The Secret (Highlands Lairds #1) - Page 4

The Secret (Highlands Lairds #1) - Page 4

"I was given my mother's name, Frances, and my grandmother's name, Catherine, because—"

Graham cut her off with an impatient wave of his hand. He continued to smile so she wouldn't think he was overly irritated with her. "No, no, lass, I'm not wanting to hear how you came by two names now. I'm wanting to hear your reasons for wanting this English woman here."

She could feel herself blushing over the misunderstanding. "Lady Judith Elizabeth is my friend. I would like her to be by my side when my time comes to deliver this baby. She has already given me her word that she'll come to me."

"Friend and English? How can this be?" Gelfrid asked. He rubbed his jaw while he worried over that contradiction.

Frances Catherine knew the elder wasn't deliberately baiting her. He looked genuinely puzzled. She didn't believe anything she could say would make the elder understand. In truth, she didn't believe Patrick truly understood the bond she had formed with Judith so many years ago, and her husband wasn't nearly as set in his ways as Graham and the other elders were. Still, she knew she was going to have to try to explain.

"We met at the annual festival on the border," she began. "Judith was only four years and I just five. We didn't understand we were… different from each other."

Graham let out a sigh. "But once you did understand?"

Frances Catherine smiled. "It didn't matter."

Graham shook his head. " 'Tis the truth, I still don't understand this friendship," he confessed. "But our laird was correct when he reminded us that we do not break our pledges. Your friend will be welcomed here, Frances Catherine."

She was so overcome with joy, she sagged against her husband's side. She dared a quick look at the other council members then. Vincent, Gelfrid, and Duncan were smiling, but Owen, the elder she'd believed had slept through the questioning, was now shaking his head at her.

Iain noticed that action. "You don't agree with this decision, Owen?"

The elder kept his gaze on Frances Catherine while he answered. "I'm in agreement, but I think we should give the lass fair warning. She shouldn't be getting her hopes up for naught. I stand with you, Iain, for I too know from my own experiences that the English can't keep their pledges. They follow their king's habits, of course. That scoundrel changes his mind every other minute. This English woman with two names might have given Patrick's wife her promise, but she won't be keeping it."

Iain nodded agreement. He'd wondered how long it would take for the council to come to that same conclusion. The elders were all looking much more cheerful now. Frances Catherine continued to smile, however. She didn't seem to be at all worried that her friend might not keep her promise. Iain felt a tremendous responsibility to protect each and every member of his clan. Yet he knew he couldn't protect his sister-in-law from the harsh realities of life. She would have to suffer this disappointment alone, but once the lesson was learned, she would surely realize she could only count on her own family.

"Iain, who will you send on this errand?" Graham asked.

"I should go," Patrick announced.

Iain shook his head. "Your place is with your wife now. Her time draws near. I'll go."

"But you're laird," Graham argued. "It's beneath your station—"

Iain wouldn't let him continue. "This is a family matter, Graham. Since Patrick can't leave his wife, I must see to this duty. My mind's set," he added with a frown, to discourage further argument.

Patrick smiled. "I've never met my wife's friend, Iain, but I can well imagine that when she sees you, she'll have second thoughts about coming here."

"Oh, Judith Elizabeth will be pleased to have Iain's escort," Frances Catherine blurted out. She turned to smile at her laird. "She won't be at all afraid of you. I'm certain. I thank you, too, for offering to go on this journey. Judith will feel safe with you."

Iain raised an eyebrow over that last remark. Then he let out a long sigh. "Frances Catherine, I'm just as certain she won't willingly come up here. Do you want me to force her?"

Because she was staring at Iain, she didn't see Patrick give his brother a quick nod. "No, no, you mustn't force her. She'll want to come to me."

Both Patrick and Iain gave up trying to caution her against getting her hopes up. Graham politely excused Frances Catherine from the meeting. Patrick took hold of her hand and started for the doors.

She was in a hurry to get outside so she could hug her husband and tell him how pleased she was to be married to him. He'd been so… magnificent when he'd stood up for her. She'd never doubted that he would, of course, but she still wanted to give him the praise she thought he'd want to hear. Husbands needed their wife's compliments every now and again, didn't they?

She had almost reached the top step to the entrance when she heard the name Maclean mentioned by Graham. She stopped to listen. Patrick tried to tug her along, and so she kicked off her shoe and motioned for him to fetch it for her. She didn't care if he thought she was clumsy. She was too curious to hear what the discussion was about. Graham had sounded so angry.

The council wasn't paying her any attention. Duncan had the floor. "I'm against any kind of an alliance with the Dunbars. We don't need them," he added in a near shout.

"And if the Dunbars form an alliance with the Macleans?" Iain asked, his voice shaking with fury. "Get your head out of the past, Duncan. Consider the ramifications."

Vincent spoke up next. "Why must it be the Dunbars? They're as slick as wet salmon and as sneaky as the English. I can't abide the thought. Nay, I can't."

Iain tried to hold on to his patience. "The Dunbar land sits between the Macleans and us, I would remind you. If we don't align ourselves with them, they could very well turn to the b.a.s.t.a.r.d Macleans for protection. We can't allow that. It's simply a choice between bad or worse."

Frances Catherine wasn't able to hear any more of the discussion. Patrick had put her shoe back on her foot and was once again nudging her along.

She forgot all about praising her husband. The minute the doors closed behind them, she turned to Patrick. "Why do the Maitlands hate the Macleans?"

"The feud goes way back," he answered. "Before my time."

"Could it ever be mended?"

Patrick shrugged. "Why do the Macleans interest you?"

She couldn't tell him, of course. She'd be breaking her promise to Judith if she did, and she would never betray that confidence. There was also the telling fact that Patrick would have heart palpitations if he ever found out Judith's father was Laird Maclean. Aye, there was that consideration as well.

"I know the Maitlands are feuding with the Dunbars, the Macphersons too, but I hadn't heard about the Macleans. That is why I was curious. Why don't we get along with any of the other clans?"

Patrick laughed. "There are a few we call friends," he told her.

She decided to change the topic around to the praise she wanted to give him. Patrick walked her back to their home, and after giving her a long kiss in farewell, he turned to go back to the courtyard.

"Patrick, you do realize my loyalty belongs to you, don't you?" his wife asked.

He turned back to her. "Of course."

"I've always considered your feelings, haven't I?"

"Yes."

"Therefore, if I knew something that would upset you, it would be better for me to keep silent, wouldn't it?"

"No."

"If I told, it would mean breaking a promise to someone else. I couldn't do that."

Patrick walked back to stand directly in front of his wife. "What are you trying not to tell me?"

She shook her head. "I don't want Iain to force Judith," she blurted out, hoping to turn his attention away from the talk about old promises. "If she can't come here, he mustn't use force."

She nagged Patrick into giving his word. He reluctantly agreed, just to please her, but he had no intention of keeping his pledge. He wasn't about to let the Englishwoman break his wife's heart. Lying to Frances Catherine didn't sit well, though, and Patrick frowned over it all the way back up the hill.

As soon as Iain came outside, his brother called out to him. "We have to talk, Iain."

"Hell, Patrick, if you're going to tell me about another promise you've given your wife, I'll warn you now, I'm not in the mood to hear it."

Patrick laughed. He waited until his brother reached his side, then said, "I want to talk to you about my wife's friend. I don't care what it takes, Iain. Drag her here if you have to, all right? I won't have my wife disappointed. She has enough to worry about with the baby coming."

Iain started walking toward the stables. His hands were clasped behind his back, his head bowed in thought. Patrick walked by his side.

"You are aware, aren't you, that if I force this woman, I could very well start a war with her family, and perhaps, if the king decides to take an interest, a war with England?"

Patrick glanced over to see what his brother thought about that remote possibility. Iain was smiling. Patrick shook his head. "John won't involve himself in this unless he can gain something from it. Her family's going to be the problem. They certainly won't just let her leave on such a journey."

"It could get messy," Iain remarked.

"Will that matter?"

"No."

Patrick let out a sigh. "When will you leave?"

"Tomorrow, at first light. I'll talk to Frances Catherine tonight. I want to know as much as possible about this woman's family."

"There is something Frances Catherine isn't telling me," Patrick said, his voice halting, "She asked me about the feud with the Macleans…"

He didn't go on. Iain was looking at him as though he thought he'd lost his mind. "And you didn't demand she explain whatever the h.e.l.l it is she's keeping from you?"

"It isn't that simple," Patrick explained. "You have to be… delicate with a wife. In time she'll tell me what she's worrying about. I'll have to be patient. Besides, I'm probably jumping to conclusions. My wife's worrying about everything these days."

The look on Iain's face made Patrick sorry he'd mentioned Frances Catherine's odd behavior.

"I would thank you for going on this journey, but you'd only be insulted."

"This isn't a duty I embrace," Iain admitted. "It will take seven or eight days to reach the holding, and that means at least eight back with a complaining woman on my hands. Hell, I'd rather take on a legion of Macleans single-handedly than suffer this task."

Iain's bleak tone of voice made Patrick want to laugh. He didn't dare, of course, for his brother would only b.l.o.o.d.y his face if he so much as cracked a smile.

The two brothers walked along in silence for several more minutes, each caught up in his own thoughts.

Patrick suddenly stopped. "You can't force this woman. If she doesn't want to come here, then leave her be."

"Then why the h.e.l.l am I bothering to go at all?"

"My wife could be right," Patrick rushed out. "Lady Judith Elizabeth might willingly come here."

Iain gave his brother a hard glare. "Willingly? You're out of your mind if you believe that. She's English." He paused to let out a weary sigh. "She won't willingly come here."

Chapter 2

She was waiting on her doorstep.

Lady Judith had been given advance warning, of course. Two days before, her cousin Lucas had spotted the four Scottish warriors just a stone's throw away from the border crossing near Horton Ridge. Lucas hadn't been there by chance, he had been diligently following his aunt Millicent's instructions, and after nearly a month of twiddling his thumbs and daydreaming the early summer evenings away, he'd spotted the Scots. He'd been so surprised to see the full-blooded Highlanders, he almost forgot what he was supposed to do next. Memory quickly returned, however, and he rode at a dust-choking pace all the way to Lady Judith's remote holding to tell her she'd best prepare herself for the visitors.

There hadn't been much for Judith to do to ready herself. Since the day word had reached her through the intricate gossip vine that Frances Catherine was expecting, she'd had most of her baggage packed and all of her friend's gifts wrapped in pretty pink lace ribbons.

Frances Catherine's timing certainly could have been better. Judith had only just returned to her uncle Tekel's holding for her mandatory six-month visit when the message arrived. She couldn't pack up and go back to her aunt Millicent's and uncle Herbert's holding, for to do so would raise questions she wasn't about to answer, and so she hid her baggage and her gifts up in the loft of the stable and waited for her mother, who was home on one of her rare stopovers, to grow bored and leave again. Then she would broach the topic of her journey into Scotland with her guardian, Uncle Tekel.

Her mother's older brother was a soft-spoken, mild-mannered man, the complete opposite in temperament from his sister, Lady Cornelia, unless he was drinking. Then he'd turn as mean as a snake. Tekel bad been an invalid for as many years as Judith could remember back, and in the early years he rarely lost his temper with her, even in the evenings when the pain in his misshapen legs became too much for him to endure. She'd know about his discomfort when he'd start rubbing his legs and ask one of the servants to fetch him a goblet of hot wine. From past experience, the servants had learned to bring along a full jug. Some nights Judith was able to sneak away to her own chamber before her uncle became abusive, but other nights he would demand that she sit by his side. He'd become quite melancholy and want to hold on to her hand while he talked about the past, when he'd been young and fit, a warrior to be reckoned with. An overturned cart had crushed his knees into grains of sand when he was but twenty and two years in age, and once the wine dulled his pain and loosened his tongue, he would rail against the injustice of that freak accident.

He'd rail against Judith, too. She didn't let him know how much his anger upset her. A knot would form in her stomach and wouldn't go away until she was finally dismissed for the night.

Tekel's drinking got much worse over the years. He began to demand his wine earlier and earlier in the day, and with each gobletful he consumed, his disposition would change more and more dramatically. By nightfall he would either be weeping with self-loathing or screaming incoherent insults at Judith.

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