The Secret (Highlands' Lairds #1)

The Secret (Highlands' Lairds #1) Page 36
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The Secret (Highlands' Lairds #1) Page 36

Iain noticed. He also noticed that with each drink he took from his goblet, Judith moved a little farther away.

Her attention was centered on Graham. The leader of the council was now officially welcoming Judith into the clan.

Frances Catherine, hanging on Alex's strong arm, came into the hall then. Patrick looked both surprised and irritated to see his wife.

She waylaid his lecture before he could start in. "I wanted a breath of fresh air and a visitation with my dear friend. She lives here, too, Patrick, so you can quit your frowning. Alex didn't let me fall."

"I was going to give her a ride on my mount, but—"

"He didn't know where to lift," Frances Catherine explained. She patted her stomach and smiled up at her husband.

"Come and join us," Judith called out. "Graham just finished giving a lovely toast to welcome me into the family."

Her friend nodded. She looked up at Alex. "See? I told you there wasn't a meeting going on. Judith wouldn't be here."

"Why wouldn't I be here?" Judith asked.

Frances Catherine went over to the table, sat down next to her husband and took hold of his hand so that he'd quit frowning at her. She smiled at Judith while she pinched her husband.

She was telling him to behave himself, Patrick supposed. He found himself grinning over his wife's outrageous conduct. As soon as they were alone, he was determined to tell her that once he gave her an order, he meant it to be carried out. He specifically remembered telling her to stay home tonight. The thought of his love taking a fall terrified him. He only had her safety in mind, he thought to himself. If anything happened to her, he didn't know what he would do.

He was getting all riled up just thinking about that dark possibility. His wife turned his attention then. She squeezed his hand and leaned against his side. Patrick let out a sigh. He didn't care if it was appropriate or not. He put his arm around his wife and pulled her even closer against him.

Frances Catherine shyly asked Graham to repeat his toast so that she could hear it. The elder was happy to accommodate her. Another gobletful of wine was immediately consumed by everyone.

Again Judith moved her chair a bit farther back. She could feel the familiar knot forming in her stomach. Iain had promised her he wouldn't get sotted in her presence, but what if, quite by accident, he did get a little drunk? Would he become as mean- and surly-tempered as her uncle Tekel?

She forced her panic aside. Gelfrid was demanding her attention. "Tell us why you're wanting Sundays," he instructed.

"What in heaven's name are you doing in the corner, Judith?" Graham asked, suddenly noticing how she'd moved away from the gathering.

"She scooted herself there," Owen explained.

Judith could feel herself blushing. She took a deep breath and stood up. "Sundays are supposed to be days of rest," she announced. "The Church says so. In England, we follow this rule."

"We do, too," Graham said. "We rest, don't we, Gelfrid?"

"Aye, we do," his friend agreed.

"All the men do."

Frances Catherine made that remark. Her gaze was centered on Judith. "That's what you're getting at, isn't it?"

Judith nodded. "I have noticed the women don't ever have a day to rest," she explained. "Sunday is just like every other day for them."

"Are you thinking to criticize our women?" Duncan asked.

"No," Judith answered. "I'm criticizing the men."

Iain leaned back in his chair and smiled. Judith had warned him she wanted to make some changes, and he assumed this was one of them. Hell, he'd been the one to suggest she change what she didn't like. He recalled the conversation they'd had in front of the cemetery. Aye, he'd made the suggestion, all right.

"Do you want us to order the women not to work on Sundays?" Graham asked.

"No, of course not. If you order them, it becomes another duty."

"Are you believing we've mistreated our women?" Duncan asked.

Judith shook her head again. "Oh, no," she said. "As fine warriors, you provide well for your wives. You cherish and protect them. In return, they keep your homes comfortable and see to your needs."

"That's what marriage is all about," Graham announced.

"Is she taking issue with marriage, then?" Owen asked, trying to understand.

Gelfrid shook his head. "It's the stones. They addled her mind," he decided. "The one nearly plucked out her eye."

Judith felt like screaming in frustration. She didn't, of course, and tried once again to use logic to make the men understand. She turned her attention to Iain. "When do the women have time for amusement?" she asked. "Your clan never attends the festivals, do they? Have you ever seen any of the women taking their nooning meal outside so they can enjoy the sunshine while they talk to one another? I haven't," she ended with a nod.

She turned to Graham next. "Do any of the women own horses? Have you ever seen any of them ride on a hunt for game?" She didn't give him time to answer. "I would only ask that you think about setting Sundays aside for amusement of some sort. That is all I wished to say."

Judith sat back down in her chair. She was determined to keep her mouth shut now. She would give them time to think about this issue before broaching it again.

"We value every member of this clan," Gelfrid announced.

"I'm thinking it's time to start our meeting," Duncan interjected. "If the women will take their leave, we can begin."

Judith bounded out of her chair again. "The women aren't a part of this clan, for if they were, they would be allowed to bring their problems to this council."

"Now, Judith, that isn't true," Owen contradicted. "Only a few months ago we allowed Frances Catherine to come before us."

"Aye, they did," Frances Catherine agreed. "They wanted to talk me out of sending for you."

"Let's have another toast and put this talk aside for now," Vincent suggested. "Iain, you'd best have a talk with your woman about her illogical thoughts. She'll be having us obeying our women if we let her have her way."

Judith's shoulders slumped. She wasn't going to get the council's support after all.

Iain drew her attention then. He was shaking his head at Vincent. "I cannot take issue with my wife," he announced. "Because I support what she's telling you."

Judith was so pleased by his remarks, she wanted to run to him. He reached for his goblet and took a long drink. She sat down in her chair instead.

"What are you saying, Iain?" Graham asked.

"Judith was an outsider when she came to us," Iain explained. "Our way of life was new to her and she was able to see things that we have ignored… or accepted without question over the years. I see no reason why we cannot insist our women rest on Sundays."

The elders nodded. Graham wanted his laird to be more specific. "Do you advise us to order the women to take this day as leisure?"

"No," Iain replied. "As Judith has just said, an order becomes a duty. We suggest, Graham, and encourage. Do you see the difference?"

Graham smiled. He turned to Judith. "Now do you understand why he's laird? He gives us sound advice, Judith."

It was still upside down in her mind, but she was too happy over her husband's defense of her request to argue.

"And now, perhaps you will understand why I married him," she replied. "I would never marry an unreasonable man."

"She's scooted herself and her chair into the buttery," Gelfrid remarked in a loud whisper. "And I'm not understanding that at all."

"Judith," Iain called out. "I've ordered Brodick and Gowrie to wait outside until the meeting begins. Would you go and tell them to come inside now?"

It was an odd request to make considering the fact that his squire was standing right beside him. The boy warrior looked like he wanted to see the errand completed, but when he opened his mouth to offer his assistance, Iain raised his hand.

"I would be happy to go and get them," she said. She was so pleased by the way Iain had phrased his order, she couldn't quit smiling.

Iain watched her leave. The second the door closed behind her, he turned to Frances Catherine. "It was a false errand I gave Judith," he explained in a low voice. "I wanted to ask you something."

"Yes?" Frances Catherine replied, trying not to worry over the frown on her brother-in-law's face.

Iain motioned to Judith's chair over in the corner, then asked, "Why?"

He was asking her why Judith had moved away from the table. "The wine," she replied in a low whisper of her own.

He shook his head. He still didn't understand. Frances Catherine took a deep breath. "It's something she's always done, since she was very little… and learned to protect herself. It used to drive my father daft, and he finally decided not to drink at all in front of Judith. I doubt she even realizes now… you mustn't take exception."

"I would like to understand," Iain countered. "And I won't become insulted," he promised. "Now tell me why she moved the stool each time I took a drink. What is this lesson she learned?"

"Judith moved to put herself…" Iain patiently waited. Frances Catherine couldn't hold his gaze. She turned her attention to the tabletop. "… out of striking distance."

Iain hadn't expected that answer. He leaned back in his chair to think about Frances Catherine's explanation.

A long minute passed in silence. Then Iain asked, "Were there times she wasn't able to get away?"

"Oh, yes," Frances Catherine answered. "Many, many times."

The other elders had heard every word, of course. Gelfrid let out a long sigh. Graham shook his head.

"Why would she believe you would strike her?" Owen asked.

Iain hadn't realized until that minute how much he hated the lack of privacy in his life. "This is a family matter," he announced.

He wanted the discussion stopped before it went any further. Frances Catherine didn't catch on to his hint, however. She turned to Owen to answer his question.

"She doesn't believe Iain would strike her," she explained. "She wouldn't have married him if she thought he would hurt her."

"Then why—" Owen began.

"If Judith wishes you to know about her background, she'll tell you," Iain said. His voice was hard, determined. He stood up. "The meeting will take place tomorrow," he announced.

He didn't give anyone time to argue, but turned and walked out of the hall.

Judith stood in the center of the courtyard. She turned around when she heard the door closing behind her, even managed a smile for her husband.

"They still aren't here, Iain," she called out. "I'll be certain to send them inside as soon as they arrive."

He walked down the steps and started toward her. She backed away, though she couldn't help but notice her husband didn't appear to be muddleheaded. He wasn't scowling, either. She had counted, though, and he had had three full cups of wine… or had he only taken sips of the brew? She couldn't be certain. He didn't look sotted. Still, she wasn't going to take any chances. She backed up another step.

He stopped. So did she. "Judith?"


"I got roaring drunk when I was fifteen years old. I remember it as though it happened yesterday."

Her eyes widened. He took another step toward her. "It was a painful lesson," he added with another step in her direction. "I'm never going to forget how I felt the following day."

"You became ill?"

He laughed. "Extremely ill," he told her. He was only a few feet away from her now. If he reached out, he could grab hold of her. He didn't. He wanted her to come to him. He clasped his hands behind his back and stared at her. "Graham fed me the ale and watched over me the next day. He was giving an important lesson, but I was much too arrogant to realize it at the time."

Her curiosity overcame her worry. When he took another step toward her, she didn't back away. "What was this lesson?" she asked.

"That a warrior who gives up his control to drink is a bloody fool. The wine makes him vulnerable, dangerous to others, too."

She nodded agreement. " 'Tis the truth it does," she said. "Some men would even do things they don't recall the next day. They might hurt someone and not remember. Others must be on constant guard against attack. Drunks can't be trusted."

What she was so innocently telling him made his heart ache. He was careful to keep his expression contained. "And who gave you that lesson?" he asked her in a mild, soothing voice.

"Uncle Tekel," she replied. She rubbed her arms while she explained about his injuries and how he used the wine to dull his pain. She was shivering with her memories. "After a time… the wine turned his mind into mush. Then he couldn't ever be trusted;"

"Do you trust me?"

"Oh, yes."

"Then come to me."

He opened his arms to her. She hesitated for only the briefest of minutes, then hurried forward. He wrapped his arms around her and held her tight.

"I promised you I'd never get drunk, Judith, and you really do insult me by thinking I would break that pledge."

"I do not mean to insult you," she whispered against his chest. "I know you wouldn't deliberately break your pledge. But there will be times, like tonight, when you must drink with the others, and if the celebration requires—"

"It wouldn't matter what the reasons be," he interrupted. He rubbed his chin across the top of her head, loving the feel of her silky hair against his skin. He inhaled her light, feminine fragrance and found himself smiling with pleasure.

"Husband, you're going to miss your important meeting," she whispered.

"Yes," he agreed. He let go of her. He waited for her to look up at him, and when she did, he leaned down and kissed her sweet mouth.

He took hold of her hand and led her back inside. He didn't turn toward the great hall, however, but started up the stairs, pulling his wife after him.

"Where are we going?" she asked him in a whisper.

"To our chamber."

"But the meeting—"

"We'll have our own meeting."

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