The Secret (Highlands' Lairds #1)

The Secret (Highlands' Lairds #1) Page 42
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The Secret (Highlands' Lairds #1) Page 42

"Then what is it?" Iain asked when his brother didn't explain.

"I started her laboring. We were talking about Judith's father, and she told me she'd known for years. I became a little angry she hadn't told me and I think I raised my voice to her."

Patrick was inadvertently blocking Judith from entering the cottage while he confessed his sin to his brother. Judith finally shoved him out of her way and ran inside.

She came to a quick stop when she spotted Frances Catherine. Her friend was sitting at the table, brushing her hair. She looked terribly calm. She was humming too.

Frances Catherine smiled at her, then motioned for her to shut the door.

"Hand me that ribbon," Frances Catherine asked. "The pink one by the bed, if you please."

Judith did as her friend requested. She realized her hands were shaking. "How are you feeling, Frances Catherine?" she asked in a worried whisper.

"Just fine, thank you."

Judith stared at her friend a long minute. "Are you having pains now or are you just pretending?"

"If I wasn't, I would," Frances Catherine answered.

Judith walked over to the table and fell into the chair across from her friend. She took a deep breath in an effort to calm her racing heart, then asked her what in God's name she'd meant by that illogical answer.

Frances Catherine was happy to explain. "I am having pains," she said. "But if I wasn't, I would pretend I was just to rile Patrick. I'm leaving him, Judith. No man's going to shout at me, not even my husband. You may help me pack my belongings."

Judith burst into laughter. "Would you like to leave now or after the baby's born?"

Her friend smiled. "After," she said. "I'm not at all afraid," she added in a whisper, turning the topic. "Isn't that peculiar? I've been afraid all during the months of carrying, but now I'm not afraid at all."

"Then why did you call for a priest?"

"To give Patrick something to do."

Judith didn't believe that nonsense. "You wanted to scare Patrick, didn't you?"

"That, too," Frances Catherine conceded.

"You've got a mean streak hidden inside you, Frances Catherine," Judith said. "You've deliberately terrified your husband. Now call him inside and beg his forgiveness."

"I will," her friend promised. "Was it terrible for you?"

She'd switched topics so quickly, Judith took a minute to react "My father's a handsome man," she remarked.

"Did you spit in his eye?"


"Tell me what happened," her friend demanded.

Judith smiled. "I'm not telling you anything until you speak to your husband. Can't you hear him carrying on outside? Shame on you, Frances Catherine."

A sudden pain gripped her friend. She dropped her brush and took hold of Judith's hand. She was panting by the time the contraction faded away. Judith kept mental count of the seconds that passed during the pain.

"That one was a little stronger than the others," Frances Catherine whispered. "They're still a long time apart, though. Mop my brow, Judith, and then tell Patrick to come inside. I'm ready to hear his apology."

Judith hurried to do just that. She waited outside so that the couple could have some privacy. Iain was sitting on the rock ledge, watching her.

"I've never seen my brother so ill-disciplined," he remarked.

"He loves his wife," she replied. "He's afraid for her."

Iain shrugged. "I love you, but I'm sure as hell not going to carry on the way Patrick is when you give me my son or daughter."

He'd said the words so casually, so matter-of-factly, she was caught off guard. "What did you just say?"

He let her see his exasperation. "I said I wasn't going to lose my control the way Patrick—"

"Before," she interrupted. "You said you loved me. You acted like you meant it."

"I always mean what I say," he told her. "You know that. Judith, how long do you think this birthing is going to take?"

She ignored his question. "You don't love me," she announced in an emphatic tone of voice. "I was just the sacrifice you had to make in order to get your alliance." She didn't give him time to answer her. "The ring gave me away, didn't it? It's identical to the one Douglas wears and you recognized it."

"The ring was familiar to me, but it took me a long time to remember where I'd seen it."

"Exactly when did you remember?"

"When we were at the cemetery," he told her. "Then Patrick heard you ask his wife what she thought I would do if I found out Maclean was your father. He told me, of course, but I already knew."

She shook her head. "I don't understand," she admitted. "If he knew, why did he get so angry with Frances Catherine?"

"He was angry because she hadn't confided in him."

"And so, as soon as you found out who my father was, you married me."

"Damn right," he agreed. He stood up and pulled her into his arms. "Without flowers," he whispered. "I'm sorry about that. Your safety came first. I didn't have time to make it proper for you."

Dear God, how she wanted to believe him. "You didn't have to marry me just to keep me safe."

"Yes, I did," he answered. "It was only a matter of time before one of the elders spotted the damn ring. They would have recognized it."

"I was going to throw it away," she boasted.

He let out a sigh. "You wouldn't have," he said. "You're too tenderhearted to destroy the only link you had to the man who fathered you."

She decided not to argue that possibility with him. "You don't like him, do you?"

"Your father?"


"Hell, no, I don't like him," he replied. "He's a real bastard," he added. "But he's also your father, and since I already knew I was going to keep you, I sent Ramsey to him to talk about an alliance. It would have been more practical to unite with the Dunbars. Their land borders ours, after all, but the Maclean laird is your father and you had a right to eventually claim him… if you wanted to, Judith."

"But you don't trust the Macleans, do you?"

"No," he answered. "As to that, I don't trust the Dunbars much, either."

"Do you like Douglas?"

"Not particularly."

She found his honesty refreshing. "You don't like anyone, do you?"

His smile was filled with tenderness. "I like you."

He always made her breathless when he looked at her like that. Judith had to force herself to concentrate on what they were talking about. She turned her gaze to his chest. "Why was it necessary to form an alliance with either clan? You've always isolated yourselves in the past."

"The Dunbar laird is old, tired, yet he didn't want to pass his duties on to a younger warrior. When I heard he was negotiating with Maclean, I tried to interfere before the union could be formed. The Dunbars added to the Macleans would make them invincible against us. It was a hell of a worry."

"Why didn't you explain this to me?"

"I just did."

He was hedging and they both knew it. "Why didn't you explain before?" she prodded.

"It was difficult for me," he finally admitted. "I've never discussed my concerns with anyone but Patrick before."

"Not even Graham?"


She pulled away from him and looked up into his eyes. "What made you change your mind?"

"You," he answered. "And Frances Catherine."

"I don't understand."

He took hold of her hand, sat her down on the stone ledge and sat beside her. "In the beginning, I didn't understand this bond between the two of you. You seemed to trust each other completely."

"We do trust each other completely," she told him.

He nodded. "She never told anyone who your father was, and you never worried she would."

Iain seemed to be working something out in his mind. His voice was slow, hesitant. "You in effect gave her a weapon to use against you. A man would never do such a thing."

"Some would."

"I wouldn't," he admitted. "And until I met you, I didn't believe such trust existed."

Abruptly, he stood up. He clasped his hands behind his back and turned to face her. "You've shown me you can give your friend your complete trust. I want the same, Judith. You've told me you trust me. Yet if you trusted me with all your heart, completely, you would accept without question that when I tell you I love you, I mean it. Only then will your uncertainty, your fear, your hurt go away."

Her head was bowed low. She realized he was speaking the truth. "I didn't trust you enough to tell you who my father was," she admitted in a whisper. "But I would have gotten around to it… someday. I was afraid you wouldn't want me any longer if you knew."

"If you'd trusted me enough…"

She nodded. "I did try, right before the wedding ceremony… Why didn't you let me tell you then?"

"I was desperate to protect you, and the only way I knew how was to make you my wife. The council wouldn't have given the matter a second thought. If they'd learned Maclean was your father, they would have used you to try to destroy him."

"If I'd only left the ring back in England, none of this—"

He didn't let her finish. "Secrets have a way of being found out," he told her. "Too many people knew the truth. Your relatives in England might have gone to the Macleans to get their support in order to get you back." He shrugged. "They still might." He didn't seem overly worried about that possibility.

"Iain, I don't think I can stay here. The way Graham looked at me when he found out who my father was… He'll never accept me as a Maitland now. I'll be an outsider again. No, I can't stay here."

"All right."

His immediate agreement confused her. She thought he would at least ask her to try, and she would then be very noble and give her agreement. How could he confess his love for her and agree to let her leave?

Judith wasn't given time to make him explain. Patrick opened the door and shouted her name.

She went back inside and found Frances Catherine beaming with pleasure. Judith assumed her friend's husband had been properly contrite.

Frances Catherine didn't feel the ache in her lower back quite as much when she was walking, and so she slowly paced back and forth in front of the hearth while Judith saw to the necessary preparations.

Her friend had a hundred questions to ask about the Macleans. Judith couldn't answer any of them. When she was finally allowed to speak a full sentence without being interrupted, she told her friend about Douglas.

"I have a brother. He's exactly five years older," Judith said. "My mother left him and never said a word to anyone."

Frances Catherine almost toppled over. She became irate on Judith's behalf. "That bloody bitch," she shouted.

She was about to bellow another dark opinion of Judith's mother when she heard her husband apologizing for her outside the window. She slapped her hand over her mouth to keep her laughter contained.

"Your mother's a monster," she whispered. "If there's any justice in this world, she'll get what's coming to her."

Judith didn't believe that was true, but she wasn't about to argue with her friend now. "Perhaps," she allowed.

"Agnes got what was coming to her," Frances Catherine announced with a nod.

"Why, what happened to her?" Judith asked.

Frances Catherine seemed not to hear her. "Aye, she did. She was a fool to spread such sinful rumors about you and think our laird wouldn't hear them."

"Iain heard?" Judith asked.

"He did," Frances Catherine said. She paused to concentrate on the pain that gripped her, holding on to the edge of the mantel until it had passed. Then she mopped her brow with a linen square. "Lord, that one was a bit stronger than the last."

"It lasted longer, too," Judith told her.

Frances Catherine nodded. "Now, where was I? Oh yes, Agnes."

"Exactly what did Iain hear?"

"That you were carrying his child before he wed you."

"Dear God, he must have been furious…"

"Oh, he was that, all right," Frances Catherine agreed. "You and Patrick and Graham had taken off to go fishing, and Iain came back from his duties about two hours' later. He looked in on me to make certain I wasn't needing anything. That was thoughtful of him, wasn't it? Iain's wanned considerably since he married you, Judith. He never used—"

"Frances Catherine, you're digressing," Judith interrupted. "What did he do about Agnes?"

"I was getting to that," her friend said. "Iain went along up to the keep. Someone must have stopped him to tell him. Or perhaps one of the elders mentioned—"

"I don't care how he heard," Judith interrupted again. "I want to know what he did about it. You're making me daft, Frances Catherine, skirting around and around the way you are."

Frances Catherine smiled. "It's taken your mind off the birthing, hasn't it?"

Judith nodded. Then she begged her friend to finish her explanation.

Frances Catherine was happy to oblige. "He went directly to Agnes's cottage. Brodick told me so. He stopped by, too, just to make certain I was all right. I think Patrick nagged him into looking in on me. Anyway, another hour passed, and I went outside to take in some fresh air when I saw Agnes and her daughter, Cecilia, all packed up and marching down the hill. Brodick told me they were leaving Maitland land. They won't be back, either, Judith."

"Where will they go?"

"To Agnes's cousins," Frances Catherine explained. "They had an escort of soldiers riding with them."

"Iain never said a word to me." Judith mulled that fact over for several minutes while Frances Catherine resumed her pacing.

Helen knocked on the door, interrupting the private discussion. "We'll talk about this later," Frances Catherine whispered.

Judith nodded. She helped Helen carry in a giant pile of linens and add them to the others on the table. Winslow was right behind the housekeeper. He carried in the birthing stool. Frances Catherine promptly invited the warrior to stay for the nooning meal. Winslow was too surprised by the invitation to do more than shake his head.

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