The Secret (Highlands' Lairds #1)

The Secret (Highlands' Lairds #1) Page 38
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The Secret (Highlands' Lairds #1) Page 38

She frowned at her husband to let him know she didn't appreciate his high-handed method in gaining her attention. He ignored the subtle message and crooked his finger at her.

She took her time answering his summons. After carefully folding the stocking she was mending for Gelfrid, she placed it in the basket and slowly stood up.

"I believe your husband's a little jealous," Frances Catherine whispered.

"That's ridiculous," Judith whispered back.

Her friend snorted. Judith forced herself not to laugh again. She walked across the room, taking the path directly in front of the three guests, and came to a stop in front of her scowling husband.

"Did you wish something?" she asked.

He nodded. Then he grabbed hold of her. She couldn't imagine what had come over him. He hauled her up against his side and threw his arm around her shoulders, anchoring her there.

He was acting extremely possessive. Judith had to bite her lower lip to keep herself from laughing. Frances Catherine had been correct. Iain was jealous. She didn't know if she should be pleased or insulted.

He introduced her to the new arrivals. She was careful to give each warrior her full attention. She wanted to stare at Ramsey, but she didn't dare. Iain would notice.

As soon as the formalities were finished, Judith tried to go back to her friend. Iain wouldn't let her. She turned to look up at him. He was still scowling.

"May I have a word in private with you?" she requested.

He gave her his answer by dragging her into the buttery.

"What is it you wish to say to me?"

"Ramsey's extremely handsome."

He didn't like hearing that. Judith smiled. "But then, so are you, husband. I wouldn't walk through the fires of purgatory for him, however, no matter how loyal he is to you. I don't love him. I love you. I just thought you might wish to hear me tell you so. I would walk through the fires of purgatory for you… but only you."

He let up on his hold. "I was that obvious?"

She nodded. He grinned. He leaned down and kissed her. It was a gentle, undemanding kiss that left them both wanting for more.

"I'm a very possessive man, Judith. You might as well realize that."

Her smile filled with him pleasure. "I already knew you were possessive," she whispered. "And I still love you."

He laughed. "My men are waiting," he said. "Was there anything else you wished to say to me?"

His arrogance was back in place. She shook her head. "Nay, husband."

She didn't start laughing until she and Frances Catherine went outside to gain a little privacy.

Judith hadn't made an empty boast to Iain. She would walk through the fires of purgatory to keep him safe, but she never imagined she'd ever have to actually do such an impossible thing.

Purgatory turned out to be Maclean land.

Judith was put to the test the following afternoon. Iain had left with Ramsey and Brodick to once again put down a dispute with the difficult Macphersons near the west border, and Patrick and Graham were getting ready to go hunting. Graham told her he planned to do a spot of fishing, too.

"If there be enough time, of course," the elder explained. "Patrick won't leave his wife for more than four hours at the most because of her advanced condition." He paused to chuckle. "The boy keeps taking me aside to whisper that his wife becomes overly fearful whenever he's out of her sight, and a bit later she's taking me aside and demanding I take her husband away on a full day's hunt so she can have some peace and quiet."

"He's making her daft," Judith told Graham. "He watches her every minute. She swears that when she wakes up during the night, she finds him wide awake and staring at her."

Graham shook his head. "He's making everyone daft," he admitted. "Patrick won't listen to reason. We'll all be mighty happy when Frances Catherine has her bairn."

Judith was in full agreement. She decided to turn the topic. "Are you going hunting near the falls?"

"We are," he answered. "The fishing's best there."

"Frances Catherine told me it's very beautiful."

The wistfulness in her voice wasn't lost on the elder. "Why don't you come with us today? You can see for yourself how pretty it is."

She was thrilled. She put the question to Helen. "If you need assistance today, I'll be happy to stay home."

Helen was pleased her mistress was giving her such consideration. "Now that Janet and Bridget do the heavy work, there isn't much for me to do outside the kitchens, milady."

"It's settled, then," Graham announced. "We're leaving in just a few minutes. Hurry and get yourself ready, lass. Helen, I might have some fresh fish for our supper tonight."

Judith raced upstairs. She changed into her full riding skirts, tied her hair behind her neck with a ribbon, and then went running back down the stairs.

Patrick wasn't happy to find out she was going. She understood his reason and therefore didn't have hurt feelings.

"Frances Catherine will be fine until we get back," she promised. "Helen will look in on her, won't you, Helen?"

The housekeeper quickly nodded. Patrick still wasn't convinced. Graham had to give him several good nudges to get him moving toward the stables.

It was a glorious morning. Judith took her heavy cloak along, but there really wasn't any need for the extra protection. The wind was mild, the sun bright, and the scenery every bit as breathtaking as Frances Catherine had said it would be.

They didn't reach the base of the falls, though. The Dunbars attacked before they could get there.

There wasn't any warning. Graham led the way through the thick, misty green forest. Judith was right behind him, and Patrick took up the rear. Their guard was down for the simple reason they were still well inside Maitland land.

They were suddenly surrounded by at least twenty warriors who had their swords drawn, ready. They weren't wearing the Maitland colors, but Judith was too surprised by their sudden appearance to be frightened.

"You're on our land," Graham bellowed, his fury beyond anything Judith had ever witnessed before. "You'll leave now, Dunbars, before you breach our truce."

The warriors didn't respond to his command. They were like statues now. Judith didn't think any of them even blinked.

A fair number were staring at her. She raised her chin and stared back. She wasn't about to let the enemy intimidate her. She wasn't going to let them know how worried she was, either.

She heard the sound of horses coming toward them just as Patrick nudged his mount forward. He moved to Judith's right side. He was so close to her, his leg rubbed against hers.

He was trying to protect her. She knew he would give his life to keep her safe. She said a quick prayer to her Maker that that noble act wouldn't be necessary.

No one moved until the crash of horses sounded in front of them, breaking through the thicket. Several of the Dunbar warriors turned to look then.

Five more men appeared. They were wearing plaids too, but they weren't the same colors as the Dunbars. Judith didn't know what that meant. Patrick did. He let out a low expletive.

She turned to look at him. "Who are they?" she whispered.

"Maclean soldiers."

Judith's eyes widened. She turned back to look at the men. The leader moved his mount closer. Judith kept her attention directed on him. There was something vaguely familiar about him, but she couldn't imagine what it was. The warrior was tall, broad-shouldered, and had dark blond hair and intense blue eyes.

Graham broke the silence. "You're in league with the Dunbars, then."

It was a statement, not a question, but the Maclean warrior answered him.

"Your laird tried to prevent the alliance. He might have succeeded, too, if he hadn't had to battle you, old man, and the others who run your clan. Who is this woman?"

Neither Graham nor Patrick answered.

The Maclean warrior motioned to the men surrounding them. Patrick and Graham didn't have time to reach for their weapons, had they been foolish enough to try. The Dunbars' swords were now pointed at their necks. The warriors waited for the Maclean leader to give them their next instruction.

"I ask you again," he said to Graham. "Who is this woman? She looks familiar to me."

Graham shook his head. Judith's heart started pounding. "I will speak for myself," she called out.

Patrick put his hand on her knee and squeezed. He was letting her know he didn't want her to tell them anything.

The leader nudged his mount close to her left side. He stared at Patrick a long minute, then turned his gaze to Judith. "Then speak," he arrogantly commanded.

"Tell me who you are and I'll answer your questions," she commanded.

Patrick's hold on her knee became painful.

"My name is Douglas Maclean," he answered.

"Are you commander over these men or just the most outspoken?"

He ignored the insult. "I'm the laird's son," he said. "Now tell me who—"

He stopped his demand when he noticed the radical change that came over the beautiful woman. The color had left her face. She almost fell off her horse, and didn't even seem to notice. He reached over and grabbed hold of her arm.

She was daring to shake her head at him. "You cannot be his son."

The vehemence in his voice confused him. "The hell I can't," he replied.

She refused to believe him. A thought popped into her mind. Her father must have been married once before. Yes, that was it, she told herself. Douglas looked several years older than she… "Who was your mother?" she demanded.

"Why are you asking me such questions?"

"Answer me."

The fury in her voice surprised him. "And if I do answer you, will you then tell me who you are?"

"Yes," she promised.

He nodded. "Very well," he said, his voice mild once again. "My mother was an English bitch. Her accent was very like your own. That much I remember. Now tell me who you are," he demanded again.

She was desperately trying to keep her wits about her. "How old are you?"

He told her, then painfully squeezed her arm.

Judith thought she was going to be sick. Douglas was five years older than she, and his eyes, dear God, his eyes were the same color as her own. Was his hair the exact shade, too? No, no, she told herself. Hers was much lighter.

She had to take a deep breath to keep herself from gagging. She slumped to the side of her saddle, close to Patrick's side.

Dear God, it was true. Douglas was her brother.

Patrick tried to put his arm around her. Douglas jerked her toward him, then lifted her from her mount and settled her in front of him.

"What the hell's wrong with her?" he asked.

No one answered him. Douglas growled in frustration. He still didn't know who the woman belonged to, but he recognized Patrick, all right.

"The Maitland laird will come after his brother," he told his men. "We'll be ready to give him a proper greeting. Bring them to my father's holding," he ordered with a nod toward Graham and Patrick.

The length of time it took to get to the Maclean keep was shortened considerably because they were able to ride directly there, across Dunbar land. Patrick memorized every detail on the way for future use.

Judith didn't pay any attention to where they were going. She kept her eyes tightly closed while she tried to sort out this god-awful situation in her mind.

She wanted to weep with shame over her mother's treachery. How could she abandon her child? Judith was so sickened inside, she could barely concentrate on anything but keeping her stomach settled.

As they rode, she wondered how Douglas would react if she threw up all over him.

She finally opened her eyes. He noticed. "Did the Maclean name scare you into a faint?"

"I didn't faint," she snapped. "I want to ride my own mount."

"I want you to stay here," he replied. "You're very beautiful," he added almost as an afterthought. "I might decide to let you warm my bed."

"That's disgusting."

She hadn't meant to blurt out her thought, but she couldn't keep it inside. Douglas took exception to the appalled look on her face. He took hold of her chin and forced her face up to his.

Good God, was he going to kiss her? "I'm going to be sick," she stammered out.

He hastily let go of her.

She took several deep breaths to convince him she really was having difficulty, then relaxed. "I'm better now," she lied.

"All the English are weak," he told her. " 'Tis yet another reason we despise them."

"English women as well as English men?" she asked.

"Aye," he answered.

"I'm English," she said. "And you contradict yourself. If you hate all of us, why would you hint at wanting me in your bed?"

He didn't answer her. A few minutes passed before he spoke again. "Tell me your name."

"Judith," she answered.

"Why are you wearing the Maitland plaid?"

"My friend gave it to me. I'm here on a visitation and will return to England after my friend has had her baby."

He shook his head. "The Maitlands wouldn't let you leave. You're lying, Judith."

"Why wouldn't they let me leave?"

"You're too beautiful to—"

"I'm English." She interrupted him with that reminder. "They don't like me."

"Don't lie to me," he ordered. "Tell me who you belong to."

"She's telling you the truth," Patrick shouted. "She's a guest, nothing more."

Douglas laughed. He wasn't believing any such nonsense. His hold on Judith's waist became painful. She reached down to pry his fingers away. She saw the ring on his finger then. She let out a little gasp. Her hand flew to her bosom where her father's identical ring was hidden. "Where did you get this ugly ring?" she asked.

"It was my uncle's," he answered. "Why do you persist in asking such personal questions?"

"I was merely curious," she replied.

In a low whisper he said, "You belong to Iain, don't you?"

"I don't converse with pigs."

He laughed then. Douglas was too ignorant to know when he was being insulted. She told him so.

"It's too fine a day to take insult over anything," he announced. "I've captured Graham for my father, and you for myself. Aye, it's a fine day all right."

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