The Secret (Highlands Lairds #1) - Page 31

The Secret (Highlands Lairds #1) - Page 31

"With their wives."

He tried to move around her. She blocked his path. He didn't want to leave, and she didn't want to be responsible for forcing him out. The problem, of course, was his pride. She had to find a way to save that and get her way at the same time.

"How long have you lived here?" she blurted out, thinking to keep him busy answering her questions until she could come up with a sound plan.

"Almost ten years now. When I became laird, I moved in with my Annie. She died five years ago. I passed on the duties of laird to Iain six months ago, and I should have moved out then, but I lingered on. I've outstayed my welcome, I'm certain."

"And Gelfrid?" she asked when he tried to walk around her again. "How long has he lived here?"

Graham gave her a puzzled look. "Three years now," he answered. "He moved in after his wife passed on. Judith, this chest is getting heavy. Let me pass."

He once again tried to walk over to the doors. Judith rushed ahead of him. She pressed her back against the doors and splayed her arms wide. "I'm not letting you leave, Graham."

He was astonished by her boldness. "Why not?" he demanded.

He sounded irritated, but she didn't think he really was. "Why?" she asked.

"Yes, why?" he demanded again.

God help her, she couldn't come up with a single logical reason. Judith almost smiled then. She guessed that only left illogical reasons.

"Because you'll hurt my feelings." Judith could feel herself blushing. She felt like a fool. "Aye, you will," she added with a nod.

"What in God's name are you doing, Judith?" Brodick shouted from the landing above. Judith didn't dare move from the doors when she looked up. Gelfrid, she noticed, was standing next to Brodick.

"I'm not letting Graham and Gelfrid leave," she called out.

"Why not?" Brodick asked.

"I'm keeping them," she shouted back. "Iain kept me and I'm keeping them."

It was an outrageous and thoroughly empty boast, and completely ruined when Iain opened the doors. Judith went flying backward. Her husband caught her in his arms. Graham dropped the chest and reached out to catch her, too, and she suddenly found herself in a tug of war between the two men. She was blushing over her own clumsiness.

"Judith? What are you doing?" Iain asked.

She was making a complete idiot of herself. She wasn't going to tell Iain that. Besides, she was pretty certain he already knew.

"I'm trying to make Graham listen to reason," she explained. "Both he and Gelfrid want to move out."

"She won't let them," Brodick called out.

Iain squeezed Judith's hand. "If they wish to leave, you shouldn't interfere," he told her.

"Do you want them to move out?" she asked.

She turned and looked up at him, waiting for his answer. He shook his head.

She smiled. Then she turned around to confront Graham again. "You're being rude, Graham."

He smiled. Iain was appalled. "You must not speak to an elder in that tone," he ordered.

"And I mustn't hurt her feelings," Graham interjected with a nod. "If it's that important to you, lass, I suppose Gelfrid and I could stay on."

"Thank you."

Gelfrid had rushed down the steps. Judith could tell he was relieved. He was trying to glare at her and failing miserably. "We're bound to argue," he announced.

Judith nodded. "Yes," she answered.

"You won't be pounding on my back every time I get a tickle in my throat."

"No."

He grunted. "So be it. Brodick, put my things back. I'm staying on."

Gelfrid rushed back up the steps. "Watch what you're doing, boy. I won't have my chest bruised like that."

Iain tried to pick up Graham's chest for him. The elder pushed his hands away. "I'm not so old I can't manage," he declared. In a softer tone of voice, he said, "Son, your bride's a bit high-strung. She threw herself against that door and pitched such a fit, Gelfrid and I had to give in."

Iain finally understood exactly what had happened. "I appreciate your concession in giving in," he replied in a serious tone. "Judith's adjustment will take time, and I could certainly use some help with her."

Graham nodded. "She's bossy."

"Aye, she is."

"Gelfrid and I can work on that flaw."

"And I as well," Iain said.

Graham started back up the steps. "Don't know what you're going to do about her tender feelings, though. I don't suppose any of us can change that flaw."

Judith stood next to Iain and watched until Graham had disappeared around the corner. She knew her husband was staring at her. She guessed she really should offer him some sort of explanation for her behavior.

She took hold of his hand and turned to look up at him. "This is their home as much as it is yours," she said. "I didn't believe they really wanted to leave and so I…"

"You what?" he asked when she didn't continue.

She let out a sigh and turned her gaze to the floor. "I made a complete fool of myself in order to get them to stay. It was all I could think of to save their pride." She let go of his hand and tried to walk away. "They'll probably be talking about it for weeks."

He caught her when she reached the middle of the great hall. He put his hands on her shoulders and turned her to face him.

"You're far more perceptive than I am," he told her.

"I am?"

He nodded. "It never would have occurred to me that Graham and Gelfrid would want to stay."

"There's plenty of room."

"Why are you blushing?"

"Am I?"

"Are you feeling better today?"

She stared into his eyes while she thought about that question. "I wasn't feeling ill last night"

"I hurt you."

"Yes." She could feel her face burning with embarrassment. She turned her gaze to his chin. "I'm feeling much better today. Thank you so much for asking."

It took all his discipline not to laugh at her. Whenever Judith was embarrassed, she resorted to extreme politeness. He'd noticed that trait on the journey home, and he found it very endearing. After the night of passion they'd shared together, it was d.a.m.n amusing too.

"You're very welcome," he drawled out.

He nudged her c.h.i.n up and then leaned down. His mouth brushed over hers once, then once again. It wasn't enough for him. He deepened the kiss and hauled her up against him.

She forgot about being embarrassed and concentrated on kissing him back. He finally pulled back. She sagged against him.

"Judith, I left a plaid on the bed. You're supposed to wear it."

"Yes, Iain."

He kissed her again because she'd given her agreement so quickly. Brodick interrupted them by shouting Iain's name. He enjoyed their reaction, too. Judith jumped. Iain glared.

"Erin's waiting to give you his report," Brodick announced from directly behind them. "If you're about finished mauling your wife, I'll tell him to come inside."

"I'm leaving, too," Judith said.

Iain shook his head. "You don't tell me what you plan to do, Judith. You ask my permission."

He sounded like he was instructing a child. She was thoroughly disgruntled, but hid her reaction because Brodick was watching. "I see," she whispered.

"Where did you think you were going?"

"To collect the rest of my things from Frances Catherine's home."

She decided not to give him time to give her permission. She stretched up, kissed him, and then hurried to the door. "I won't be gone long."

"Aye, you won't," Iain called out. "You will be back in ten minutes, Judith. I have need to speak to you about a few important matters."

"Yes, Iain."

Iain watched her leave. As soon as the door shut behind her, Brodick started laughing.

"What the hell's so amusing?"

"I was appreciating the fire in your wife's eyes when you told her she needed your permission, Iain."

Iain grinned. He'd appreciated her reaction, too. The woman certainly had an untamed wild spirit inside her.

Erin came into the hall then, turning Iain's thoughts to far more important matters. He sent Brodick up the stairs to fetch Graham to hear what Erin had to say.

Judith started down the hill in a hurry, then slowed her pace. It was a glorious day. The sun was shinning bright and the breeze was actually warm. She tried to concentrate on the beauty around her instead of the highhanded way Iain had told her she would have to get his permission whenever she wanted to do something. Did he actually believe she should get his approval before going to visit her dear friend? She guessed he did.

Judith knew it was her duty to get along with her husband. She was supposed to obey him just as she had promised to during the wedding ceremony. There was also the telling fact that her husband happened to be the laird. Marriage, she decided, was going to take some adjustment in her thinking.

She'd stopped halfway down the hill and leaned against a f.a.t tree while she considered her new position. She loved Iain; she trusted him completely. It would be wrong for her to openly defy him. She would have to be patient, she supposed, until he had reached the point where he didn't find it necessary to look out for her every minute.

Perhaps Frances Catherine could offer a suggestion or two. Judith wanted to make Iain happy, but she didn't want him to turn her into a serf. Her friend had been married a long time and had certainly encountered a similar problem with Patrick. She wondered how she had gotten Patrick to listen to her opinions.

Judith pulled away from the tree and continued on down the walkway.

The first stone caught her in the center of her back. She was pitched forward and landed hard on her knees. She was so surprised, she instinctively turned around to see where the stone had come from.

She saw the boy's face just seconds before the second stone hit her. The jagged rock tore into the tender flesh directly below her right eye. Blood poured down over her cheek.

There wasn't time to scream. The third stone found its mark on the left side of her head. Judith collapsed on the ground. If there were other stones thrown, she didn't feel them. The force of the b.l.o.w to her temple knocked her into a dead faint.

Iain grew impatient when Judith didn't immediately return to the keep. He listened to Erin's report concerning the possibility of an alliance between the Dunbars and the Macleans, but his mind wasn't on the topic. Erin was telling him what he already knew, and the report was only being repeated for Graham's sake. The leader of the council hadn't believed such a union was possible, as both the Dunbar laird and the Maclean laird were too old and too set in their ways to give up any power for the sake of the other's clan. Now, listening to Erin's account of the meeting he'd actually observed, Graham was fully convinced.

And still Judith didn't return. His gut instinct nagged that something was wrong. He told himself she had simply lost count of the time. She was probably sitting at Frances Catherine's table, deep in discussion about some topic or other, and didn't realize the time. Reason didn't allay his worry, however.

He couldn't sit still any longer. He didn't announce his intention to leave the meeting. He simply got up and started for the entrance.

"Where are you going, Iain?" Graham called out. "We've need to form a plan now."

"I won't be gone long," Iain answered. "I'm going after Judith. She should have been back by now."

"She probably just lost track of time," Brodick suggested.

"No."

"Is she testing you, then?" the warrior asked, smiling over that possibility. "The woman's stubborn, Iain. She might have taken exception to your order."

Iain shook his head. His denial was vehement. "She wouldn't defy me."

Brodick abruptly stood up. He bowed to Graham and then hurried after his laird. Iain took the path down to his brother's cottage. Brodick rode his mount and took the long way around the trees.

Iain found her first. She was crumpled on the ground, resting on her side, and the only part of her face visible to him was covered with blood.

He didn't know if she was dead or alive. And in those seconds it took for him to get to her, he was consumed with terror. He was incapable of reasoning anything through. Only one thought raced through his mind. He couldn't lose her. Not now, not when she had only just come into his bleak life.

His roar of anguish echoed down the hills. Men came running, their swords drawn, ready. Patrick had just started out the doorway with his wife on his arm when the chilling sound reached him. He pushed Frances Catherine back inside, ordered her to bolt the door, and then turned and went racing up the hill.

Iain wasn't aware he'd shouted. He knelt down beside Judith and gently turned her until she was resting on her back. She let out a soft whimper. It was the sweetest sound he had ever heard. She hadn't been taken from him. Iain started breathing again.

His men gathered in a half circle around him. They watched as their laird slowly checked Judith for broken bones.

Brodick broke the silence. "What the h.e.l.l happened to her?"

"Why doesn't she open her eyes?" Gowrie asked at the same time.

Patrick shoved his way through the crowd and knelt beside his brother. "Is she going to be all right?"

Iain nodded. He didn't trust himself to speak yet. His attention was drawn to the swelling on the side of Judith's temple. He gently brushed her hair away to get a better look.

"Good Lord," Patrick whispered when he saw the damage. "She could have killed herself in the fall."

"She didn't fall." Iain made that statement in a voice shaking with fury.

Patrick was stunned. If she hadn't taken a fall, what happened to her?

Brodick answered his question before Patrick had time to ask it. "Someone did this to her," he said. He knelt down on one knee on the other side of Judith and began to gently wipe the blood away from her cheek with the edge of his plaid. "Look at the stones, Patrick. There's blood on one of them. This wasn't an accident."

It took every ounce of discipline Iain possessed not to let his rage take control. Judith came first. Retaliation could wait. He finished checking to make certain the bones in her legs and ankles were still intact, then turned to lift her into his arms. Patrick helped him.

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