The Secret (Highlands' Lairds #1)

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The Secret (Highlands' Lairds #1) Page 19

She was too exhausted from the long day and the journey here to think the matter through logically. Problems were always easier to solve in the morning light anyway, weren't they?

Sleep eluded her for a good long while, however. When she was finally able to push the worry about her growing attraction for Iain aside, her mind immediately turned to the worry about Frances Catherine.

Judith kept seeing the look of fear in Isabelle's eyes when she mentioned the midwife's name, and after Judith finally drifted off to sleep, she was locked in a nightmare about birthing hooks and screams.

She was awakened in the dead of the night. When she opened her eyes, she found Iain kneeling on one knee at her side. She reached up, touched the side of his face with her fingertips, and then closed her eyes again. She thought she was having an incredibly realistic dream.

Iain wouldn't quit prodding her. The next time she opened her eyes, she noticed that Patrick was also in the little room. He stood behind Iain. Frances Catherine stood by her husband's side.

Judith turned her attention back to Iain. "Are you taking me home now?"

The question didn't make any sense, but then neither did his presence.

"Winslow asked me to come and get you," Iain explained.

She slowly sat up. "Why?" she asked. She slumped against him and closed her eyes again.

"Judith, try to wake up," Iain commanded in a much stronger voice.

"She's exhausted." Frances Catherine stated the obvious.

Judith shook her head. She pulled the covers up to her chin and held them there. "Iain, this isn't proper," she whispered. "What does Winslow want?"

He stood up before explaining. "Isabelle asks that you come to her. She just started her laboring. Winslow said you have plenty of time. The pains aren't strong yet."

Judith was suddenly wide awake. "Are the midwives there yet?"

Iain shook his head. "She doesn't want them to know."

"She wants you, Judith," Frances Catherine explained.

"I'm not a midwife."

Iain's smile was gentle. "It appears you are now."

Chapter 7

He thought she was going to faint. The color left her face. In a matter of seconds her complexion had turned as white as the gown she wore. She threw the covers off, got out of the bed, and then her knees buckled. He caught her just as she was sinking back to the bed.

Judith was so stunned by his outrageous announcement, she completely forgot about her lack of clothing. The quilt was on the floor. She was wearing only a thin sleeping gown.

The garment had a low scooped neck that wasn't overly revealing, yet was still very provocative to him. Hell, the woman could wear a wheat sack and he'd think she looked appealing. He felt like a cad for noticing. But damn it all, he was a man, and she was a beautiful woman. The gentle swell of her br**sts distracted his concentration, and the only reason he reached for the chain she wore around her neck was to try to take his mind off her body.

He lifted the chain and stared down at the gold and ruby ring a long minute. There was something familiar about the design, but Iain couldn't remember if and when he'd ever seen it before. Only one thing was certain in his mind. It was a man's ring and she was wearing it.

"This is a warrior's ring," he said in a low whisper.

"What…" She couldn't concentrate on what he was saying to her. She was too busy reeling from his suggestion she become a midwife. The man was daft, but she was still determined to try to make him understand her limitations. "Iain, I can't possibly—"

He interrupted her. "This is a warrior's ring, Judith."

She finally realized he was holding her father's ring. She quickly snatched the piece of jewelry out of his hand and let it drop back down between her breasts.

"For the love of God, who cares about the ring now? Will you please listen to what I'm trying to tell you? I can't be Isabelle's midwife. I don't have any experience."

She was so desperate to make him listen to her, she grabbed hold of his plaid and started pulling on it.

"Who gave you this ring?"

Dear Lord, he wouldn't let up. She wanted to shake some sense into him. Then she realized she was already trying to do just that, and Iain wasn't moving. She gave up. She let go of his plaid and took a step back.

"You told me there wasn't anyone pledged to you back in England. Were you telling me the truth?"

He took hold of the ring again and twisted the chain around his fingers. His knuckles brushed against the side of her breast, once, then again, and he didn't seem at all inclined to stop that intimacy, even when she tried to pry his fingers away.

"Answer me," he commanded.

The man was furious. She was stunned when she realized that fact. "My uncle Tekel gave me the ring," she said. "It belonged to my father."

He didn't look like he believed her. His frown didn't ease at all.

She shook her head. "It doesn't belong to a young man waiting to marry me. I didn't lie to you, so you can quit glaring at me."

Judith didn't feel at all guilty. She hadn't told him the full truth, but Tekel had given her the ring, and Iain never really needed to know he was holding Laird Maclean's prized possession in his hand.

"Then you may keep it."

She couldn't believe his arrogance. "I don't need your permission."

"Yes, you do."

He used the chain to pull her forward. He leaned down at the same time and kissed her hard, thoroughly. When he lifted his head back, she had a bemused look on her face. He was pleased by that reaction.

The sudden sparkle in his eyes was more confusing to her than his ridiculous inquisition about the ring. "I've told you that you can't kiss me whenever you want."

"Yes, I can."

To prove his point, he kissed her again. Judith hadn't recovered from that surprise when he suddenly pushed her behind his back.

"Patrick, Judith isn't dressed for company. Leave."

"Iain, you happen to be inside his home, not yours," Judith reminded him.

"I know where I am," he replied, his exasperation obvious in his voice. "Patrick, get out of here."

His brother didn't move fast enough to suit Iain. He was grinning, too, and that didn't suit Iain at all. He took a threatening step forward. "Do you find my order amusing?"

Judith grabbed hold of the back of Iain's plaid to keep him from going after his brother. It was a puny effort against a man of his size. It was ridiculous behavior on her part, too. She started pushing him instead.

Iain didn't budge. Patrick did. He put his arm around his wife and led her to the other side of the room. She was about to say something to him, but Patrick shook his head.

He softened the order with a wink, then motioned toward the screen with the tilt of his head, a silent message to his wife that he wanted to hear the argument going on. Frances Catherine put her hand over her mouth to keep herself from laughing.

"I would like you to leave," Judith ordered. "Now." Iain turned around to look at her. She snatched the quilt up and held it in front of her. "This isn't proper."

"Judith, it isn't at all proper for you to take that tone with me."

She wanted to scream. She sighed instead. "I'm not happy with your tone either," she announced.

He looked astonished. He almost laughed, but caught himself in time. The woman really needed to understand her position. "I'll wait outside," he announced in a hard voice. "Get dressed."


"Isabelle," he reminded her. "Remember?"

"Oh, God, Isabelle," she cried out. "Iain, I can't—"

"It's all right," he interrupted. "There's plenty of time."

He walked away from her before she could make him understand. Judith muttered a very unladylike expletive. She guessed she was going to have to get dressed so she could go outside and make him listen to her. The ignorant man obviously believed one woman was just as good as another when it came to assisting with a birthing. She was going to set him straight so that Isabelle could get experienced help.

Frances Catherine helped her get dressed. As soon as that chore was completed, she wanted Judith to sit down so she could brush her hair for her.

"For the love of God, Frances Catherine, I'm not going to a festival. Leave my hair alone."

"You heard Iain," her friend replied. "You have plenty of time. A woman's first baby takes long, long hours of pain, and Isabelle has only just begun her laboring."

"How would you know?"

"Agnes told me."

Judith pulled her hair back over her shoulder and secured it with a ribbon at the base of her neck. "What a lovely bit of information to share with an expectant mother," she muttered.

"The blue ribbon would be prettier," Frances Catherine told her. She tried to substitute it for the pink ribbon Judith had used.

Judith felt as though she was living a nightmare and even her dear friend was part of it. "For heaven's sake, Frances Catherine, if you don't quit poking at me, I swear you won't have to worry about giving birth. I'll strangle you first."

Frances Catherine wasn't at all offended by that empty threat. She let go of Judith's hair and smiled. "Should I wait up for you?"

"Yes… no, oh, I don't know," Judith muttered as she headed for the door.

Patrick and Iain were standing in the courtyard. Judith came rushing outside the entrance. She stepped on a stone, muttered something under her breath, and then hurried back inside. She found her shoes under the bed, put them on, and then ran back outside again.

"She seems a little rattled," Patrick remarked.

"Aye, she does," Iain agreed.

"Tell Isabelle I'll be praying for her," Frances Catherine called out.

Iain waited until Judith reached his side, then turned his attention to his brother. "Winslow doesn't want anyone to know about this until it's over."

Patrick nodded agreement.

The mockery had gone far enough. Judith stood there smiling until Patrick pulled the door closed and Frances Catherine couldn't see her. She turned on Iain then.

"I can't do this," she blurted out. "I don't have any experience. You have to understand, Iain."

In her panic to make him listen, she grabbed hold of his plaid and started to tug on it.

"Judith, how did you plan to help Frances Catherine if you—"

She wouldn't let him finish his question. "I was going to mop her brow, damn it, and pat her hand, and whisper 'There, there,' and—"

She couldn't go on. Iain wrapped his arms around her and held her tight. He didn't know what to say to her to help her get over this worry.



"I'm scared."

He smiled. "I know."

"I don't want to do this."

"It will be all right."

He took hold of her hand and led the way to Isabelle's cottage. It was so dark she could barely see the path ahead of her.

"I supposed the midwives would do all the work," she whispered as she was being dragged along in his wake. "And I was going to give suggestions. Oh God, how arrogant I am."

They continued along for several more minutes before Judith spoke again. "I won't know what to do."

"Isabelle will know what to do when the time comes. She wants you with her."

"I don't understand why."

Iain smiled. "I understand. You're a very gentle woman, compassionate too. Isabelle needs both right now. Aye, you'll do fine."

"What if it gets complicated?"

"I'll be right outside the door."

Odd, but that promise comforted her. "And you'll come inside if need be and take over? You'll deliver this babe?"

"Hell, no."

He sounded appalled by the very idea. She would have laughed if she hadn't been so frightened.

Judith still didn't understand why Isabelle had chosen her. "If you were going into battle and could only choose one other warrior to go with you, would you take your squire?"

He knew the parallel she was going to make. "Yes."

"Isabelle is like a warrior going into battle and she needs… you said yes? You'd really choose an inexperienced squire?" she asked, her voice incredulous.

He laughed. "I would."

She smiled. "You're lying to me to make me feel better. It's all right. It's working. Now tell me another lie. Tell me once again that it's going to be all right. I might believe you this time."

"Judith, if it does become complicated, I'll send someone to get Agnes."

"God help Isabelle then," Judith whispered. "Iain, don't you wonder why she hasn't already sent Winslow to get the midwife?"

He nodded. "I did wonder," he admitted.

Judith told him what she'd learned about the midwife and her assistant. Then she gave him her opinion. Her voice was shaking with fury by the time she'd finished.

She wanted to know what Iain thought about Agnes's conduct, but they'd reached the narrow courtyard in front of Isabelle's cottage and there wasn't time now for a discussion.

Winslow opened the door before Iain had even raised his hand to pound on it. A wave of heat, so intense it felt like it was scorching Judith's face, poured through the opening. Perspiration covered Winslow's brow and fat drops of sweat rolled down from his temples.

It was so unbearably hot inside the cottage, Judith could barely catch her breath. She walked inside the doorway and came to an abrupt stop. She spotted Isabelle sitting on the side of the bed. She was doubled over, huddled beneath several thick quilts, and even from across the room Judith could hear her softly weeping.

In that moment while she stood there staring at Isabelle, she knew without a doubt that she couldn't walk away from this. She would do whatever was needed to help the woman.

Isabelle's terror tore at Judith's heart.

Iain put his hands on Judith's shoulders. She realized then that he was standing right behind her.

"Winslow, Judith doesn't feel that—"

She stopped him. "I don't feel that the heat in here is helping," she announced. She turned around and looked up at Iain. "Don't worry so," she whispered. "It's going to be all right."

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