, and when Isabelle asked, she rubbed her lower back to ease the ache.

The last hour was the most grueling. Isabelle became extremely demanding. She wanted her hair braided, and she wanted it braided now. Judith didn't even think about arguing with her. The sweet-tempered woman turned into a raving shrew, and when she wasn't bellowing orders, she was blaming Winslow for causing her this unbearable pain.

The unreasonable storm didn't last long. Judith's prayers were answered, too. The delivery wasn't complicated. Isabelle decided to use the birthing stool. She let out a blood-chilling scream, then another and another, while she beared down. Judith knelt on the floor in front of her, and when Isabelle wasn't gripping the leather handles built into the sides of the stool, she was gripping Judith's neck. She would have strangled Judith without even noticing, and Lord, she was a strong woman. It took all Judith's strength to pry her fingers away so she could draw a breath.

A fine baby boy was born minutes later. Judith suddenly needed five extra pairs of hands. She wanted to call to Winslow to come inside to help. Isabelle wouldn't hear of it. Between her laughter and her tears, she explained she wasn't about to let her husband see her in such an undignified position.

Judith didn't argue with her. Isabelle was weak but radiant. She held her son in her arms while Judith took care of the other necessary matters.

The baby appeared to be healthy. His cries were certainly l.u.s.t.y enough. Judith was in awe of the little one. He was so tiny, so perfect in every way. She counted to make certain he had all his fingers and toes. He did, and she was nearly overcome with emotion over that miracle.

She wasn't given time to fully react to the wonderful event, however, as there was still work to be done. It took Judith another hour to get Isabelle cleaned up and settled in bed. Both she and her son had been bathed. The infant was wrapped in a soft white blanket and then covered with his father's woolen plaid. He was sound asleep by the time she finished taking care of him. She placed him in the crook of Isabelle's arm.

"Before I fetch Winslow, I have one more instruction to give you," Judith said. "I want you to promise you won't let anyone… do anything to you tomorrow. If Agnes or Helen want to put packing inside, you mustn't let them."

Isabelle didn't understand. Judith decided she would have to be more blunt. "Some of the midwives I spoke to in England believed in packing the birthing canal with ashes and herbs. Some even used dirt to form a paste. Maude convinced me that the packing does more damage than good, but the ritual is dictated by the Church, and what I'm asking you could get you into trouble…"

"I won't let anyone touch me," Isabelle whispered. "If anyone asks, perhaps it would be better for me to pretend that you've already taken care of the matter."

Judith let out a sigh of relief. "Yes," she said. "We'll pretend that I've already taken care of the chore," she added as she adjusted the covers at the bottom of the bed.

She glanced around the room to make certain she had everything cleaned up, nodded with satisfaction, and then went to fetch Isabelle's husband.

Winslow was waiting outside the door. The poor man looked horribly ill. "Is Isabelle all right?"

"Yes," Judith answered. "She's ready to see you."

Winslow didn't move. "Why are you weeping? Is something wrong?"

Judith hadn't realized she was crying until he'd asked her that question. "Everything's fine, Winslow. Come inside now."

She moved out of his way in the nick of time. Winslow was suddenly overcome with eagerness to get to his family. The initial meeting between father and son should be a private affair, and Judith wasn't going to linger. She pulled the door closed and leaned against it.

She was suddenly overcome with exhaustion. The emotional ordeal she'd been through had drained her of her strength and her composure. She was shaking like a leaf in a windstorm.

"Are you finished here?"

Iain asked that question. He was standing at the end of the narrow walkway, leaning against the stone ledge. His arms were folded across his chest in a relaxed stance. He looked rested to her.

She thought she probably looked like hell. "I'm finished here for the time being," she answered. She started walking toward him. The night breeze felt wonderful against her face, but it was making her trembling increase. Her legs were shaking so much they could barely support her.

Judith felt like she was falling apart inside, and took a deep breath in an effort to regain control. The only saving grace was that Iain would never know how close she was to breaking down. Such weakness, even in a woman, would surely disgust him. It would be a humiliation for her, too, to weep in front of him. She did have some pride after all. She'd never needed to lean on anyone else, and she wasn't about to lean on anyone now.

She took a deep, cleansing breath. It didn't help. The shivers increased. She told herself she was going to be all right; she wouldn't disgrace herself. She'd gone through a frightening ordeal, yes, but she had gotten through it, and she could certainly get back to her own bed before she completely lost her dignity and started in sobbing and gagging and God only knew what else.

It was a logical plan to Judith, but her mind was telling her one thing and her heart was insisting upon another. She needed privacy now, yet at the same time she desperately wanted Iain's comfort, his strength. She'd used all hers up tonight. Heaven help her, she needed him.

It was an appalling realization. She hesitated for the barest of seconds. And then Iain opened his arms to her. She lost the battle then and there. She started running. To him. She threw herself against his chest, wrapped her arms around his waist and burst into uncontrollable sobs.

He didn't say a word to her; he didn't have to. His touch was all she needed now. Iain was still leaning against the ledge. Judith stood between his legs with her head tucked under his chin, crying without restraint until she'd soaked his plaid. She muttered incoherent phrases between her sobs, but he couldn't make any sense out of what she was saying to him.

He thought the storm was almost over when she started hiccuping. "Take deep breaths, Judith," he instructed.

"Please leave me alone."

It was a ridiculous order, considering that she had a death grip on his shirt. Iain rested his c.h.i.n on the top of her head and tightened his hold on her.

"No," he whispered. "I'm never going to leave you alone."

Odd, but that denial made her feel a little better. She mopped her face with his plaid, then sagged against him again.

"Everything went well, didn't it?" Iain already knew the answer to that question. The radiant smile on her face when she'd opened the door for Winslow had told him all was well, but he thought that if she was reminded of the happy outcome, she might calm down enough to get rid of this unreasonable reaction.

Judith didn't want to be reasonable yet. "As God is my witness, Iain, I'm never going through that again. Do you hear me?"

"Hush," he replied. "You'll wake England."

She didn't appreciate his jest. She did lower her voice, though, when she told him her next vow. "I'm never going to have a baby. Never."

"Never's a long time," he reasoned. "Your husband might want a son."

She shoved herself away from him. "There isn't going to be a husband," she announced. "I'm never getting married, either. By God, she can't make me."

He pulled her back into his arms and shoved her head down on his shoulder. He was determined to comfort her whether she wished it or not. "Who do you mean when you say she can't make you?"

"My mother."

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