The Secret (Highlands Lairds #1) - Page 44

The Secret (Highlands Lairds #1) - Page 44

"Isabelle, get hold of yourself," Winslow ordered. "You're acting like you're sotted."

She bit her lower lip to stop herself from laughing. "What are you doing up at this time of night?" she asked. "Why aren't you home with our son?"

"My aunt's there," Winslow answered.

"Is she going to stay the full night?"

Winslow thought that was an odd question to ask. "Of course," he answered. "I'll sleep up at the keep."

Isabelle frowned at her husband. He raised an eyebrow over her reaction. "Isabelle, what in God's name is the matter with you?" he asked in exasperation.

Isabelle didn't answer. Judith walked over to her husband. "Why aren't you in bed?"

"I was waiting for you."

She was overwhelmed by his admission. Her eyes immediately filled with tears. Iain put his arm around her shoulders and turned to leave. Helen bid everyone good-night and went back inside the cottage.

Isabelle had inadvertently blocked their exit through the courtyard entrance when she moved forward to confront her husband. She didn't realize Iain and Judith were standing right behind her. "I don't want to sleep with your aunt," she blurted out. "I want to sleep with you. Judith says we only had to wait six weeks, husband, and it's been seven now."

Winslow pulled his wife into his arms and out of the way so Iain and Judith could get past them. He leaned down and whispered into his wife's ear.

Alex, Gowrie, and Ramsey caught Judith's attention. The three warriors came striding down the hill. When they were close enough for her to see their expressions, her breath caught in her throat. The men looked furious.

She moved closer into Iain's side. "Why are they awake?" she whispered.

"There was a meeting," he answered. "It lasted longer than expected."

Iain didn't seem inclined to explain what had happened, and she was too exhausted, and frightened, to ask him. After tossing and turning for quite a long time, finally Judith fell into a fitful sleep.

Chapter 15

"Judith, wake up. It's time to leave."

Iain was gently shaking her awake. She opened her eyes and found her husband sitting on the side of the bed. One look at his dark expression and her mind immediately cleared of sleep.

She sat up, pulled the covers around her and stared at him. "Leave?" she whispered, trying to understand. "I'm leaving now?"

"Yes." His voice was hard, his expression just as determined.

Why was he acting so cold? Judith grasped his arm when he tried to stand up. "So soon, Iain?"

"Yes," he answered. "Within the hour, if possible." He pulled her hand away from his arm, leaned down to kiss her brow, and then stood up and walked over to the door.

She called out to him. "I would like to say good-bye to Frances Catherine."

"There isn't time," he told her. "Pack only one valise. Bring it to the stables. I'll meet you there."

The door closed behind her husband. She promptly burst into tears. She knew she was being pitiful. She didn't care. She wasn't thinking clearly either. She had told Iain she didn't want to stay here. He was simply giving her what she wanted.

D.a.m.n it all, how could he let her go? Didn't he realize how much she loved him?

Judith washed, then dressed in her dark royal-blue gown. She brushed her hair, packed her valise, and when she was finally ready to leave, she took one last look around her chamber.

Her plaid was hanging on the peg near the door. She didn't want to leave it behind. She folded the garment and put it in her valise.

She quit weeping. She quit feeling sorry for herself, too. Lord, she was fighting angry now. A husband who truly loved his wife wouldn't let her leave him. She needed to tell Iain that. He did love her. She didn't have any doubts about that. It didn't matter either that his actions were so confusing to her. She would simply make him explain what he was doing… and why.

She couldn't imagine life without him. Judith ran out the doorway and down the steps. Her valise was clutched tightly in her arms.

Graham was standing in the entrance, holding the door. Judith could see the huge crowd gathered beyond in the courtyard.

She tried to walk past the elder without looking at him. He touched her shoulder to get her attention. She stopped, but stubbornly kept her gaze downcast.

"Why won't you look at me, lass?" Graham asked.

She looked up into his eyes. "I didn't want to see your disdain for me, Graham. You made it perfectly clear how you feel about me the other night."

"Oh, Judith, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you. It was just such a… surprise, and I was in such a fury because we'd been captured and I thought you had deceived all of us. I'm ashamed of myself, Judith. Can you find it in your heart to forgive a foolish old man?"

Her eyes clouded with tears. She slowly nodded. "I forgive you. I have to go to Iain now, Graham. He's waiting for me."

"Talk to him, Judith. Don't let him do this. We want him to stay."

The anguish in his voice tore at her heart. "He's planning to take me to England," she explained. "Then he'll come back."

He shook his head. "Nay, lass. He won't come back."

"Graham, he has to," Judith argued. "He's your laird, for God's sake."

"He isn't laird."

Judith was too stunned to mask her reaction. She dropped her valise and stared at Graham. He stooped down to pick up her bag. She tried to take it from him. Graham held tight and shook his head at her.

"Did you vote for or against this decision?"

She didn't wait for Graham's answer. She straightened her shoulders and ran outside. The crowd parted when she reached the bottom step and turned toward the stables.

Graham followed her. The other elders filed outside and lined up on the top step of the keep to watch the departure.

The crowd was behind Judith now. The stable doors opened and Iain walked outside, leading his stallion. Patrick walked by his brother's side. He was talking to Iain, but wasn't getting much of a response. Iain's face was impassive. Judith hadn't realized she'd stopped until her husband looked up, spotted her in the distance and motioned for her to come to him.

She didn't move. The significance of what she was doing hit her full force. Dear God, she didn't want to leave. She'd packed the Maitland plaid so she would have a reminder of her happiness here. She would most certainly wrap herself in the soft material during the cold winter nights ahead and try to find some comfort in her memories of happier times. What rubbish, she thought to herself. She was still going to be miserable without Iain and all the other good friends she had made over the past few months.

Her worries about being an outsider ceased to be important. She was a Maitland and she really did belong here. Aye, she had found her place, and no one, not even her husband, was going to make her leave.

She was suddenly in a hurry to get to Iain so she could explain this change of heart. She hoped to heavens she would make sense.

She picked up her skirts and started running. Isabelle stopped her when she called out.

"Judith? Will I like living in England?"

Judith whirled around to look at her friend. She was certain she'd misunderstood her. "What did you just ask me?"

Isabelle separated herself from the crowd and walked forward to stand next to Judith. She held her infant son in her arms. Winslow's aunts followed. Judith recognized the two gray-haired ladies. Both had been sitting at the table in Isabelle's cottage the day of the priest's inquisition.

"Will we like living in England?" Isabelle asked again.

Judith shook her head. "You can't go with me. You would hate living there. I don't even like England," she added in a stammer. "And I'm English."

"We'll get along just fine."

Helen called out that announcement. She hurried forward to stand beside Isabelle. Andrew stood behind his mother, holding his valise.

Judith didn't know what to make of the women. "But you can't just—"

Another woman came forward. Judith knew who she was, but she couldn't remember her name. Her daughter, Elizabeth, had won the arrow contest the day of the festival. Her mother had beamed with pleasure when Iain presented the prize to her daughter.

"We'll be coming along, too," the mother announced.

And then another and another came forward to proclaim their intention. Judith turned around to look at Iain for assistance. Her breath caught in her throat when she saw the crowd of warriors lined up behind him.

Were they going with them, too?

She couldn't make any sense out of what was happening. Children surrounded her now, and their mothers, clutching their baggage in their arms, stood behind them.

"We'll be taking every Sunday for rest in England, won't we?"

Judith wasn't certain who had asked the question. She nodded and slowly walked over to her husband. She knew she looked stunned. Iain was going to have to talk some sense into these people, she supposed.

Her husband kept his gaze on her. His arm rested on his stallion's back. His expression was contained, but when she was close enough to notice, she could see the surprise was there, in his eyes.

She stopped when she was just a few feet away from him. She wasn't even certain what she was going to say until the words were out of her mouth.

"You know I love you, don't you, Iain?"

She'd asked him her question in a near shout. Iain didn't mind. "Aye, Judith," he answered. "I know you love me."

She let out a little sigh. He thought she was acting as though she'd finally worked everything out inside her mind… and her heart. She looked d.a.m.n.e.d pleased with herself.

She was smiling at him now, and getting misty-eyed. "And you love me," she said then, though in a much softer tone of voice. "I remember I told you I wouldn't live with a man who didn't love me. You immediately agreed. You did confuse me, for I didn't realize then how much you did love me. I wish you had told me sooner. You could have saved me a good deal of worry."

"You like to worry," he told her.

She didn't argue the point with him. "What are you planning to do? Take me back to England? Neither one of us belongs there, Iain. This is our home."

He shook his head. "It isn't that simple, wife. I can't stand by and allow the council to make decisions based on emotion."

"Because they voted to make someone else laird?"

"We didn't vote," Graham interjected. He dropped Judith's valise and hurried forward. "Your husband resigned when the other elders wouldn't agree to his alliance with the Macleans."

Judith turned to look at the keep. The four elders were huddled together, talking. Gelfrid was waving his hands in apparent agitation.

"We aren't going to England, Judith. We're going north. It's time we left," he added with a nod toward Graham.

She took a deep breath. Then she took a step back, away from her husband.

Her bold action certainly got his full attention. "I love you with all my heart, Iain Maitland, but I'm still going to have to defy you."

He looked astonished. She folded her arms in front of her and nodded to let him know she meant what she'd just said.

The women lined up behind her all immediately nodded their agreement.

"I cannot allow defiance, Judith."

The warriors standing behind her husband immediately nodded their agreement.

She took another step back. "I really should have been able to voice my opinion before you decided to resign," she announced. "I am your wife, after all, and I should have a say in the plans that affect me. I should also have a say in our future."

Iain was trying not to smile. Each time Judith made a statement, the women nodded their support.

Judith had considered herself an outsider. Look at her now, Iain thought to himself. She was surrounded by her family of Maitland sisters. She'd won their hearts, just as she had won his.

Iain knew he wouldn't be going anywhere with just his wife at his side. Lord, the entire clan seemed determined to go with them. Patrick had already announced his intention to follow with Frances Catherine and the babies as soon as she'd recovered from the birthing. Iain had expected that, of course. He hadn't expected the other warriors' support, however.

It was humbling to know his followers were so faithful. But such loyalty put him in one h.e.l.l of a position. He had resigned as laird, and no one was accepting his decision.

Not even his wife.

Iain stared at Graham now. He knew the torment the elder must be going through. His followers were deserting him. They were turning their backs on the old ways.

He tried to think of a way to salvage the old man's pride. It would be a stark humiliation for Graham if he left with the clan. Graham had been like a father to him. He couldn't shame him this way.

He couldn't back down, either. The issue was far too important.

"Judith, I can't change what has been decided," Iain announced.

"That isn't what you told me," she argued.

He shook his head. She thought he might not remember the discussion they had had the day they'd walked through the cemetery. She decided to remind him.

"I was railing against all the injustices in this world, and I specifically remember your suggestion to me. You said that if I didn't like something, I should work to change it. One whisper, added to a thousand others, becomes a roar of discontent, remember? Yes," she added with a nod. "Those were your words to me. Have you changed your mind, then?"

"Judith, it's… complicated," Iain said.

"Nay, it isn't complicated," Graham muttered. "It comes down to the old against the young. And that's the truth of it."

Judith's heart went out to the elder. He looked so defeated. "No," she denied. "It isn't the old against the young at all."

"Judith…"

She ignored Iain's warning tone of voice. She moved closer to Graham's side and took hold of his arm. The show of allegiance to the elder was deliberate, of course, for in Judith's mind Iain wasn't the one who needed his pride soothed. The warriors were all standing with him now. Graham's pride was another matter. Judith was determined to find a way to help him back down without losing his honor or his dignity.

"I believe it's experience and wisdom leading the young and strong," she told the elder. "Surely you can see that, Graham."

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