The Secret (Highlands Lairds #1) - Page 6

The Secret (Highlands Lairds #1) - Page 6

Judith braced herself against his anger. "But I'm not through talking about this," she insisted.

Tekel was stunned. Judith had always been such a quiet, shy child. She'd never argued with him before. What had come over her? "Has Millicent been putting fancy ideas into your head?" he demanded.

"I know about my father."

He squinted at her a long minute before reaching for his ale. Judith noticed his hand shook.

"Of course you know about your father. I've told you all about the wonderful baron. He was—"

"His name is Maclean and he lives somewhere in the Highlands. He isn't an English baron. He's a Scottish laird."

"Who told you this nonsense?"

"Aunt Millicent told me a long time ago."

"It's a lie," he screamed. "Why would you listen to Millicent. My sister—"

"If it isn't true, why do you object to my going to the Highlands?"

He was too muddleheaded from the ale to think of a convincing answer. "You're not going and that's the end of it. Do you hear me?"

"The Devil himself won't keep me from going to Frances Catherine," she countered in a calm voice.

"If you leave, you won't be welcomed back here."

She nodded. "Then I won't come back here."

"You thankless bitch," he shouted. "I tried to do right by you. The stories I made up about your father…"

He didn't go on. Judith shook her head. "Why did you make up those stories?" she asked.

"I wanted to give you something to hold on to, especially since your mother couldn't stomach the sight of you. You knew that. I pitied you and tried to make it a bit better for you."

Judith's stomach coiled and tightened so intensely now that she almost doubled over. The room seemed to be closing in on her. "I heard mother say that Uncle Herbert was inferior because he had tainted blood running through his veins. She feels the same way about me, doesn't she?"

"I don't have any easy answers," he replied. He sounded weary, defeated. "I could only try to soften her influence over you."

"The sword hanging over the hearth… who does that really belong to?" she asked.

"It's mine."

"And the ruby ring I wear on this chain around my neck?" she asked. She lifted the ring from its resting place between her breasts. "Is this yours, too?"

He snorted. "The ring belongs to the b.a.s.t.a.r.d Maclean. The intricate design around the stone holds some meaning to the family. Your mother took it with her when she left just to spite him."

Judith let go of her death grip on the ring. "What about the grave?"

"It's empty."

She didn't have any more questions. She sat there another minute or two, with her hands f.i.s.t.e.d in her lap. When she next looked at her uncle, he was sound asleep. Within seconds he was snoring. She took the empty goblet out of his hand, removed his tray from the other side of the bed, blew out the candle flame, and then left the room.

She suddenly knew what she wanted to do. She could destroy one lie.

The sun was just setting when she ran across the drawbridge and climbed the hill to the cemetery. She didn't slow down until she reached the empty grave. She kicked the wilted flowers away, then reached for the ornately carved headstone at the top of the mound. It took her a long while to tear the headstone out of the hard ground, longer still to destroy it completely.

The following morning she was ready to leave. She didn't return to her uncle's chamber to tell him good-bye.

All of the servants rushed around her, fighting for a chance to help. Judith hadn't realized until now that their loyalty belonged to her far more than to her uncle. She was humbled by their united show of support. Paul, the stable master, had already prepared the swaybacked pack mare with the baggages she would be taking with her. He was saddling her favorite steed, a speckle-legged mare named Glory, when Jane came rushing outside with another satchel full of food she promised would last the length of the journey. From the weight of the baggage and the way Jane was struggling to carry it to the stables, Judith concluded there was enough food packed inside to feed an army.

Samuel, the watch guard, shouted the arrival of the Scottish party. The drawbridge was immediately lowered. Judith stood on the top step of the keep, her hands at her sides, a smile of greeting on her face, forced though it was, for she was suddenly feeling extremely nervous.

When the warriors reached the wooden planks of the drawbridge and their horses thundered across, her smile faltered.

A shiver of worry passed down her spine. There weren't any women in the group. There were only warriors, four in all, and they looked like giant barbarians to her. Her worry moved into her stomach as soon as they rode closer and she got a good look at their faces. Not one of them was smiling. God's truth, they looked downright hostile to her.

They were all dressed in their hunting plaids. Each clan, Judith knew, used two separate plaids. The muted colors of gold, brown, and green were preferred for hunting wild game… or men, for those colors blended into the forest more easily and hid them from their prey. The more colorful plaids were used for all other occasions.

Their bare knees didn't take Judith by surprise. She was used to their unusual dress, as all the men who attended the border games wore their knee-length plaids. She could even identify some of the clans by their colors. In England, a baron's banner carried his colors, but in Scotland, as Frances Catherine had explained, the laird and his followers were recognized by the colors of their dress.

What did surprise Judith was their angry expressions. She couldn't understand why they were so obviously cranky. Then she decided the journey must have made the men weary. It was a paltry excuse, but it was the best she could come up with.

None of the warriors dismounted when they reached her. Three of them formed a line behind the man she assumed was their leader. No one said a word for a long, long while. They all rudely stared at her. She couldn't stop herself from rudely staring back, though her attention was centered solely on their leader. She didn't think she'd ever seen such a magnificent sight in all her life. The man fascinated her. He was certainly the biggest of the lot. His broad shoulders fairly blocked out the sun shining down behind him, and only rays of light surrounded him, giving him an invincible, magical appearance.

He wasn't magical, though. He was only a man, a ruggedly handsome man at that, and surely the most muscular warrior in the group. The plaid he wore had opened on the side of his left thigh. The bulge of sleek muscle there looked as hard as roped steel. Since it wasn't proper for her to stare at such a private area, she turned her gaze back to his face. His expression didn't indicate he'd noticed her taking a little peek at his thigh, and she let out a sigh over that blessing.

Lord, she thought, she could be content to stare at the warlord for the rest of the day. His hair was a dark, rich brown in color, with just a little hint of curl to it. His bare arms were as bronzed as his face. He had a striking profile. Oh yes, he was a fit one all right, but in truth it was the color of his eyes that held her interest the longest. They were a beautiful, brilliant shade of gray.

The warrior's stare was intense, unnerving. There was such an aura of power radiating from him, it almost took her breath away. The intensity in the way he was staring at her made her want to blush, but she couldn't imagine why. Dear God, she hoped this one wasn't Frances Catherine's husband. He seemed to be a terribly rigid man, controlled too. Judith didn't think he was a man given to much laughter.

Yet there was definitely something about him that pulled at her heart, something that made her want to reach out to him. It was an odd reaction to the Scotsman, yet certainly no more odd than the fact that the longer she stared up at him, the more her worry dissipated.

She was going to have a wonderful adventure. That realization popped into her mind all of the sudden. It didn't make any sense to her, but she was too confused by her reaction to the warrior to try to sort it out now. She only knew that she was suddenly feeling completely free of all her worries. Safe, too. The look on the warlord's face indicated he had little liking for the duty he'd undertaken, but she was certain he'd protect her on this journey to his home.

She didn't even care that there weren't any ladies riding e.s.c.o.r.t for decency's sake. Hang convention. She couldn't wait to get started. She was going to leave the lies, the hurt, the rejection, all the betrayals behind her. She made a promise to herself then and there. She would never come back here. Never. She wouldn't even agree to a visit, no matter how brief. She would stay with her aunt Millicent and Uncle Herbert, and by God, if she wished, she would call them Mother and Father, too, and no one was going to stop her.

Judith felt an almost overwhelming urge to shout with laughter just to give sound to the happiness she was feeling. She suppressed that desire, knowing full well the Scots wouldn't understand. How could they? She barely understood herself.

It seemed the silence had gone on for hours, yet she knew only a few minutes had actually passed. Then Paul pushed open the stable doors. The noise of the old hinges squeaking and groaning for fresh oil drew the warriors' immediate attention. All but the leader turned to look in that direction. Two, Judith noticed, reached for their swords. It dawned on her then that the warriors considered themselves to be in hostile territory and would naturally be on their guard against attack.

No wonder they were all so cranky. Their frowns made good sense to her now. Judith turned her attention back to the leader. "Are you Frances Catherine's husband?"

He didn't answer her. She was about to repeat her question in Gaelic when the warrior directly behind the leader spoke up. "Patrick's with his wife. We're his relatives."

There was such a burr in his voice, she had difficulty understanding him. The warrior nudged his mount forward. When he reached his leader's side, he spoke again. "Are you Lady Judith Elizabeth?"

She smiled. No one but Frances Catherine ever added Elizabeth to her name. It was a sweet reminder to her of days gone by. "I am," she answered. "Though you may call me Judith. Please tell me, sir. How is Frances Catherine?"

"Fat."

She laughed at his curt reply. "She's supposed to be fat," she said. "But she's also feeling well?"

He nodded. "Madam, we've come a long way to hear you tell us you won't come back with us. Kindly give us your refusal now and we'll be on our way."

Her eyes widened in surprise. The one who had so casually insulted her had dark auburn-colored hair and pleasing green eyes.

She turned to look at the others. "Do you all believe I won't go back with you?" she asked, her voice incredulous.

Every single one of them nodded.

She was astonished. "You came all this way just to hear me tell you no?"

They all nodded in unison again. Judith couldn't contain her amusement. She burst into laughter.

"Do you laugh at our Frances Catherine because she innocently believed you would keep your word?" one of the warriors asked.

"Nay, sir," she blurted out. "I'm laughing at you."

She decided she shouldn't have been so honest with the Scot. He was looking like he wanted to throttle her now.

She forced herself to quit smiling. "I do apologize if I've offended you, sir," she said. "I was laughing at you, but only just a little. Your comments, you see, took me by surprise."

He didn't look placated by her apology.

Judith let out a little sigh over the sorry beginning of the conversation and decided to start over. "What is your name, sir?"

"Alex."

"I'm pleased to meet you, Alex," she announced with a quick curtsy.

He rolled his eyes heavenward in exasperation. "Madam, you're wasting our time," Alex returned. "If you'll only give us your refusal, we'll take our leave. You don't have to go into your reasons for declining. A simple no will suffice."

They immediately all nodded again. She thought she might strangle on her laughter.

"I'm afraid I won't be able to give you what you're so obviously hoping for," she began. "I have every intention of keeping my word to my friend. I'm most anxious to see Frances Catherine again. The sooner we leave, the better, to my way of thinking. I will of course understand if you would like to refresh yourselves before we depart."

She had astonished them with that little speech, she decided. Alex looked stunned. The others, save for the leader, who still hadn't shown any outward reaction at all, looked only mildly ill. Judith didn't laugh, but she did smile. She'd deliberately spoken in Gaelic, too, just to impress them, and from the way they were staring at her, she assumed she'd accomplished that goal.

Judith decided she must be certain to remember every one of their expressions so she could recount every single detail of this initial meeting to Frances Catherine. Her friend would surely find this just as amusing as she did.

"You really mean to come with us, lass?" Alex asked.

Hadn't she just said as much? Judith hid her exasperation. "Yes, I really do mean to come with you," she answered in a forceful, no nonsense tone of voice. She turned her gaze to the leader again. "You had better understand that it doesn't matter if you want my company or not. Nothing's going to stop me from keeping my promise. If I have to walk to Frances Catherine's home, then by all that's holy, I will. Now then," she added in a much softer voice. "Have I made myself clear enough for you?"

The leader neither nodded nor spoke, but he did raise one eyebrow. Judith decided to take that reaction as a yes.

Paul drew her attention with a long whistle. She motioned for him to bring out the horses. She lifted the hem of her blue gown and hurried down the steps. She was just passing the line of warriors when she heard one mutter, "I can already tell she's going to be difficult, Iain."

She didn't even pretend she hadn't heard that remark.

"'Tis the truth I probably will be difficult," she called out as she continued on toward the stables. Her laughter trailed behind her.

Because she didn't turn around, she didn't catch their smiles over her boast.

Iain couldn't seem to take his gaze off the woman. He was certainly astonished she meant to keep her word, of course, but d.a.m.n it all, he hadn't expected to be attracted to the woman. It took him by surprise, this appalling response, and he wasn't at all certain what he could do about it.

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