The Secret (Highlands Lairds #1) - Page 8

The Secret (Highlands Lairds #1) - Page 8

She walked around in circles until she'd worked the stiffness out of her legs. Then she washed her face and hands in the cold water. She felt better, hungry too. She hurried back to the clearing. She could hear the men talking, but as soon as she came into their view, they all closed their mouths.

Iain, she quickly noticed, wasn't there. She felt a moment of pure panic. It made her stomach lurch, so quickly did the feeling come upon her. Then she spotted his stallion. The fear immediately eased. The Scottish warrior might very well leave her, but he'd never leave his faithful steed, would he?

She was alone in the forest with four men who were virtual strangers to her. If word of this circumstance ever reached anyone in England, her reputation would be tattered. Her mother would probably want to k.i.l.l her, too. Odd, but that last thought didn't bother Judith much at all. She couldn't seem to feel anything toward her mother now. Uncle Tekel had excused his sister's cold attitude toward her only daughter with the lie that Judith was a constant reminder of the man she'd loved and lost.

Lies, so many lies.

"You'd best get some rest, lass."

Judith jumped a foot when Alex's deep voice sounded behind her, and her hand flew to her breast. She took several deep breaths before she answered him. "We must have our supper before we rest. What have you done with the baggage?"

Alex motioned to the opposite side of the clearing. Judith immediately hurried across the area to set out the food. Jane had packed a pretty white cloth at the top of the satchel. She spread that on the hard ground first, then covered it with her offerings. There was thick, crusty black bread, triangles of red and yellowed cheeses, f.a.t strips of salted pork, and fresh, t.a.r.t green apples.

When everything was ready, she invited the men to join her. Then she waited. After a long moment she realized they didn't have any intention of eating with her. She could feel herself turning red with embarrassment. She sat on the ground, her legs tucked under the hem of her skirts, her hands folded together in her lap. She kept her head bowed so none of them would see her humiliation.

It had been a s.t.u.p.i.d mistake, offering to share her food with them. She was English, after all, and they probably couldn't stomach the thought of eating a meal with her.

She told herself she had nothing to feel embarrassed about. She wasn't acting like a rude barbarian. They were.

Iain walked back into the clearing and came to a quick stop. One look at Judith told him something was wrong. Her face was flaming red. He turned to look at his men next. Alex and Gowrie sat on the ground on the opposite side of the clearing with their backs resting against tree trunks. Alex was wide awake, but Gowrie looked as though he'd fallen asleep. Brodick, as silent as usual, was already fast asleep. He was so completely wrapped in his plaid, only the top of his white-blond hair was visible.

Iain noticed the mound of food in front of Judith and guessed what had happened. He let out a sigh, then clasped his hands behind his back and walked over to stand next to her. She wouldn't look up at him. As soon as she spotted him coming toward her, she turned her attention to repacking the food. She was stuffing the containers back into her satchel when he sat down across from her.

He picked up one of the apples. She snatched it out of his hand. He snatched it back. She was so surprised by that boldness, she looked up at him. His eyes sparkled with laughter. She couldn't imagine what he found so amusing. She continued to stare at him while he took a bite out of the apple. He leaned forward and offered the apple to her. She took a bite before she realized what she'd done.

Alex suddenly appeared at her side. Without a word he sat down and reached into the satchel. He pulled out all the containers she'd just repacked. After tossing a piece of bread to Iain, Alex popped a triangle of cheese into his mouth.

Then Gowrie joined them. Judith put one of the apples in her lap and shyly explained that she would save it for the sleeping warrior to eat in the morning.

"Brodick must be terribly weary to miss his supper," she remarked.

Alex snorted with amusement. "Brodick's not weary, just stubborn. He won't eat your apple tomorrow either, you being English and all. No, he—"

Judith's frown stopped his explanation. She turned to look at Brodick, judged the distance in her mind, then picked up the apple from her lap. "If you're really certain he won't eat the apple tomorrow, he must want to eat it now."

She had every intention of hurling the apple at the surly Scot, but just as soon as she leaned back to take aim, Iain grabbed hold of her hand.

"You don't want to do that, lass," he said.

He wouldn't let go of her hand. Judith struggled with him for a second or two before giving up. "You're right," she said. "It would be a waste of a perfectly good apple, a superior English apple, I might add, on a mean-tempered

Scot." She paused to shake her head. "I cannot believe he's related to Frances Catherine. You really can let go of my hand now, Iain."

He obviously didn't trust her. He did let go of her hand, but he kept the apple. Judith was too surprised by his sudden smile to argue with him.

"You don't want Brodick for an enemy, Judith," Alex said.

"But he's already my enemy," she replied. She had difficulty taking her gaze off Iain when she answered his friend. "Brodick made up his mind to dislike me even before we met, didn't he?"

No one answered her. Then Gowrie turned the topic. "If you retaliate each time you think someone dislikes you, you'll be throwing apples all day long once we reach the Highlands."

"Superior Scottish apples," Alex teased.

Judith turned to frown at the warrior. "I don't care if I'm liked or not," she said. "Frances Catherine needs me. That's all that really matters. My feelings certainly aren't important."

"Why does she need you?"

Brodick called out that question. Judith was so surprised the man had spoken to her, she turned and smiled at him.

Before she could form an answer, he said, "She has Patrick."

"And all of us," Alex said. "We're her relatives."

She turned around again. "I'm certain she's comforted by such loyalty, but you are men, after all."

Iain raised an eyebrow over that statement. He obviously didn't understand what she was talking about. He wasn't alone in his confusion, either. Gowrie and Alex looked just as puzzled.

"Frances Catherine has relatives who are women, too," Gowrie said.

"I would imagine she does," Judith agreed.

"Then why does she need you?" Gowrie asked. He reached down to take a third helping of the pork strips, but kept his gaze on her while he waited for her answer.

"For the birthing," Iain guessed aloud.

"Then she thinks she's going to have trouble?" Gowrie asked his laird.

Iain nodded. "It appears so."

Alex snorted. Judith took exception to that response. "Frances Catherine has every right to be worried. She isn't a coward, if that's what you're thinking. Why, she's one of the most courageous women I've ever known. She's strong and—"

"Now don't get yourself all worked up," Alex interrupted with a grin. "We are all aware of Frances Catherine's many fine qualities. You don't have to defend her to us."

"Does she think she's going to die?" Gowrie asked. He looked startled, as if he'd only just worked out that possibility in his mind.

Before Judith could answer him, Brodick called out, "If Patrick's woman thinks she's going to die, why did she send for you, English?"

She turned around to glare at the plaid cocoon. Then she turned around again. She decided to ignore the rude man. He could shout a hundred questions at her, but she wasn't going to answer any of them.

Everyone waited a long minute for Judith to explain. She occupied herself by once again gathering up the containers of food to put away.

Brodick's curiosity proved to be greater than his dislike for her. The rude man didn't just join the group, either. Nay, he elbowed his way in next to her, shoving Alex out of his way. She moved over to make room for the big man, but his arm still rubbed against hers when he was finally settled. He didn't recoil away. She looked at Iain to judge his reaction. His expression didn't tell her anything, though. He picked up the apple and tossed it to Brodick. She still refused to look at the warrior, guessing he was still scowling, but she heard him take a loud bite of the offering.

Then Iain winked at her. She smiled back.

"Are you going to make me ask you again, English?" Brodick muttered around a mouthful of apple.

She decided she was. "Ask me what, Brodick?" she asked, trying to sound sincere.

His sigh was fierce enough to knock over the containers. Judith bit her lower lip to keep herself from laughing.

"Are you pricking my temper on purpose?" he asked.

She nodded.

Alex and Gowrie both laughed. Brodick glared. "Just answer my question," he commanded. "If Frances Catherine thinks she's going to die, why in thunder did she send for you?"

"You won't understand."

"Because I'm Scots?''

She let him see her exasperation. "Do you know, I was always told the Scots could be mule-headed. I never believed such nonsense, of course, but now that I've met you, I believe I'll have to rethink my position on that issue."

"Don't get him riled," Alex warned with a chuckle.

"Aye, Brodick gets downright surly when he isn't in a good mood," Gowrie told her.

Her eyes widened. "Do you mean to say he's happy now?"

Both Gowrie and Alex nodded at the same time. Judith burst into laughter. She was certain they were jesting with her.

They were just as certain she'd lost her mind.

"We're all curious as to why Frances Catherine sent for you," Alex said once she'd controlled herself.

She nodded. "Since you don't know me at all well, I'll have to confess to a few of my considerable flaws so you'll understand. I'm extremely stubborn, arrogant too, though in truth I have absolutely nothing to be arrogant about. I'm sinfully possessive… did I mention that flaw?"

Everyone but Iain shook his head at her. Judith stared at their leader, though. His eyes had taken on such a warm glint. It was a little unnerving to have such a handsome man give her his full attention. She had to force herself to turn her gaze away so she could concentrate on what she was saying.

She stared at her lap. "Well, I am possessive," she whispered. "Frances Catherine is well aware of my many imperfections, too. 'Tis the truth she's counting on them."

"Why?" Brodick asked.

"Because she thinks she's going to die," Judith explained. She let out a little sigh before adding, "And I'm too stubborn to let her."

Chapter 3

They didn't laugh at her. Iain smiled, but none of the others showed any reaction to her sinful boast. She could still feel herself blushing. She hid that telling show of embarrassment by turning her attention to repacking the containers.

There wasn't any food left to put away. Once Brodick started eating, he didn't stop until the last morsel was gone.

Judith excused herself and went back to the stream to wash the sticky apple juice off her fingers. She sat down on the grassy s.l.o.p.e near the water and brushed her hair until her scalp tingled. She was exhausted, yet was enjoying the beauty and the peaceful solitude of her surroundings too much to move.

When the sun had almost disappeared from the sky, and only streaks of golden-orange shadows remained, Iain came to fetch her.

Her smile of greeting took him by surprise. He reacted by being a bit more gruff than usual. "You should get some sleep, Judith. Tomorrow will be a difficult day for you."

"Will it be difficult for you, too?" she asked. She stood up, patted the wrinkles out of her gown, and then started down the slope. In her haste she forgot about her brush. It got caught up in her feet, tripping her, and she went flying toward the ground. Iain moved with amazing speed for such a giant of a man. He grabbed her before she could pitch forward.

She was horrified by her clumsiness. She turned her gaze up to his to thank him for his assistance, but the words got caught in her throat and she could only stare up at him in confusion. The intensity of his gaze made her tremble inside. Her reaction to the warrior didn't make any sense to her, and because she couldn't reason it through, she couldn't control it.

"No."

He'd whispered that reply. She didn't have the faintest idea what he was talking about. "No, what?" she whispered back.

"No, tomorrow won't be difficult for me," he explained.

"Then it won't be difficult for me, either," she said.

His eyes sparkled with amusement. He smiled, too. Her knees went weak. Lord, he was a handsome devil. She had to shake her head because she'd noticed. She forced herself to turn away from him. He bent down to pick up her brush. She had the same intention. Their foreheads bumped. Her hand reached the brush first. His hand covered hers. The warmth of his fingers startled her. She stared down at his hand, marveling at the sheer size of it. It was at least twice the size of hers. His strength was so apparent to her. He could crush her if he wanted to, she thought to herself. The power radiating from him was fairly overwhelming, yet the gentleness in his touch was evident, too. She knew she could pull her hand away if she wanted to.

She stood up when he did, but she still didn't pull her hand away. Neither did he. They stayed that way for what seemed an eternity to Judith, yet she knew only a minute or two had actually passed.

Iain was staring down at her with a puzzled look on his face. She didn't know what to make of that. Then he suddenly j.e.r.k.e.d his hand away. The abruptness of that action embarrassed her. "You confuse me, Iain."

She hadn't realized she'd spoken those words out loud until she'd said them. She backed away from him, then hurried down the hill.

Iain watched her leave. His hands were clasped behind his back. When he realized how rigid his stance was, he forced himself to relax.

"Hell," he muttered to himself. He wanted her. Iain accepted that fact without flinching. He excused his behavior by telling himself any man with healthy appetites would be drawn to her. She was a d.a.m.n beautiful woman, after all, incredibly soft and feminine, too.

What shook Iain was the fact that he'd only just realized she was also attracted to him. He wasn't at all pleased by that realization, either. He knew he could control his own desires, but he didn't have any idea how he could control hers.

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