Iain didn't say a word for a long minute. Alex walked over to stand next to his laird. Then Gowrie strolled over to stand on the opposite side. Brodick was the last to move. He stared at Iain, waiting for permission, and when his laird finally took his gaze off Cameron and turned to give him a nod, Brodick walked over to stand directly in front of Judith.
She was literally pressed between the two warriors. She tried to peek around Brodick's back, but Iain tightened his hold so she couldn't move at all.
"We've already noticed she's English, Cameron," Brodick announced in a low yet forceful voice. "Now I would like you to notice that Lady Judith is under our protection. We're taking her home with us."
The elderly man seemed to shake himself out of his stupor. "Yes, of course," he stammered out. "It was just a surprise, you see, hearing her… voice and all."
Cameron didn't like the look in Laird Maitland's eyes. He decided he had better smooth over this breach of manners as quickly as possible. He took a step to his left so that he could look directly at the Englishwoman when he made his apology.
Brodick moved with him, effectively blocking his intent. "Are we all welcome here?"
"Of course you are," Cameron replied. His fingers threaded through his stock of white hair in a nervous gesture, and he fervently hoped the laird didn't notice how his hand was shaking. He'd really made a muck of this greeting. The last thing he wanted to do was offend such a powerful, ruthless man… and if he had offended Iain, he knew it probably would be the very last thing he'd ever do on this sweet earth.
Cameron resisted the nearly overwhelming urge to make the sign of the cross. He couldn't hold Iain's hard stare long, and turned his full attention to Brodick. He cleared his throat, then said, "Since the day your brother married my only daughter, you and every other member of the Maitland clan are welcome here. Laird Maitland's woman, too, of course," he hastily added. He half turned, then bellowed to his wife, "Margaret, put the supper on the table for our guests."
Judith had wondered why Iain hadn't spoken up, but as soon as Cameron mentioned that Brodick's brother was married to his daughter, she understood why Iain had given him the duty of sorting out the awkward situation.
Cameron beckoned everyone inside. Judith reached out and grabbed hold of the back of Brodick's plaid. He immediately turned around. "Thank you for speaking up for me," she whispered.
"You needn't thank me, Judith." His voice was gruff with embarrassment.
"Yes, I must," she argued. "Brodick, will you please explain to your relative that I'm not Iain's woman. He seems to misunderstand."
Brodick stared at her a long minute without saying a word, then glanced up to look at Iain.
Why was he being so hesitant? "I'm only asking that you set the man straight," she said.
"No?" she asked. "Why in heaven's name not?"
Brodick didn't actually smile, but the corners of his eyes crinkled together in what she decided was amusement. "Because you are Iain's woman," he drawled out.
She shook her head. "Where did you get that ridiculous notion? I'm only a guest—"
She quit trying to explain when Brodick turned and walked inside the cottage. She watched the obstinate man leave. Alex and Gowrie followed. Those two were openly grinning.
Judith stayed where she was. Iain finally let go of her shoulders and gave her a little prod:
She didn't budge. He moved to stand beside her. His head was bent down toward hers. "You may come inside now."
"Why didn't you say something when Cameron called me your woman?"
He shrugged. "I didn't feel like it."
He wasn't telling her the truth, of course. Cameron had been wrong; Judith wasn't his woman, but he had liked the sound of it too much to take exception. Lord, he was weary to be thinking such foolish thoughts. "Come inside," Iain ordered again, his voice a bit more gruff than he'd intended. .
She shook her head and turned her gaze to the ground.
"What's this?" he demanded. He forced her face up with the back of his hand under her chin.
"I don't wish to go inside."
She'd sounded downright pitiful. He tried not to smile. "Why not?" he asked.
She shrugged. He gently squeezed her jaw. She knew he wouldn't let up on her until she'd given him a proper answer. "I just don't want to go where I'm not wanted," she whispered. His smile was filled with tenderness. She suddenly felt like crying. Her eyes were already getting misty. "I'm overly exhausted this evening," she excused.
"But that isn't the reason you wish to stay out here, is it?"
"I just explained… I was humiliated," she blurted out. "I know I shouldn't take his dislike personally. All the Highlanders hate the English, and most of the English hate the Scots, even the border Scots… and I hate all the hatred. It's… ignorant, Iain."
He nodded agreement. Some of the bluster went out of her. It was difficult to stay outraged when he wasn't arguing with her. "Did he frighten you?"
"His anger did," she admitted. "It was most unreasonable. Or am I overreacting again? I'm too weary to know."
She was exhausted. He hadn't paid enough attention, or he certainly would have noticed the dark smudges under her eyes before now. She had taken hold of his hand when she'd admitted she'd felt humiliated, and she still hadn't let go.
Yes, Judith looked tired, defeated too, and utterly beautiful to him.
She suddenly straightened her shoulders. "You must go inside. I'll be happy to wait out here."
He smiled as he pulled his hand away from hers. "But I'd be happier if you went inside with me," he announced.
He was through discussing the topic. He threw his arm around her shoulders, gave her a little squeeze, and then dragged her along with him toward the doorway.
"You said you might be overreacting once again," he remarked as he hauled her along. He was deliberately ignoring the fact that she was acting like a stiff board. The woman had a stubborn streak in her nature. That flaw amused him. No other woman had ever appeared to be disgruntled with him, but Judith was quite different from all the women he'd known in the past. She was glaring at him every other minute, or so it seemed. He found her reactions refreshingly honest. She didn't have to try to impress him, and she sure as hell didn't have it in her nature to cower away from him, either. Odd, but her uninhibited behavior freed him. He didn't have to act the laird over a submissive subject with Judith. The fact that she was an outsider seemed to break the bindings of traditions pressed upon him as leader of his clan.
Iain had to force himself back to the question nagging him. "When was the first time you overreacted?" he asked.
"When you kissed me."
They'd reached the opening when she whispered that admission. He came to a dead stop and grabbed hold of her. "I don't understand," he said. "How did you overreact?"
She could feel her face heating up. She shrugged his arm away from her shoulder. "You were obviously angry with me… after, and that made me angry, too. I shouldn't have cared," she added with a firm nod.
She didn't wait to gain his reaction to her outburst of honesty. She hurried inside. The older woman she'd noticed standing in the shadows came forward to greet her. Her smile seemed genuine to Judith, and some of the tension went out of her shoulders when she smiled back.
Margaret was a pretty woman. The creases edged in her brow and around the corners of her mouth didn't take away from her appeal. She had lovely green-colored eyes with flecks of gold in them, and thick brown hair streaked through with strands of gray. She'd fashioned a braid at the nape of her neck. Although the woman was a good foot taller than Judith, she wasn't at all intimidating. Kindness radiated from the woman.
"Thank you for allowing me to come into your home," Judith said after she'd completed a curtsy.
Margaret wiped her hands on the white apron she wore around her middle before returning the curtsy. "If you'll take your seat at the table, I'll finish getting our supper ready."
Judith didn't want to sit with the men. Iain had already joined the group, and Cameron was leaning across the table pouring him a gobletful of wine. Judith's stomach immediately tightened. She took a quick breath to calm herself. A single cup of wine wasn't going to turn Iain mean… was it? This reaction was absolutely ridiculous, she told herself. And uncontrollable. Her stomach was aching as though she'd swallowed fire. Iain wasn't at all like Tekel. He wouldn't turn ugly. He wouldn't.
Iain happened to glance up. He took one look at Judith and knew something was terribly wrong. The color had left her face. She looked as though she was in a panic about something. He was about to get up from the table to find out what was troubling her when he realized she was staring at the jug of wine.
What in God's name had gotten into her?
"Judith? Did you wish to drink some—"
She vehemently shook her head. "Wouldn't water be more… refreshing after such a long day's journey?"
He leaned back. What they drank seemed damned important to her. He didn't have the faintest idea why, and he guessed that didn't really matter. She was obviously upset. If the woman wanted them to drink water, then they would drink water.
"Yes," he agreed. "Water would be more refreshing."
Her shoulders slumped with relief.
Brodick noticed her reaction too. "We'll be getting up early, Cameron," he said, though his gaze was locked on Judith. "We won't drink wine until we're home."
Margaret had heard the conversation, too. She hurried over to the table with a pitcherful of fresh spring water. Judith carried over more goblets.
"Sit yourself down and rest," Margaret told her.
"I would rather help you," Judith replied.
Margaret nodded. "Fetch that stool and sit by the hearth. You can stir the stew while I see to cutting the bread."
Judith was relieved. The men were in discussion now, and from the frowns they wore, she assumed it was an important topic. She didn't want to interrupt. More importantly, she didn't want to sit next to Cameron, and the only empty stool was at the end of the table, on Cameron's left.
Judith carried the stool from against the wall over to the hearth to follow Margaret's instructions. She noticed that the woman kept giving her covert glances. She obviously wanted to speak to her, but must have been concerned about her husband's reaction. She kept glancing over to the table to see if Cameron was paying them any attention.
"We rarely get company," Margaret whispered.
Judith nodded. She watched Margaret peek over at her husband again, then turn back to her.
"I'm curious as to why you're wanting to go to the Maitlands' home," she whispered next.
Judith smiled. "My friend married a Maitland and requested that I come for the birthing of her first child," she answered, keeping her voice as whisper-soft as Margaret's had been when she asked her question.
"How did you ever meet?" Margaret wanted to know.
"At the festival on the border."
Margaret nodded. "We have the same festivals in the Highlands, though it comes in the fall and not the spring."
"Have you ever attended?"
"When Isabelle still lived with us we went," Margaret answered. "Cameron's been too busy to go since," she added with a shrug. "I always had a fine time."
"I understand Isabelle's married to Brodick's brother," Judith said. "Was it a recent wedding?"
"No, over four years ago now," Margaret answered.
The sadness in Margaret's voice was most evident. Judith quit stirring the meaty stew and leaned back from the fire so she could give Margaret her full attention. Odd, but although they were virtual strangers, she felt the urge to comfort the woman. She seemed to be terribly lonely, and Judith well understood that feeling.
"Haven't you had time to go and visit your daughter?"
"Not once have I seen my Isabelle since she wed," Margaret answered. "The Maitlands stay to themselves. They don't take to outsiders."
Judith couldn't believe what she was hearing. "But you're certainly not an outsider," she protested.
"Isabelle belongs to Winslow now. It wouldn't be proper to ask that she come to visit us, and it wouldn't be proper either to ask to go to her."
Judith shook her head. She'd never heard of anything so preposterous. "Does she send messages to you?"
"Who would bring them?"
A long minute passed in silence. "I would," Judith whispered.
Margaret looked over at her husband, then turned her gaze back to Judith. "You would do that for me?"
"I'm worrying it wouldn't be proper," Margaret said.
"Of course it would be proper," Judith argued. "It wouldn't be difficult, either, Margaret. If you have any messages you'd like me to give Isabelle, I promise I'll find her and give them to her. Then, on my way back to England, I'll give you her messages. Perhaps there will even be an invitation to visit," she added.
"We're going outside to see about the horses, wife," Cameron announced in a booming voice. "Shouldn't take us any time at all. Supper almost ready?"
"Aye, Cameron," Margaret answered. "It will be on the table when you come back inside."
The men left the cottage. Cameron shut the door behind them. "Your husband sounded angry," Judith remarked.
"Oh, no, he's not angry," Margaret rushed out. "He's a little nervous, though. It's quite an honor to have the Maitland laird in our home. Cameron will be boasting about this for a good month or two."
Margaret set the treachers on the table, then added another jug of water. The bread was sliced into wedges. Judith helped her ladle the stew into a large wooden bowl and put it in the center of the long table.
"Perhaps, during our supper, you could ask Brodick how Isabelle is doing," Judith suggested.
Margaret looked appalled. "It would be an insult for me to ask," she explained. "If I ask if she's happy, then I'm suggesting Winslow isn't making her happy. Do you see how complicated it is?"
It wasn't complicated, it was ridiculous in Judith's estimation. She could feel herself getting angry on Margaret's behalf. The Maitlands were being cruel-hearted with such an attitude. Didn't any of them have any compassion for relatives like mothers and fathers?