The Secret (Highlands' Lairds #1)

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The Secret (Highlands' Lairds #1) Page 2

"'Cause why?"

Judith lifted her shoulders in a shrug. She didn't know how to explain why.

"Well now, there's nothing wrong with wishing," Frances Catherine's papa said.

Judith was so happy to have his approval, she put her head down on his shoulder. His warm plaid felt rough against her cheek. He smelled so nice, too, like the outdoors.

She thought he was the most wonderful papa in the whole world. Since he wasn't looking down at her now, she decided to appease her curiosity. She reached up to touch his beard. The bristles tickled and she let out a giggle over that notice.

"Papa, do you like my new friend?" Frances Catherine asked when they were halfway across the field.

"I surely do."

"Can I keep her?"

"For the love of… No, you can't keep her. She isn't a puppy. You can be her friend, though," he hastily added before his daughter could argue with him.

"Forever, papa?"

She'd asked her father that question, but Judith answered her. "Forever," she shyly whispered.

Frances Catherine reached across her father's chest to take hold of Judith's hand. "Forever," she pledged.

And so it began.

From that moment on, the two little girls became inseparable. The festival lasted three full weeks, with various clans coming and going, and the championship games were always scheduled on the last Sunday of the month.

Judith and Frances Catherine were oblivious to the competition, however. They were too busy telling each other all their secrets.

It was a perfect friendship. Frances Catherine had finally found someone who wanted to listen to what she had to say, and Judith had finally found someone who wanted to talk to her.

The two of them were a trial of patience for their relatives, however. Frances Catherine started using the word "damn" in every other sentence, and Judith was using the word "pitiful" just as often. One afternoon, while they were supposed to be napping, they cut each other's hair. When Aunt Millicent got a good look at the lopsided mess they'd made, she started in screeching and didn't let up until she'd slapped white caps on their heads to hide the sight. She was furious with Uncle Herbert, too, because he was supposed to be keeping his eye on the girls, and instead of being the least contrite over the catastrophe, he was laughing like a loon. She ordered her husband to take the imps across the field and set them on the punishment rock to think about their shameful behavior.

The girls did do a lot of thinking, but it wasn't about their behavior. Frances Catherine had come up with the wonderful idea that Judith should also have two full names so they'd be just alike. It took them a long while to settle on the name, Elizabeth, but once it was decided, Judith became Judith Elizabeth, and refused to answer anyone's summons unless they used both her names when they called to her.

A full year passed, and yet when they were reunited, it was as though they had only been apart an hour or two. Frances Catherine couldn't wait to get Judith alone, because she'd found another amazing fact about birthings. A woman didn't have to be married to have a baby after all. She knew that for certain because one of the Kirkcaldy women had grown a baby in her stomach and she wasn't wed. Some of the old women in the clan had thrown stones at the poor lass, too, Frances Catherine whispered, and her papa had made them stop.

"Did they throw stones at the man who spit in his drink?" Judith wanted to know.

Frances Catherine shook her head. "The woman wouldn't tell who'd done it," she replied.

The lesson was easy to understand, Frances Catherine continued. It had been proven that if a fully grown woman drank out of any man's goblet of wine, she would surely get a baby in her stomach.

She made Judith promise she would never do such a thing. Judith made Frances Catherine give her the same promise.

The growing years blurred together in Judith's memory, and the awareness of the hatred that existed between the Scots and the English was slow to penetrate her mind. She guessed she'd always known her mother and her uncle Tekel despised the Scots, but she believed it was because they didn't know any better.

Ignorance often bred contempt, didn't it? At least that's what Uncle Herbert said. She believed everything he told her. He was such a kind, loving man, and when Judith suggested that Tekel and her mother had never spent any time with a Scottish family and that was why they didn't realize what fine, good-hearted people they were, her uncle Herbert kissed her on her forehead and told her perhaps that was true.

Judith could tell from the sadness in his eyes that he was only agreeing with her to please her, and to protect her, too, from her mother's unreasonable prejudice.

When she was eleven years old and on her way to the festival, she found out the true reason her mother hated the Scots. She was married to one.

Chapter 1

Scotland, 1200

Iain Maitland was a mean son of a bitch when he was riled.

He was riled now. The black mood came over him the minute his brother Patrick told him about the promise he'd given his sweet wife, Frances Catherine.

If Patrick had wanted to surprise his brother, he'd certainly accomplished that goal. His explanation had rendered Iain speechless.

The condition didn't last long. Anger quickly took over. In truth, the ridiculous promise his brother had given his wife wasn't nearly as infuriating to Iain as the fact that Patrick had called the council together to render their official opinion on the matter. Iain would have stopped his brother from involving the elders in what he considered to be a private, family matter, but he'd been away from the holding at the time, hunting down the Maclean bastards who'd waylaid three unseasoned Maitland warriors, and when he'd returned home, weary but victorious, the deed had already been done.

Leave it to Patrick to take a simple issue and complicate the hell out of it. It was apparent he hadn't considered any of the ramifications of his rash behavior. Iain, as the newly appointed laird over the clan, would now be expected to put his duties to his immediate family aside, his loyalty, too, and act solely as the council's advisor. He wasn't about to meet those expectations, of course. He would stand beside his brother no matter how much opposition came from the elders. He wouldn't allow Patrick to be punished, either. And if need be, he was fully prepared to fight.

Iain didn't share his decision with his brother for the simple reason that he wanted Patrick to suffer the uncertainty awhile longer. If the ordeal proved painful enough, perhaps Patrick would finally learn to use a little restraint.

The council of five had already gathered in the great hall to hear Patrick's petition when Iain finished his duties and made his way up the hill. Patrick was waiting in the center of the courtyard. He looked ready to go into battle. His legs were braced apart, his hands were in fists at his sides, and the scowl on his face was as fierce as the thunderstorm brewing overhead.

Iain wasn't at all impressed with his brother's bluster. He shoved Patrick out of his path when he tried to block his way, and continued on toward the steps to the keep. "Iain," Patrick called out. "I ask you now, for I would know your position before we go inside. Do you stand beside me on this issue or against me?"

Iain stopped, then slowly turned around to look at his brother. The expression on his face showed his anger. His voice was deceptively mild, however, when he spoke. "And I would know, Patrick, if you deliberately try to provoke me by asking such a question?"

Patrick immediately relaxed his stance. "I meant no insult, but you're new as laird and still to be tested in such a personal way by our council. I hadn't realized until just now the awkward position I've put you in."

"Are you having second thoughts?"

"No," Patrick answered with a grin. He walked over to his brother. "I know you didn't want me to involve the council, especially now when you're battling to get them interested in forming an alliance with the Dunbars against the Macleans, but Frances Catherine was determined to gain their blessing. She wants her friend to be welcomed here."

Iain didn't remark on that explanation.

Patrick pressed on. "I also realize you don't understand my reasons for giving my wife such a promise, but someday, when you've met the right woman, all of this will make perfectly good sense to you."

Iain shook his head in exasperation. "Honest to God, Patrick, I'll never understand. There isn't any such thing as the right woman. One's just as good as another."

Patrick laughed. "I used to believe that, too, until I met Frances Catherine."

"You're talking like a woman," Iain said.

Patrick wasn't insulted by his brother's comment. He knew Iain couldn't understand the love he felt for his wife, but God willing, one day he would find someone to give his heart to. When that day arrived, he was going to thoroughly enjoy reminding Iain of this callous attitude.

"Duncan indicated they might want to question my wife," Patrick said then, turning the topic back to his main concern. "Do you think the elder was jesting with me?"

Iain didn't turn around when he gave his answer. "None of the council members ever jest, Patrick. You know that as well as I."

"Damn it, I'm responsible for this."

"Aye, you are."

Patrick ignored his brother's quick agreement. "I won't let the council intimidate Frances Catherine."

Iain let out a sigh. "I won't, either," he promised.

Patrick was so startled by that agreement, he lost his frown. "They think they'll be able to get me to change my mind," he said. "You'd better understand that nothing any of them do will make a difference. I've given Frances Catherine my word, and I mean to keep it. God's truth, Iain, I'd walk through the fires of Hell for my wife."

Iain turned and smiled at his brother. "A simple walk into the great hall will suffice for now," he drawled out. "Let's get it done."

Patrick nodded, then hurried ahead of his brother to open one of the double doors.

"A word of advice, Patrick," Iain said. "Leave your anger outside these doors. If they see how rattled you are, they'll go for your throat. Simply state your reasons in a calm voice. Let logic guide your thoughts, not emotion."

"And then?"

"I'll do the rest."

The door closed on that promise.

Ten minutes later the council sent a messenger to fetch Frances Catherine. Young Sean was given the duty. He found Patrick's wife sitting by the fire in her cottage and immediately explained she was to come to the keep and wait outside the doors for her husband to escort her inside.

Frances Catherine's heart started pounding. Patrick had told her there was a possibility she would be called before the council, but she hadn't believed him. It was unheard of for a woman to speak her mind directly to the council or the laird in any official capacity. And she wasn't consoled in the least by the fact that the new laird was her husband's older brother. No, that relationship didn't signify anything at all.

Her mind raced from one frightening thought to another, and in no time she'd worked herself into a fine state of agitation. The council obviously thought she was daft. Yes, she decided. By now Patrick had told them all about the promise he'd given her, and that was the reason she was being called to the great hall to give her own explanation. They wanted to make certain she really had lost her mind before damning her to isolation for the remainder of her days.

Her only hope rested in the hands of the laird. Frances Catherine didn't know Iain Maitland well. She doubted she'd exchanged more than fifty words with the warrior in the two years she'd been married to his younger brother, but Patrick had assured her Iain was an honorable man. He would see the fairness in her request.

She was going to have to get past the council first. Since it was an official meeting, four of the elders wouldn't speak directly to her. They would give their questions to their own leader, Graham, and he alone would have to suffer the indignity of conversing with her. She was a woman, after all, and an outsider, for she had been born and raised on the border and not the glorious Highlands. Frances Catherine was actually relieved that Graham would be the only one to question her, since she found him to be the least frightening of the elders. The old warrior was a soft-spoken man who was greatly admired by his clan. He'd been their laird for over fifteen years and had retired from that position of power just three months past. Graham wouldn't terrify her, at least not deliberately, but he'd use every other bit of trickery he possessed to get her to release Patrick from his promise.

She made a quick sign of the cross, and then prayed her way up the steep hill to the keep. She reminded herself she could get through this ordeal. No matter what, she wouldn't back down. Patrick Maitland had given her his promise the day before she agreed to marry him, and by God, he was going to see it carried through.

A precious life depended upon it.

Frances Catherine reached the top step of the keep and stood there waiting. Several women passed by the courtyard, curious at the sight of a woman lingering on the laird's doorstep. Frances Catherine didn't invite conversation. She kept her face averted, praying all the while that no one would call out to her. She didn't want the women in the clan to know what was going on until it was finished. They would surely start in making trouble then, but it would be too late to matter.

She didn't think she could bear the wait much longer. Agnes Kerry, the old biddy with her nose always up in the air because her pretty daughter was surely going to become the laird's bride, had already made two circles around the courtyard in an attempt to find out what was going on, and a few of her cohorts were also edging closer now.

Frances Catherine straightened the pleats of her plaid over her swollen stomach, noticed how her hands were shaking, and immediately tried to stop the telling show of fear. She let out a loud sigh. She wasn't usually feeling so timid and unsure of herself, but since she'd found out she was carrying, her behavior had undergone a dramatic change. She was terribly emotional now and cried over the most inconsequential things. Feeling big, awkward, and as fat as a well-fed mare didn't help her disposition, either. She was almost seven months into her confinement, and the weight of the babe slowed her movements considerably. Her thoughts weren't affected, though. They rushed through her mind like a whirlwind as she tried to guess what questions Graham would ask.

The door finally squeaked open and Patrick stepped outside. She was so relieved to see him, she almost burst into tears. He was frowning, but as soon as he saw how pale and worried she looked, he forced a smile. He took hold of her hand, gave it a little squeeze, and then winked at her. The unusual show of affection during daylight hours felt as soothing to her as one of his nightly back rubs.

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