The Secret (Highlands' Lairds #1)

The Secret (Highlands' Lairds #1) Page 43
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The Secret (Highlands' Lairds #1) Page 43

Patrick wasn't in any condition to see to the chore of hanging the plaid across the beam. Winslow took care of the duty. Frances Catherine tried to serve him a beverage when he was finished.

He refused the wine and started out the doorway. He suddenly stopped and turned around again. "My wife is waiting in the courtyard," he said. "She wants to help. If you don't want her…"

"Please send her inside," Judith requested. "We'll be happy for her company, won't we, Frances Catherine?"

Her friend brightened up. "Oh, yes," she agreed. "She can have her nooning meal with us."

Helen paused in her task of folding back the bedding to look up. "Are you really hungry, lass? I could bring down some soup I made late yesterday. It's been simmering all through the night."

"Yes, thank you," Frances Catherine answered. "I'm not at all hungry, though."

"Then why—" Judith began.

"When it's time for supper, we have to have our supper," Frances Catherine insisted. "Everything has to be… usual. All right, Judith?"

"Yes, of course," Judith answered.

Isabelle came rushing inside, drawing everyone's attention. She shut the door behind her and hurried over to Frances Catherine. She took hold of her hand. While Judith stood by, Isabelle repeated all the words of encouragement Judith had given her when she'd begun her laboring. She talked about the miracle about to take place, added that yes, it was messy, but still beautiful, and Frances Catherine must remember to feel the joy in the precious duty of giving a new life to the world.

A warm feeling of contentment filled Judith. She had made a difference in someone's life. She knew she would have to leave this place, and soon, if the council had their way, but while she'd lived here, she had made an impact on someone else's life. At least one other woman besides Frances Catherine would remember her.

Helen hurried out of the cottage to fetch the soup. Isabella had left her son in Winslow's aunt's care, and she left to tell her she'd be staying with Frances Catherine until after her baby was born.

Frances Catherine waited until the door closed behind the two women, then turned to Judith. "Are you worried about me?"

"Perhaps just a little," Judith admitted.

"Why did you have the peculiar look on your face? What were you thinking about when Isabelle was talking to me?"

Judith smiled. Frances Catherine rarely let anything get past her. "I was realizing that I made a little difference in Isabella's life. I helped her bring her son into the world. She won't forget that. The others will forget me, but she won't."

"No, she won't forget," Frances Catherine agreed. She turned the topic then. "Patrick says Iain won't tell him what he's going to do. My husband's convinced the council will sanction both of you. He said that when he told his brother that opinion, Iain just smiled and shook his head."

Judith shrugged. "I won't stay here, no matter what happens. You understand why, don't you? I can't be an outsider again."

"Judith, all the women here seem to feel like outsiders," Frances Catherine argued.

The door burst open. "Well?" Patrick bellowed from the entrance.

"Well, what, husband?"

"Frances Catherine, why is this taking so long?"

"Patrick, you really need to get hold of yourself," Judith ordered. "This isn't going to happen any time soon."

Frances Catherine hurried over to her husband. "I'm sorry this is so upsetting to you, but nothing's happening. I can't make the baby hurry, Patrick."

"Judith, can't you do something?" Patrick demanded.

"Your wife is going to rest now," Judith announced. "We have to be patient."

Patrick let out a sigh. "Winslow says you're twice the size Isabelle was," he remarked with a frown.

Frances Catherine didn't take exception to that comment. She knew her husband was looking for something more to worry about. "I ate twice as much," she told him. "Where did Iain go?"

Patrick found his first smile. "I was driving him daft. He's training with his men."

"You should go and help him," Frances Catherine suggested. "I'll send someone to find you when the time draws near."

Patrick reluctantly agreed to leave. He kept coming back, however, and by nightfall he was camped out on the doorstep.

Isabelle's aunt came to fetch her twice during the long day to feed her infant son, and Helen left once to make certain the elders had a proper dinner and that her son Andrew was being looked after.

Frances Catherine's contractions continued to be inconsistent until late afternoon. They came on with a vengeance then, but Frances Catherine was more than ready to take on the pain.

By midnight she was screaming in agony. She was using the birthing chair and bearing down with all her might during each long, excruciating contraction. Helen used the flat of her hands to push down on Frances Catherine's stomach, but her efforts only intensified the pain. The baby wasn't cooperating.

Something was wrong and everyone knew it. The pains were coming one on top of another, and she should have given birth by now. Something was blocking the delivery. Helen knelt on the floor in front of Frances Catherine to once again check the baby's progress, and when she'd completed her examination, she leaned back on her heels and looked up at Judith.

The fear in her eyes made Judith's stomach twist. Helen motioned her to the other side of the room.

"No whispering," Frances Catherine screamed. "Tell me what's wrong."

Judith nodded agreement. "Yes, tell both of us," she ordered.

"The baby isn't in the right position for the birthing. I felt a foot."

Another contraction seized Frances Catherine. Judith ordered her to bear down. Her friend screamed her refusal. She collapsed forward, sobbing uncontrollably.

"Oh, God, Judith, I can't do this any longer. I want to die. The pain—"

"Don't you dare give up on me now," Judith interrupted.

"I can't get my hand inside," Helen whispered. "We need the hook, Judith."


Frances Catherine's tortured scream of denial snapped Judith's control. She was so terrified inside, she barely knew what she was doing. She tore her hand away from her friend's hard grasp, then rushed over to the water bowl. She scrubbed her hands clean. Maude's instructions were echoing in her mind. She didn't know or care that what the midwife had told her might be based on nonsense either. She would follow her procedures and trust that it mattered.

Helen stood up when Judith knelt down in front of Frances Catherine.

Her friend was hoarse from her screams. In a pitiful whisper she pleaded, "Tell Patrick I'm sorry."

"The hell with that nonsense," Judith shouted. She was heartless to her friend's agony now. "Leave it to you, Frances Catherine, to do everything backward."

"Are you thinking to turn the bairn?" Helen asked. "You'll tear her insides if you try."

Judith shook her head. She kept her attention on Frances Catherine. "Tell me when the next pain begins," she commanded.

Helen tried to hand Judith the bowl of pig's fat. "Cover your hands with this grease," she suggested. "It will make the bairn's coming through easier."

"No," Judith answered. She hadn't washed her hands clean so she could cover them with the vile muck.

Isabelle put her hand on Frances Catherine's stomach. A scant minute later she called out, "The pain's starting now. I feel the tightness building."

Judith started praying. Frances Catherine started screaming. Helen and Isabelle held her steady while Judith worked.

Judith's heart almost dropped into her stomach when she felt the tiny foot protruding from the opening. She was praying out loud now, but no one could hear her. Frances Catherine's screams drowned out every other sound. Judith gently moved the foot down and then went in search of the missing one.

God answered her prayer. She didn't have to reach far to find the missing foot. She slowly eased it down through the opening.

Frances Catherine did the rest. She couldn't stop herself from bearing down. The baby would have landed on her feet if Judith hadn't caught her in time.

The beautiful infant who had given them all such a scare was petite in size, adorably chubby, and had a sprinkle of fire-red hair covering her crown. She was extremely dainty-looking… and had a roar very similar to her mother's.

She was perfect.

So was her sister. She didn't give them any trouble at all. She caught everyone by surprise, though. Frances Catherine was weeping with joy, and relief, too, that the ordeal was finally over. Helen had gone outside to complete the ritual of burying the afterbirth in accordance with the rules of the Church, so that demons wouldn't attack the mother or her infant while they were in such a vulnerable condition, and Isabelle was busy cooing to the baby while she gave her her first bath. Judith was washing Frances Catherine when she suddenly started bearing down again. Judith told her to stop it. She was worried about hemorrhage. Frances Catherine couldn't stop. Her second daughter was born just minutes later. She was polite enough to arrive head first.

The infants were identical in appearance. Neither Isabelle nor Helen could tell them apart. They were careful to wrap the little ones in different colored cloths, the firstborn in white, the second in pink, before covering each with the Maitland plaid.

Frances Catherine hadn't bled overly much, but in Judith's mind the worry wasn't over yet. She was going to make certain the new mother stayed in bed a good two weeks as a precaution against complications.

Frances Catherine was finally settled in her bed. She wore the pretty nightgown Judith had made for her. Her hair was brushed and secured with a pink ribbon. Despite her exhaustion, she looked radiant, but Judith knew it was a struggle for her to stay awake.

Patrick had been kept informed of his wife's condition. He knew she was all right. Helen wouldn't tell him if he had a son or a daughter, however. That precious duty belonged to his wife.

The babies were tucked in Frances Catherine's arms for their presentation to their father. Judith smoothed the covers around the threesome, then turned to fetch the new papa.

"Wait." Frances Catherine whispered so she wouldn't disturb her daughters. Both were sound asleep.

"Yes?" Judith whispered back.

"We… we did all right, didn't we, Judith?"

"Aye, we did," she agreed.

"I want to say—"

"You don't have to say anything," Judith told her. "I understand."

Frances Catherine smiled. "It's your turn now, Judith. Give my daughters a friend to share their secrets with," she ordered.

"We'll see," Judith replied. She motioned for Isabelle and Helen to follow her inside. Patrick almost knocked her over as he passed her. His eagerness to get to his family made Judith smile.

The fresh air felt wonderful. Judith was exhausted, and weak with relief that the duty was finally over. She walked over to the stone wall and sat down. Isabelle followed her.

"It was a worry, wasn't it?" Isabelle whispered. "I was so afraid for Frances Catherine."

"I was, too," Judith admitted.

"She's going to need help," Helen announced. "She's had a time of it and needs plenty of rest now. She can't be taking care of those babies alone."

"Winslow's aunts will help and so will I," Isabelle volunteered. "We could take the mornings."

"I could stay from the supper hour on through the nights," Helen suggested.

Both women looked at Judith, expecting her to agree to take the afternoons. She shook her head. "We'll have to find someone to fill in," she said. "I can't promise to help because I'm not at all certain how much longer I'll be staying here."

"What in heaven's name are you talking about?" Isabelle asked, clearly astonished by Judith's remarks.

"I'll explain tomorrow," Judith promised. "Now I want to talk about Frances Catherine. I want both of you to promise me you'll take care of her. She mustn't be allowed out of bed. She isn't out of danger yet."

Judith could hear the desperation in her own voice. She couldn't control that. Exhaustion was making her more emotional, she supposed.

Neither Isabelle nor Helen argued with her. Judith was thankful for their silence. Helen let out a weary sigh. The sadness she saw on her mistress's face tore at her heart.

She decided to try to lighten the conversation. "Were you two as surprised as I was when Frances Catherine started in laboring a second time?"

Both Isabelle and Judith smiled.

"You're both looking ready to fall down," Helen said. "Go on home and get some rest. I'll stay the rest of the night."

Neither Isabelle nor Judith had the strength or inclination to move. It was so quiet, so peaceful just sitting there staring out into the darkness.

Judith heard a sound behind her and turned. Iain and Winslow were coming down the hill. She quickly turned around again and tried to straighten her appearance. She brushed her hair back over her shoulders, pinched her cheeks for color, and tried to smooth the wrinkles out of her gown.

Isabelle watched her. "You still look like hell," she whispered with a giggle.

Judith was astonished by the remark. Isabelle was such a sweet, soft-spoken woman. Judith didn't know she had it in her to tease. She burst into laughter. "So do you," she whispered back.

They stood up at the same time to greet their husbands, then leaned into each other, trying to force the other to take all the weight.

"I don't care what I look like," Isabelle confessed. "Winslow wants to… you know, and I don't think I should this soon. It's only been seven weeks. I think we should wait seven more… but some nights, I do want to…"

Judith wasn't certain she understood what Isabelle was stammering on and on about. She saw her blush and finally caught on. "Maude told me it's usual to wait six weeks before… sleeping with your husband."

Isabelle immediately tried to straighten her appear ance. Judith found her action vastly amusing. Her laughter started Isabelle laughing, too.

Helen shook her head over their pitiful condition.

Iain and Winslow thought they'd lost their minds. Helen gave them the good news about Frances Catherine. Both warriors were pleased, of course, but their attention remained on their ill-disciplined wives.

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