The Secret (Highlands Lairds #1) - Page 35

The Secret (Highlands Lairds #1) - Page 35

With Judith's prodding, Helen continued to talk about her life for over an hour. She'd married late in life and was so thankful her late husband, Harold, had saved her from becoming a spinster, she spent every waking minute trying to make his home as perfect as she could.

She admitted that, after he died, she actually enjoyed not having to scrub the floors every single day, but boredom soon caught up with her. She laughed and confessed that she was now scrubbing and cleaning just as often as she did before her husband died.

Judith was surprised when Helen admitted she missed preparing special meals for her husband. She loved to create new dishes and swore she knew at least a hundred ways to prepare mutton.

"Do you like being a midwife?" Judith asked.

"No."

Her answer was quick, emphatic. "I had already assisted with at least twenty birthings before I came here," she explained. "And I thought, after Harold died, that my expertise could be a way to… fit in. I won't be helping any more. After the confrontation over Isabelle, I decided I would rather find some other way to…"

She didn't finish. "Helen, do you believe that a woman must suffer horribly in order to please her God?"

"The Church—"

"I'm asking you what you believe," Judith interrupted.

"All birthings have some pain," Helen replied. "But I cannot believe that God would blame every woman for Eve's sins."

She looked worried after making that whispered admission. Judith hurried to ease her fear. "I'm not going to tell Father Laggan. I also believe God is more merciful than the Church would have us believe. I try not to question the wisdom of our leaders, Helen, but sometimes I cannot help but shake my head over some of the confusing rules."

"You speak the truth," Helen agreed. "We cannot do anything about these dicates, or find ourselves excommunicated," she added.

"I've strayed from my topic," Judith said then. "I would like to talk to you about my friend, Frances Catherine, and ask your help."

"What is it you want me to do?"

Judith explained. "I know you've just told me you have decided against assisting in any more birthings, Helen, but I don't have anyone else to turn to and I'm very worried about my friend. If it becomes complicated, I won't know what to do."

Helen couldn't turn her request down, not after the delicate way she had taken care of Andrew.

"Frances Catherine is afraid of you," Judith explained. "We will have to convince her you don't believe in being cruel. We'll have to keep this quiet too. I don't want Agnes to interfere."

"She will try," Helen announced. "She'll have to," she added with a nod. "It won't do you any good to talk to her. Agnes is set in her ways. She's furious with you too, for snatching her daughter's husband."

Judith shook her head. "Iain wasn't married to Cecilia," she remarked. "And Frances Catherine told me he. didn't have any intention of offering for her."

Helen shrugged. "Agnes is spreading rumors," she whispered. "She's saying he had to marry you to protect your honor."

Judith's eyes widened. "Do you mean she's saying that Iain and I… that I…"

She couldn't go on. Helen nodded. "She's saying it, all right. She's hinting you're with child. God help her if our laird gets wind of her vile gossip."

"I hope he doesn't hear," Judith replied. "It would upset him."

Helen agreed. Judith tried to leave then, but Helen mentioned she was the very first company she'd had in over three months. Judith immediately sat back down again.

They visited for another hour before Judith stood up to leave.

"I've enjoyed our talk, Helen," she said. "I'll speak to Frances Catherine this evening, and I would appreciate it if you would go and see her tomorrow. Together, I'm certain we can rid her of her worries."

Judith was almost out the doorway but suddenly stopped. She turned back to Helen. "Did you know the women all take turns preparing the meals for Iain and the two elders living at the keep?"

"Yes," Helen answered. "It's just the way it's always been done. I volunteered to help, but Harold took ill right then, and there wasn't time."

"Is it a chore for the women?"

"Oh my, yes," she replied. "Especially in the winter months. There's seven women, one for each day of the week, you see, and with their own families to look after, it's most difficult."

"But you love to cook," Judith reminded her.

"Yes."

"Where do you get the food you prepare?"

"The soldiers keep me supplied," she explained. "And some of the women give me their leftovers."

Judith frowned. What Helen had just explained sounded like charity to her. "I don't know how to cook," Judith remarked.

"You're the laird's wife. You don't need to know how."

"Andrew needs direction from a man as well as a woman, doesn't he?"

"Yes, he does," Helen agreed, wondering why Judith was jumping from one topic to another.

"And you love to cook. Yes, that's the answer. It's all settled then, Helen, unless, of course, you don't want to," Judith rushed out. "It's not a favor I'm asking or an order I'm giving, and I would think about this long and hard before making up your mind. If you decide against my suggestion, I'll understand."

"What suggestion, milady?"

"To become the housekeeper," Judith explained. "You could direct the serving girls and cook the meals. You'll have all the help you wanted, of course, but you would be in charge. I think it's a sound plan. You and Andrew would have all your meals at the keep, and he'd be with Gelfrid and Graham quite a lot, and Iain, too, of course, though probably not as often. The elders are in need of someone to pamper them, and it seems to me you're in need of pampering someone besides Andrew."

"You would do this for me?"

"You don't understand," Judith countered. "We need you far more than you needs us. Still, I believe you can make your place at the keep. It would probably be easier if you live there. I wouldn't rush you on that decision. We would let Andrew get used to the arrangement of having his mama at the keep all day, and then broach the topic of moving. There's a large room behind the buttery with a nice window."

Judith realized she was getting ahead of herself and immediately paused. "Will you think about this suggestion?"

"I will be honored to take on this duty," Helen blurted out.

It was nicely settled. Judith left the cottage in high spirits. She felt as though she had just made an important change, a positive one that would benefit Helen and her son as much as it would her household.

At supper that evening she explained the request she'd made. She expected a little grumbling from Gelfrid, for she'd already decided that of all the elders, he most hated change of any kind, but he didn't give her any argument at all.

Iain walked into the hall in the middle of the discussion. He took his place at the head of the table, nodded to Graham and Gelfrid, then reached over and hauled Judith close for a quick, no nonsense kiss.

Graham filled the laird in on Judith's decision. Iain didn't say anything when the elder finished. He simply nodded.

"What do you think about the idea?" she asked.

He reached for the goblet Judith had placed in front of him and took a long drink of the cool water. "It's fine with me," he remarked.

"I'm thinking it will be a nice change," Graham announced. "We won't have to put up with Millie's supper any longer. Lord, how I've grown to hate Wednesdays."

"Is Helen a fair cook?" Gelfrid asked.

"She's exceptional," Judith replied. She turned to Graham. "As for changes, there is another I would like to make, but I'll need your cooperation… Iain's, too."

Graham frowned. "Is this a matter for the council?"

"No," she replied. She turned back to her husband. "I'm certain you'll think this is a minor change and not worthy of the council's attention."

"What is this change you're hinting at?" Gelfrid asked.

She took a breath. "I want Sundays."

Patrick walked into the great hall just as Judith blurted out her request. "You might as well give it to her, Iain," he called out.

"What does the lass mean, she wants Sundays?" Gelfrid asked Graham.

"I don't believe we heard her correctly," Graham replied. "She couldn't have said—"

Gelfrid interrupted Graham. "If the lass would learn to roll her words together, the way we do, she'd be better understood."

Duncan came strutting into the hall then, followed by Vincent and Owen. Judith leaned closer to Iain. "Is there going to be a meeting tonight?"

He nodded. "We won't start until after you've explained this bizarre request for Sundays, though," he said.

She shook her head. He raised an eyebrow. She leaned closer, until she was perched on the edge of her chair. "I don't wish to discuss this matter in front of the entire council," she told him in a low whisper.

"Why not?" he asked. He reached over and brushed a strand of her hair back over her shoulder.

She put her hand on top of his. "Because it's a private matter you must agree to support first," she explained.

"Graham and Gelfrid were here when you—"

She cut him off. "They're part of our family now, Iain. This private matter must certainly be discussed with them."

"Did you hear that, Graham?" Gelfrid bellowed. "She's calling us family."

Judith turned and gave the elder a disgruntled look for deliberately listening in on her whispered conversation. He grinned in reaction.

She turned back to Iain. "I will be happy to explain up in our chamber if you could spare a few minutes."

Iain wanted to laugh. He didn't dare, of course, for his wife would have her tender feelings injured if he showed any amusement now. She was looking very worried, out of sorts. Yet there was a faint blush covering her cheeks. Was the matter she wished to discuss an embarrassment of some kind? He let out a sigh. He did know that if he took her upstairs to discuss this problem, there wouldn't be time for talk. He'd take her to bed instead, and while he would find great satisfaction in touching his wife, he would also miss the meeting. Since he'd called the council together to once again discuss the possibility of an alliance, he couldn't leave them.

The elders were filling in the spaces at the table. A young warrior Judith hadn't met before carried a jug of wine over and filled each elder's goblet. Iain waved the squire's hand away when he reached for his goblet. Judith hadn't realized she'd been holding her breath. She let it out when her husband declined the drink.

Owen noticed Iain's refusal. "What's this? You've got to toast your own marriage, son," he announced. "This is our first meeting with you, a married man, advising us."

"Why does he advise you?"

Judith hadn't realized she'd blurted out the thought aloud until it was too late. She certainly gained everyone's attention. The elders were all staring at her with puzzled expressions.

"What kind of question is that?" Owen asked.

"He's the laird," Vincent reminded her. "It's his duty to advise us."

"It's all upside down up here," Judith remarked with a nod.

"Explain what you're meaning, lass," Graham suggested.

She wished she hadn't started the topic, and God, how she hated being the focus of everyone's attention. She could feel her face heating with a blush. She tightened her hold on Iain's hand, then said, "Your laird is young and doesn't have your wisdom. It would seem to me that you, as the elders, should do the advising. That is all I meant."

"It's the way it's always been here," Gelfrid countered.

The other elders all nodded agreement. Judith noticed that the squire, with Owen's prodding, had moved forward and was now filling Iain's goblet full of the dark, red wine. Her mind was centered on asking Gelfrid another question, however, and she forced herself not to overreact to the sight of her husband having a drink or two.

"Gelfrid, please don't think me insolent for asking this question," she began. "But I was wondering if you've become so set in your ways, you cannot consider making any changes at all, even if they benefit the entire clan."

It was a bold question to ask. Judith worried over his reaction. Gelfrid rubbed his jaw while he gave the matter consideration, then shrugged.

"I'm living in a household with an Englishwoman," the elder announced. "And I'm thinking that's a change, all right. I must not be too set in my ways, Judith."

She was pleased to hear this, Iain guessed, when she lessened her grip on his hand.

"Let's have our toast now, and then the laird's wife can give us her reasons for wanting Sundays," Graham announced.

"Did you hear that, Owen? Our lass is wanting Sundays," Gelfrid told his friend in a loud whisper.

"She can't be having that, can she?" Vincent asked. "You can't have a day all to your own. It belongs to everyone."

"It's peculiar," Duncan muttered.

"She's English," Vincent thoughtfully reminded his companions.

"Are you saying she's backward?" Owen asked.

"She isn't backward," Gelfrid defended.

The discussion was getting out of hand. Iain was trying not to smile. Judith was trying not to become irritated. She smiled at Gelfrid for defending her, pleased that he at least realized she wasn't at all backward.

He ruined her good opinion of him, however, when he remarked, "She's just illogical. Don't think she can help it. Do you, Owen?"

Judith glared at Iain, a silent message that he really should defend her now. He winked at her.

"Here, here," Graham blurted out to gain everyone's attention. He stood, lifted his goblet into the air, and then gave a long-winded toast to the bride and groom.

Everyone, including Iain, downed the contents of their goblets. The squire immediately hurried forward again to pour more wine into each goblet.

She edged her chair back, away from the table. It was an instinctive habit, born years ago, and she was barely aware of what she was doing.

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