The Secret (Highlands Lairds #1) - Page 7

The Secret (Highlands Lairds #1) - Page 7

Her long wheat-colored hair was lifted by the breeze as she hurried over to the stable master. Iain couldn't help but notice… and appreciate the gentle sway of her hips. There was such grace in her every movement. Aye, she was beautiful, all right. Her eyes were the prettiest violet he'd ever seen, but it was the wonderful sound of her laughter that had truly affected him. It was filled with such joy.

Iain had already made the decision to force the woman to come home with him, a decision he hadn't shared with his companions. When the time came, they would do what he ordered. Lady Judith had certainly surprised him, though. She was a woman of her word. And yet she was English. He shook his head over the contradiction.

"What do you make of her?"

Iain's second cousin, Gowrie, asked that question. He stared after the Englishwoman while he scratched his dark beard in a rhythmic motion, as if that repetitive action might help him come to some important conclusion. "She's a pretty little thing, isn't she? I'm thinking I'm warming to the lass."

"I'm thinking you talk too much," Alex muttered. "Hell, Gowrie, you warm to anything wearing a skirt."

Gowrie smiled. He wasn't the least offended by his friend's insulting remarks. "She's keeping her word to our Frances Catherine," he said. "And that's the only reason I'd ever warm to an Englishwoman."

Iain had heard enough of the idle chatter. He was in a hurry to get started. "Let's get the h.e.l.l out of here," he ordered. "I can't breathe when I'm in England."

The other warriors were in full agreement. Iain turned in his saddle to look at Brodick. "She'll ride with you," he said. "Tie her satchel behind your saddle."

The blond-haired warrior shook his head. "You ask too much, Iain."

"I'm not asking," Iain countered, his voice as hard as sleet. "I'm giving you an order. Now try telling me no."

Brodick backed away from the threat. "Hell," he muttered. "As you wish."

"She can ride with me," Gowrie suggested. "I won't mind."

Iain turned to glare at the soldier. "Aye, you won't mind. You aren't touching her, either, Gowrie. Not now, not ever. Understand me?"

He didn't wait for Gowrie's agreement, but turned his gaze back to Brodick. "Move," he commanded.

Judith had just mounted her steed when the warrior reached her side. "You're riding with me," he announced. He paused when he saw the number of baggages tied on the mount's back. Then he shook his head. "You'll have to leave—"

He never got to finish his explanation. "Thank you so much for offering, sir, but there really isn't any need for me to ride with you. My mare's quite strong. She's certainly fit enough for this journey."

Brodick wasn't accustomed to being contradicted by a woman. He didn't know how to proceed. He started to reach for her, then stopped in mid action.

Iain noticed the soldier's hesitation. Then Brodick turned to look at him and he saw the confusion in his expression.

"She's being difficult," Alex muttered.

"Aye, she is," Gowrie agreed with a chuckle. "I was wrong, Alex. She isn't pretty. She's d.a.m.n beautiful." Alex nodded. "Aye, she is," he admitted.

"Will you look at Brodick?" Gowrie said then. "If I didn't know better, I'd guess he was about to swoon."

Alex found that remark vastly amusing. Iain shook his head and nudged his mount forward. Judith hadn't noticed Brodick's discomfort. She was occupied smoothing her skirts over her ankles. She adjusted the heavy cloak over her shoulders, tied the black cord into a bow, and finally reached for the reins Paul was patiently holding for her.

Iain motioned Brodick out of the way, then edged his mount closer to Judith's side. "You may take only one bag with you, lass."

His voice didn't suggest she argue with him. "I'm taking every one of them," she countered. "Most are presents I've made for Frances Catherine and the baby, and I'm not about to leave them behind."

She thought she was acting very courageously, considering the fact that the huge warrior was trying to glare her soul right out of her body. It was apparent he liked getting his own way. She took a quick breath, then added, "I don't wish to ride with that young man, either. My horse will carry me just as well."

He didn't say anything for a long minute. She was matching him frown for frown, too, until he pulled out his sword from the sheath at his side. She let out a little gasp then. Before she could move out of his path, he'd raised the sword, shifted his position in his saddle, and then used the blade to slice through the ropes holding her precious baggage.

Her heart was pounding inside her chest. She calmed down when he put his sword away. He motioned for his friends to come forward, and then ordered them to each take one of her satchels. Judith didn't say a word while the disgruntled-looking soldiers secured her baggage behind their saddles, but she let out another startled gasp when the leader tried to s.n.a.t.c.h her out of her saddle. She slapped his hands away.

It was a puny defense against such a big man, and it was obvious to her that he was vastly amused by her action, too. The sparkle in his eyes said as much. "It will be a hard ride up the mountains, lass, and it would serve you better if you rode with one of us."

She shook her head. The idea of being so close to the handsome man wasn't actually displeasing, but she didn't want him to think of her as inferior. She'd had enough of that in the past to last her a lifetime.

"I'm very fit for this journey," she boasted. "You needn't worry about me keeping up."

Iain held his exasperation. "There will also be times when we'll have to ride through hostile territory," he patiently explained. "Our mounts are trained to be quiet—"

"My horse will be just as quiet," she interjected.

He suddenly smiled at her. "Will she be as quiet as you are?"

She immediately nodded.

He let out a sigh. "I suspected as much."

She didn't realize he'd given her an insult until he reached for her again. He didn't give her time to push his hands away, either. The man was determined, all right. He wasn't overly gentle when he lifted her from her saddle and settled her on his lap. He hadn't considered the indecency of the position. Her legs straddled his saddle in just the same way a man's would when he was riding, and if that wasn't an embarrassment, the fact that the backs of her thighs were plastered on top of his certainly was. She could feel her face turning pink with a blush.

He wouldn't let her correct the shameful position. His left arm was tightly wrapped around her waist. She couldn't move at all, but she could breathe, and she guessed that would have to be enough. Judith waved farewell to the servants watching the spectacle.

She was a little irritated with the warrior for using such high-handed tactics to get his way. She still noticed how warm she was feeling in his arms, though. She noticed his scent, too, and found the faint masculine aroma extremely pleasing.

Judith leaned back against his chest. The top of her head was just below his chin. She didn't try to look up at him when she asked him to give her his name.

"Iain."

She bumped his c.h.i.n when she nodded to let him know she'd heard his gruffly whispered reply. "How are you related to Frances Catherine?"

"Her husband is my brother."

They'd crossed the drawbridge now and were climbing the hill adjacent to the family cemetery. "And his name is Patrick?"

"Yes."

It was apparent he wasn't in the mood to talk. Judith pulled away from him and turned to look at him. He was staring straight ahead, ignoring her. "I've only one more question to ask you, Iain," she said. "Then I promise to leave you to your thoughts."

He finally looked down at her. Judith's breath caught in her throat. Dear Lord, he had beautiful eyes. It was a mistake, asking him to give her his full attention, she decided, because his penetrating gaze robbed her of her concentration.

It was perfectly safe to find him attractive, she decided. Nothing could ever come of it, of course. She was going to his home, yes, but she was going to be an outsider, a guest. Once there, he probably wouldn't have anything to do with her, or she with him.

Besides, she was English. No, nothing could ever come from this harmless attraction.

"Are you married?" She'd blurted out that question.

She seemed more surprised than he was.

"No, I'm not married."

She smiled.

He didn't know what to make of that. She'd asked her question and now he could ignore her. The problem, unfortunately, was that he couldn't take his gaze off her.

"I've one more question to ask you," she whispered. "Then I'll leave you to your thoughts."

They stared into each other's eyes a long minute. "What is this question you wish to ask me?"

His voice was whisper soft. It felt like a caress to her. That reaction confused her and she had to take her gaze away from the handsome devil so she could sort out this bizarre reaction.

He noticed her hesitation. "This question of yours must not be very important."

"Oh, it is important," she countered. She paused another minute while she tried to remember what the question was. She stared at his c.h.i.n so she could concentrate. "Now I remember," she announced with a smile. "Is Patrick kind to Frances Catherine? Does he treat her well?"

"I imagine he's kind to her," he answered with a shrug. Almost as an afterthought he added, "He would never beat her."

She looked up into his eyes so he could see her amusement over that comment. "I already knew he wouldn't beat her."

"How would you know?"

"If he ever raised a hand against her, she'd run away from him."

It was such an outrageous thing to say, Iain didn't know how to respond. He quickly regained his wits. "And where would she run?"

"To me."

Since she'd sounded so sincere, he knew she believed what she'd just told him. Iain had never heard of anything so preposterous. A wife simply did not leave her husband, no matter what the reason.

"None of the Maitlands would ever touch a woman in anger."

"Iain, what do you make of this?"

Alex shouted that question, interrupting their discussion. Judith turned just in time to see the warrior motion to the grave she'd destroyed the evening before. She immediately turned her gaze to the line of trees at the top of the ridge. Iain felt her tense in his arms. "Do you know who did this?"

"Yes," she answered, her voice whisper soft.

"Who does the grave—"

She didn't let him finish. "It was my father's grave."

They'd reached Alex's side when she made that remark. The green-eyed warrior glanced over at Iain, then back to Judith. "Would you like us to put the headstone back before we go, lass?"

She shook her head. "I'd only have to knock it down again if you did, but I do thank you for offering."

Alex couldn't hide his astonishment. "Are you telling us you did this?"

There wasn't a hint of embarrassment on her face when she answered him. "Yes, I did this. It took me a good hour. The ground was as hard as rock."

The Scot looked appalled. Then Iain drew her attention. He nudged her face up to his with the back of his thumb. "Why would you do such a thing?"

She lifted her shoulders in a dainty shrug. "It seemed appropriate at the time."

He shook his head. The atrocity she'd just admitted to seemed completely out of character with what he'd already surmised about her. He'd guessed she was a sweet-tempered, innocent woman. Stubborn, too. The way she'd argued over riding her own mount indicated that flaw. Still, she didn't seem the type of woman who would desecrate holy ground.

"This is your father's grave?" he asked again, determined to get to the bottom of this intriguing puzzle.

"Yes," she answered. She let out a little sigh. "You needn't be concerned about this. The grave's empty."

"Empty."

"Yes."

She wasn't going to explain further. He decided not to prod. She'd gone completely rigid in his arms. It was obvious the topic was distressing to her.

Iain motioned for Alex to take the lead again, then nudged his mount into line behind him. Once the cemetery was well behind them, Judith visibly relaxed.

They didn't speak again until the sun was setting and it was time to make camp for the night. They'd ridden long hours. The men were in a much more jovial mood now that they'd crossed the border and were once again back in Scotland.

Judith was exhausted by the time they finally stopped. Iain noticed when he helped her dismount. She could barely stand up on her own. His hands spanned her waist to hold her steady until she regained the strength in her legs.

He could feel her trembling. He stared at the top of her head while she stared at the ground. Since she didn't mention her obvious problem, he didn't, either. She was holding on to his arms, but as soon as she let go, he released his grip on her waist.

He immediately turned to his stallion. She slowly made her way around his horse and continued on toward the stream she'd glimpsed halfway hidden behind the line of trees adjacent to the small clearing. Iain watched her walk away and was again struck by her regal bearing. She moved like a princess, he thought to himself.

Lord, she really was a beauty. D.a.m.n innocent, too. The way she blushed over every little thing was telling. She was enchanting, too.

This one could get to his heart. Iain was so stunned by that sudden realization, he almost blanched. He continued to stare at the trees where Judith had disappeared, but he was frowning now.

"What's got you so riled?" Alex asked from behind.

Iain rested his arm on the saddle of his mount. "Foolish thoughts," he replied.

His friend glanced over to the trees where Judith had gone, then turned back to Iain. "Foolish thoughts about a beautiful Englishwoman, perchance?" Iain shrugged. "Perhaps," he allowed. Alex knew better than to pursue the topic. His laird didn't look at all happy over his confession. "It's going to be a long journey home," he predicted with a sigh before turning back to take care of his own steed.

Judith had been able to maintain her dignified walk until she was safely hidden by the trees. Then she all but doubled over and grabbed hold of her lower back. Lord, she ached. Her backside and thighs felt as though someone had taken a whip to her.

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