The Secret (Highlands' Lairds #1)

The Secret (Highlands' Lairds #1) Page 18
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The Secret (Highlands' Lairds #1) Page 18

Judith shrugged. Her attention had already moved on, for she'd just spotted the birthing stool in the corner near the door. She immediately walked over to get a better look at the contraption.

Winslow noticed her interest and was reminded of a duty he needed to complete. "Iain, would you help me get this outside? It's upsetting to Isabelle," he said in a low whisper. "I'll take it back down to Agnes's home in the morning."

Judith was intrigued by both the design and the craftsmanship. The birthing stool was actually a horseshoe-shaped chair. The circular back was tall, sturdy-looking. The seat of the stool was only a narrow ledge fashioned to support the woman's thighs. Both the wooden handles and the sides were inlaid with gold, and the craftsman had used a clever hand to draw angels along the sides.

She tried to hide her curiosity. "Would you like to see what your mother sent to you, Isabelle?" she asked.

"Yes, please."

Judith carried the satchel over to the bed. She stood by the side, smiling over Isabelle's pleasure.

"Both your mother and your father are feeling well," she said. "Margaret wanted me to tell you your cousin Rebecca is marrying a Stuart in the fall."

Isabelle mopped at the corners of her eyes with a linen square. She made a grimace, clutched the covers with both hands and then let out a low sigh. Beads of perspiration appeared on her brow. Judith picked up the linen cloth she'd dropped, leaned over the bed and mopped the sweat away.

"You aren't feeling well, are you?" she whispered.

Isabelle shook her head. "I ate too much of Winslow's supper," she whispered back. "It was terrible but I was very hungry. I wish he'd let me out of bed. Why are you here?"

The question, asked so casually, caught Judith by surprise. "To give you your mother's gifts and tell you the news from home."

"No, I mean to ask you why you're here in the Highlands," she explained.

"My friend, Frances Catherine, asked me to come," Judith replied. "Why are you whispering?"

The pretty woman smiled. Then Winslow inadvertently ruined her budding good mood.

Iain had opened the door, and Winslow was carrying the birthing chair outside. Isabelle immediately got teary-eyed again. She waited until Iain had pulled the door closed and then said, "Frances Catherine's afraid, too, isn't she?"

"Isabelle, every woman becomes a little frightened before the birthing. Does the chair upset you?"

Isabelle nodded. "I won't use it."

She was getting as worked up as Frances Catherine had been when she talked about the birthing. Judith barely knew Isabelle, but she still felt terribly sorry for her. Her fear was so apparent.

"The chair isn't used for torture," Judith said. "Maude says the birthing mothers are happy to have such comfort. You're fortunate to have one here."


"Yes," Judith replied. "She says the chair is made in such a way that the woman's back and legs are nicely supported."

"Who is this Maude?"

"A midwife I know," Judith answered.

"What else did she say?" Isabelle asked. She quit twisting the top of the quilt.

"Maude stayed with me for a good six weeks," Judith explained. "She gave me a great deal of advice for Frances Catherine."

The clutter in the cottage was driving Judith to distraction, and while she repeated some of the midwife's suggestions, she folded the clothing and put the garments in a neat stack on the foot of the bed.

"You should be up and about," Judith said as she turned to tackle the mess on the table. "Fresh air and long walks are just as important as a peaceful mind."

"Winslow worries I'll fall," Isabelle said.

"Then ask him to walk with you," Judith suggested. "Being cooped up inside all day long would make me daft, Isabelle."

The sound of Isabelle's laughter filled the cottage. "It's making me daft too," she admitted. She pulled back the covers and swung her legs over the side.

"Are you a midwife in England?"

"Good heavens, no," Judith answered. "I'm not even married. I just made it my purpose to get as much information as possible from experienced midwives so I could help Frances Catherine."

"Do you mean to say that in England an unmarried woman can openly discuss this intimate topic?"

Isabelle sounded stunned. Judith laughed. "Nay, it isn't discussed at all, and my mother would be most unhappy if she knew what I was learning."

"Would she punish you?"


'''You took quite a risk for your friend."

"She would do the same for me," Judith answered.

Isabelle stared at Judith a long minute, then slowly nodded. "I don't understand such friendship between women, but I envy the trust you have in Frances Catherine. You put yourself at risk for her and tell me she would do the same for you. Yes, I do envy such loyalty."

"Didn't you have friends when you were growing up?"

"Only relatives about," Isabelle answered. "And my mother, of course. She was sometimes like a friend to me, when I was older and more of a help to her."

Isabelle stood up and reached for her plaid. The top of her head only reached Judith's chin, and her middle seemed to be twice the size of Frances Catherine's.

"Do you have friends here?"

"Winslow is my dearest friend," Isabelle answered. "The women here are kind to me, but we're all kept busy with our chores and there really isn't time to socialize."

Judith watched in amazement as the woman deftly wrapped the long narrow strip of material around and around herself. When she was finished, she was wearing a plaid from shoulders to ankles, with perfectly even pleats that widened over her swollen belly.

"You're very easy to talk to," Isabelle remarked in a shy whisper. "Frances Catherine must be happy to have your company. She needs someone besides Patrick to talk to," she added. "I think she's had a difficult time making her place here."

"Why do you suppose that is?" Judith asked.

"Some of the older women think she's uppity," Isabelle said.


"She keeps to herself," Isabelle explained. "I think she's homesick for her family."

"Are you homesick for your family?"

"At times I am," Isabelle admitted. "But Winslow's aunts have been most kind to me. Would you tell me what other suggestions this midwife had? Does she believe in using the birthing hook?" Isabelle turned to straighten the covers on the bed, but not before Judith saw the fear in her eyes.

"How would you know about such a thing?"

"Agnes showed it to me."

"Good God," Judith whispered before she could stop herself. She took a deep breath to rid herself of her anger. She wasn't there to cause trouble, and knew it wouldn't be at all appropriate to criticize the methods the mid wives used here. "Maude doesn't believe in using the birthing hook," she said. She kept her voice even, almost pleasant. "She says it's barbaric."

Isabelle didn't show any reaction to that explanation. She continued to ask Judith questions. Every now and again she'd bite on her lower lip and sweat would break out on her brow. Judith thought the discussion was upsetting her.

Winslow and Iain still hadn't come back inside. When Judith made that mention to Isabelle, she laughed again. "My husband is probably enjoying the peace outside. I've been difficult to get along with lately."

Judith laughed. "It must be a common affliction, Isabelle. Frances Catherine said the exact same thing to me not an hour ago."

"Is she afraid of Agnes?"

"Are you?"


Judith let out a weary sigh. God's truth, she was beginning to be afraid of the woman, too. Agnes sounded like a monster. Did she have no compassion in her heart?

"How much time do you have before your laboring begins?"

She wouldn't look at Judith when she answered. "A week or two."

"Tomorrow we will talk about this again. Would you come to Frances Catherine's home? Perhaps the three of us can find a way to solve this worry about Agnes. Isabelle, I'm completely without experience. I've never even seen a birthing, but I do know that the more information we have, the less chance fear has to catch hold. Isn't that true?"

"You would help me?"

"Of course," Judith answered. "Why don't we go outside now? The fresh air will do you good."

Isabelle was in full agreement. Judith was just reaching for the door when Winslow opened it. He nodded to Judith, then turned to frown at his wife.

"Why are you out of bed?"

"I have need for some fresh air," she answered. "Have you taken the birthing chair back to Agnes yet?"

He shook his head. "I will in the morning."

"Please bring it back inside," she requested. "It will be a comfort for me to have it near."

She smiled at Judith when she gave her husband that explanation. Winslow looked confused. "But you didn't want to look at it," he reminded her. "You said—"

"I've changed my mind," Isabelle interrupted. "I've remembered my manners as well. Good evening, Laird Iain," she called out.

Judith had already walked outside and now stood next to Iain. She refused to look at him. She bowed to Isabelle and Winslow and then started walking back to Frances Catherine's cottage.

Iain caught up with her at the crest. "Winslow and Isabelle both want you to know they're thankful for bringing Margaret's gifts. You cleaned their cottage, didn't you?"



"It needed cleaning." Her words were clipped, cold.

Iain clasped his hands behind his back and continued to walk by her side. "Judith, don't make this more difficult than it already is," he said in a harsh whisper.

She was walking so fast she was almost running. "I don't mean to make anything difficult," she replied. "I'll stay away from you and you'll stay away from me. I'm already over this insignificant, puny, inconsequential attraction. I don't even remember kissing you."

They had reached the cluster of trees in front of the courtyard leading to Frances Catherine's cottage when she told him that outrageous lie.

"The hell you have forgotten," he muttered. He grabbed hold of her shoulders and forced her to turn around. Then he took hold of her chin and pushed her face up.

"What do you think you're doing?" she demanded.

"Reminding you."

His mouth came down on hers then, sealing off any protest she might have wanted to make. And Lord, how he kissed her. His mouth was hot, hungry, and his tongue thrust inside with gentle insistence. She went weak in her knees. She didn't fall down, though. She sagged against him; he wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her up against him. His mouth slanted over hers again and again, and God help him, he couldn't seem to get enough of her. She returned his kiss with equal passion, perhaps even more, and the last coherent thought she had before his kiss completely robbed her of the ability to think at all was that Iain certainly knew how to rid her of her anger.

Patrick opened the door and let out a snort of laughter at the sight before him. Iain ignored his brother, and Judith was oblivious to everything but the man holding her so tenderly in his arms.

He finally pulled back and looked down with arrogant pleasure at the beautiful woman in his arms. Her mouth was swollen, rosy as well, and her eyes were still misty with passion. He suddenly wanted to kiss her again.

"Go inside now, Judith, while I still have enough discipline to let you."

She didn't understand what he meant by that remark. She didn't understand his frown either. "If you dislike kissing me so much, why do you continue to do so?"

She looked thoroughly disgruntled. He laughed.

She took exception to that reaction. "You may let go of me now," she ordered.

"I already have."

Judith realized she was still clinging to him, and immediately pulled away. She patted her hair back over her shoulder and turned to walk inside. Spotting Patrick lounging against the open doorway, she felt her face heat to a full blush.

"You mustn't make anything out of what you've just seen," she announced. "Iain and I don't even like each other."

"You could have fooled me," Patrick drawled out.

It would be impolite for her to kick her host, she supposed, and so she gave him a frown instead as she walked past him.

Patrick wasn't finished teasing her yet. "Aye, it seemed to me you two were liking each other a whole lot, Judith."

Iain had turned to go back up the hill. He heard Patrick's remark and immediately turned back. "Let it go, Patrick."

"Wait up," Patrick called out. "I've something to discuss with you," he added as he hurriedly pulled the door closed behind him.

Judith was thankful for the privacy. Frances Catherine was already sound asleep. She was even more thankful for that blessing. Her friend would have plied her with questions if she'd been awake and seen Iain kissing her, and Judith simply wasn't up to answering.

Patrick had placed a tall screen at an angle in the corner of the room behind the table and chairs. There was a narrow bed with a pretty forest-green quilt on top. Her satchels were neatly stacked against one wall next to a narrow chest. A white porcelain pitcher and matching bowl were on top of the chest next to the wooden vase filled with fresh wildflowers.

Frances Catherine had had a hand in arranging the make-do bedchamber. Patrick never would have thought to add flowers. He wouldn't have unpacked her brush and looking glass, either, and both were within easy reach on the corner of the stool on the other side of the bed.

Judith smiled over her friend's thoughtfulness. She didn't realize her hands were still shaking until she tried to undo the latches at the top of her gown. Iain's kiss had done that, she realized, and dear God, what was she going to do about him? From what Frances Catherine had told her about the hatred between the Maitlands and the Macleans, Judith doubted Iain would have touched her if he'd known she was his enemy's daughter.

She remembered she'd told her friend Iain would protect her. Now she felt a desperate need to protect herself from him. She didn't want to love him. Oh, it was all so impossible for her to sort out. She wanted to weep, but she knew crying wouldn't solve any of her problems.

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