The Secret (Highlands' Lairds #1)

The Secret (Highlands' Lairds #1) Page 5
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The Secret (Highlands' Lairds #1) Page 5

The following morning Tekel wouldn't remember anything he'd said the night before. Judith remembered every word. She desperately tried to forgive him his cruelty to her. She tried to believe that his pain was far more unbearable for him than it was for her. Uncle Tekel needed her understanding, her compassion.

Judith's mother, Lady Cornelia, didn't have any compassion for her brother. It was a blessing that she never stayed home more than a month at a time. She had very little to do with Tekel or her own daughter even then. When Judith was younger and more easily hurt by her mother's cold, distant attitude, her uncle would comfort her by telling her she was a constant reminder of her father, and her mother had so loved the baron that she still, after all these many years, mourned his passing. When she looked at her daughter, he said, the ache of her loss would well up inside her, leaving little room for other emotions. Because Tekel hadn't been drinking so heavily back then, Judith had no reason to doubt his explanation. She didn't understand such love between a husband and wife, though, and she ached inside for her mother's love and acceptance.

Judith had lived with her aunt Millicent and uncle Herbert the first four years of her life. Then, on her first real visit with her uncle Tekel and her mother, she accidentally referred to Uncle Herbert as her papa. Judith's mother went into a rage. Tekel wasn't overly pleased, either. He decided she needed to spend more time with him, and ordered Millicent to bring Judith to his holding for six months each year.

Tekel was repelled by the idea that his niece would consider Herbert her father. For that reason he set aside an hour each morning, when his mind wasn't muddled with wine, and tell her stories about her real father. The long curved sword that hung over the hearth was the very sword her father had used to slay the dragons who dared try to snatch England away from the rightful king, and her noble father had died protecting his overlord's life, Tekel would tell her.

The stories were endless… and filled with fancy. In no time at all Judith had sainted her father in her mind. She'd been told he died on the first day of May, and on the morning of each anniversary of his passing she'd collect a skirt full of early spring flowers and cover her father's grave with the pretty blooms. She would say a prayer for his soul, though in truth she didn't believe her petition was necessary. Her papa was surely already in Heaven, pleasing his Maker now instead of the king he'd so valiantly pleased while on earth.

Judith was eleven years old and on her way to the border festival when she found out the truth about her father. He hadn't died defending England from infidels. The man wasn't even English. Her mother didn't mourn her husband; she hated him with a passion that hadn't dimmed at all through the years. Tekel had only told her one half-truth. Judith was a constant reminder to her mother, a reminder of the horrible mistake she'd made.

Aunt Millicent sat Judith down and told her everything she knew. Her mother had married the Scottish laird out of spite when the English baron she'd set her cap on was deemed unacceptable for her by her father and her king. Lady Cornelia wasn't accustomed to having her wants denied her. She married the Highlander a short two weeks after meeting him at court in London. Cornelia wanted to get even with her father. She wanted to hurt him, and she certainly accomplished that goal, but in the bargain she'd made, she hurt herself more.

The marriage lasted five years. Then Cornelia returned to England. She begged residence with her brother, Tekel, and at first refused to explain what had happened. Later, after it became apparent she was expecting a child, she told her brother that her husband had banished her as soon as he found out she was pregnant. He didn't want her any longer, and he didn't want her child.

Tekel wanted to believe his sister. He was lonely, and the thought of raising a niece or nephew appealed to him. After Judith was bora, though, Cornelia couldn't stand having the infant in the keep. Millicent and Herbert were able to sway Tekel into letting them have Judith. The bargain they had to make was that they would never tell Judith about her father.

Millicent wasn't about to keep that promise, but she waited until she felt Judith was old enough to understand. Then she sat her down and explained everything she knew about her father.

Judith had a thousand questions. Millicent didn't have many answers. She wasn't even certain if the Scottish laird was still alive. She did know his name though. It was Maclean.

She'd never met the man and therefore couldn't offer a description of his appearance. Yet since Judith didn't look anything like her mother, she could only assume her blond hair and blue eyes came from her father's side of the family.

It was simply too much for Judith to take in. Her mind could only focus on all the lies she'd been told over the years. The betrayal was devastating to her.

Frances Catherine had been waiting for her at the festival. The minute the two friends were alone, Judith told her everything she'd learned. She wept, too. Frances Catherine held her hand and wept right along with her.

Neither one of them could understand the reasons behind the deceit. After days of discussing the topic, they decided the reasons weren't important now.

Then they formed their own plan. It was decided that Judith wouldn't confront her mother or her uncle Tekel with the truth. If they realized that Millicent had told her the truth about her father, they would very likely force her to permanently move in with them.

That real possibility was chilling. Aunt Millicent, Uncle Herbert, and Frances Catherine had become Judith's family. They were the only people she could trust, and she wouldn't allow her mother to keep her away from them.

No matter how difficult the task, Judith would have to hold on to her patience. She would wait until she was older. Then, if she were still inclined, she would find a way to go to these Highlands and meet the man who had fathered her. Frances Catherine promised to help.

The following years passed quickly, even for a young woman wishing to take on the world. Frances Catherine had been pledged to marry a border man from the Stewart clan, but three months before the wedding day the Kirkcaldys had a falling out with the Stewart laird. Patrick Maitland took full advantage of the fresh feud and offered for Frances Catherine a scant week after the contract to the Stewarts was broken.

When Judith heard that her friend had married a Highlander, she believed fate had taken a hand in helping her. She'd already given Frances Catherine her promise to come to her when she was expecting. While she was there, Judith thought, she would find a way to meet her father.

She would start her journey tomorrow. Frances Catherine's relatives were on their way to fetch her even now. The only problem was how to explain all this to Uncle Tekel.

At least her mother was back in London. The household was always in an uproar when Judith's mother was home, but she'd grown bored with the isolation of the country and had left for London the week before. Lady Cornelia loved the chaos and gossip of court life, the lax moral code, and most of all, the intrigue and secrecy that went along with the many liaisons. She currently had her eye on Baron Ritch, the handsome husband of one of her dearest friends, and had hatched a plan to get him into her bed within a fortnight. Judith had heard her mother make just that boast to Tekel and then laugh over his outraged reaction.

Nothing her mother did could surprise Judith. She was thankful she only had Tekel to contend with. She had waited until the night before her departure to tell him about her plans. She wasn't going to ask his permission, but she felt it would be dishonorable to simply leave without telling him where she was going.

She dreaded the confrontation. On the way up to his bedchamber, the familiar knot formed in the pit of her stomach. She said a prayer that the ale had made Tekel melancholy tonight and not god-awful mean.

The chamber was shrouded in darkness. A musty, damp odor permeated the air. Judith always felt as though she was being suffocated whenever she was inside the chamber. She felt that way now and took a deep breath to calm her nerves.

A single candle burned with light on the chest next to Tekel's bed. Judith could barely see her uncle's face in the shadows. The worry of fire from a forgotten candle was always a fear in the back of her mind, for often her uncle would pass into a drunken slumber before snuffing out the candle flame.

She called out to him. He didn't answer. Judith walked inside just as Tekel finally noticed her and called out to her.

His voice was slurred. He beckoned her forward with a wave of his hand, and after she'd hurried over to the side of the bed, he reached up to take hold of her hand.

He gave her a wobbly smile. She let out a sigh of relief. He was in a melancholy mood tonight.

"Sit beside me while I tell you a story I've just remembered about the time I rode into battle with your father. Did I tell you he used to sing the same ballad whenever the trumpets sounded the attack? He always kept right on singing the entire time he was fighting."

Judith sat down in the chair adjacent to the bed. "Uncle, before you continue this story, I would like to talk to you about an important matter."

"Hearing about your father isn't important?"

She ignored the question. "I have something I must tell you," she said.

"What is it?"

"Do you promise you'll try not to become angry?"

"When have I ever been angry with you?" he asked, completely unaware of the hundreds of nights he'd raged against her. "Now tell me what ails you, Judith. I'll smile all through this confession."

She nodded and folded her hands in her lap. "Each summer, your sister Millicent and her husband have taken me to the festival on the border. Uncle Herbert has relatives living there."

"I know he does," Tekel remarked. "Hand me my goblet and go on with this explanation. I'm wanting to know why you didn't tell me about these festivals."

Judith watched her uncle gulp down a large portion of his ale and pour himself another helping before she answered his question.

The pain in her stomach intensified. "Millicent thought it would be better if I didn't tell you or mother—she thought it would upset you to know I was associating with Scots."

"What you say is true," Tekel agreed. He took another long drink from his goblet. "I don't usually hold with such hatred, but I'll tell you your mother has good reason to feel the way she does. I can also understand why you kept quiet about attending these festivals, too. I know the fine time you must have had. I'm not so old I can't remember. Still, I must put a stop to it. You won't be going to the border again."

Judith took a deep breath in an effort to control her anger. "At the first festival I attended, I met a girl named Frances Catherine Kirkcaldy. She and I became good friends right away. Until Frances Catherine married and moved away from the border region, we renewed our friendship every summer at the festival. I gave her a promise, and now the time has come for me to keep it. I have to go away for a little while," she ended in a soft whisper.

Her uncle stared at her with bloodshot eyes. It was apparent he was having difficulty following her explanation. "What's this?" he demanded. "Where do you think you're going?"

"First I would like to tell you about the promise I gave when I was eleven years old." She waited for his nod before continuing. "Frances Catherine's mother died during childbirth and her grandmother died in just the same way."

"That isn't so extraordinary," he muttered. "Many women die doing their duty."

She tried not to let his callous attitude bother her. "Several years ago, I learned from Frances Catherine that her grandmother actually died sometime during the week after the birthing, and that was very hopeful news, of course."

"Why was it hopeful?"

"Because her death couldn't have been caused by narrow hips."

Judith knew she was making a muck out of her explanation, but Tekel's scowl was distracting to her concentration.

Tekel shrugged. "It was still the birthing that did her in," he said. "And you shouldn't be concerning yourself with such intimate topics."

"Frances Catherine believes she's going to die," Judith said. "For that reason, I did concern myself."

"Get on with the telling about this promise," he ordered. "But pour me a bit more of that sweet ale while you're explaining."

Judith emptied the last of the ale from the second jug.

"Frances Catherine asked for my promise to come to her when she was expecting. She wanted me by her side when she died. It was little enough to ask, and I immediately agreed. I made that promise a long time ago, but each summer I've told her I haven't changed my mind. I don't want my friend to die," she added. "And for that reason, I took it upon myself to learn as much as I could about the newest birthing methods. I've devoted a good deal of time to this project. Aunt Millicent was a wonderful help. Over the past two years, she has found quite a number of reputable midwives for me to interview."

Tekel was appalled by Judith's admissions. "Do you see yourself as this woman's savior? If God's wanting your friend, your interference could put a sin on your soul. You're a bit of nothing, you are, and yet you dare to think yourself important enough to make a difference?" he added in a sneer.

Judith refused to argue with him. She'd grown so accustomed to his insults, they barely stung anymore. She was proud of that accomplishment, but wished she could find a way to stop the ache in her stomach. She closed her eyes, took another deep breath, and then plunged ahead. "Frances Catherine's time is drawing near and her relatives are on their way to fetch me. I'll be perfectly safe. I'm certain there will be at least two women to accompany me and a fair number of men to see to my safety."

Tekel's head fell back on the pillows. "Good God, you're asking me if you can go back to the border? And what am I to tell your mother when she returns and finds you missing?"

Judith hadn't asked his permission, but decided not to point that out to him. Her uncle closed his eyes. He looked like he was hovering on the edge of sleep. She knew she was going to have to hurry if she wanted to get the rest said before he passed into a drunken slumber.

"I'm not going to the border region," she began. "I'm going to a place called the Highlands, way up north, in an isolated area near the Moray Firth."

Her uncle's eyelids flew open. "I won't hear of it," he roared.


He reached out to slap her. Judith had already moved her chair out of his striking distance.

"I'm through discussing this," he roared. He was so upset, the veins in the side of his neck stood out.

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