"You aren't going to die." Judith nearly shouted that denial. "After all the trouble and embarrassment I've gone through, you damn well better not die."
Frances Catherine was comforted by the anger in her friend's voice. "Tell me about the trouble you've gone through," she demanded, her voice filled with enthusiasm.
"I've spoken to at least fifty midwives in the past two years, and I swear I've memorized every single word they've told me. Millicent was as determined as I was, of course, and she had servants scour the countryside looking for these women. I don't know what I would have done without her assistance."
"Millicent's a dear woman."
"Aye, she is," Judith agreed. "She sends you her love, of course."
Frances Catherine nodded. "Tell me what you learned from all of these midwives."
"To be completely honest with you, at first I heard so many conflicting opinions, I almost lost heart. One would tell me the chamber had to be as hot as purgatory during the laboring, and another would be vehemently in favor of just the opposite. Aye, it was frustrating, Frances Catherine. Then a miracle came about. One morning a midwife named Maude marched into the keep, acting very like she owned the place. She was old, terribly fragile-looking, with stooped shoulders and gnarled hands. She was a sight, all right. I'll confess I had immediate misgivings about her knowledge. I quickly realized how foolish that conclusion was. Frances Catherine, she is the dearest of women. She was full of insight, too, and told me that most of her opinions were based on just plain sense. She's been a midwife for ages and ages, but her methods are really quite modern. She's kept up with all the changes and says she's always interested in hearing about the newest techniques. She's a dedicated midwife. If she hadn't been so old and fragile, I would have begged her to come here with me. The journey would have been too much for her."
"The women would never have allowed her interference," Frances Catherine said. "You don't understand, Judith."
"Then help me understand. Have you spoken to the midwives here about your fears?"
"Good Lord, no," Frances Catherine answered in a rush. "If I told her I was frightened, she'd only make it worse. Her name's Agnes, and I don't want her near me when my time comes. She and another woman named Helen are the only two midwives here. They're both very high- and mighty-acting. Agnes's daughter, Cecilia, is supposed to marry Iain when he gets around to asking, and I think that's the reason Agnes always has her nose in the air. She thinks she's going to become the laird's mother-in-law."
Judith's heart felt as though it had just dropped to the bottom of her stomach. She turned her gaze to the tabletop so Frances Catherine wouldn't notice how upset she was by this news.
Her friend didn't notice. She continued right along with her explanation. "The marriage isn't certain in anyone's mind but Agnes's, and Patrick doesn't believe Iain has any intention of offering for Cecilia."
"Then why does Agnes believe he will?"
"Her daughter is a beautiful woman. 'Tis the truth she's probably the prettiest woman in the whole clan. It's a shallow reason, but Agnes thinks that because her daughter is so appealing, Iain will eventually want her. Cecilia's dim-witted and can't hold a thought longer than a flea."
Judith shook her head. "Shame on you for saying such cruel things about this woman." She tried to sound as though she meant what she had just said, but ruined the effect completely by bursting into laughter. "A flea, Frances Catherine?"
Her friend nodded. Then she started laughing. "Oh, Judith, I'm so happy you're here."
"I'm just as happy to be here."
"What are we going to do?"
Frances Catherine's change in mood happened so quickly, Judith was quite astonished. She had been laughing just a moment before and was now looking like she was going to cry again.
Maude had told Judith that expectant mothers were prone to emotional outbursts. She had also said that a calm, peaceful frame of mind was imperative for an uncomplicated delivery. Whenever the mother became upset, she was to be soothed as much as possible.
Judith followed that dictate now. She patted Frances Catherine's hand and smiled at her. She tried to act confident. "Do about what? Everything's going to be fine, Frances Catherine."
"Agnes won't let you assist me when my laboring starts. And I won't have that vile woman near me. So what are we going to do?"
"You mentioned another midwife named Helen? What about her?"
"Agnes taught her everything she knows," Frances Catherine replied. "I don't believe I want her near me, either."
"There have to be more midwives here," Judith said. "From the number of cottages and the crowd I spotted when I arrived, I guessed there were nearly five hundred men and women living here."
"I'd guess twice that number," Frances Catherine estimated. "You didn't see all the cottages along the back side of the mountain. Only the warriors are counted, and their number swells to over six hundred at the very least."
"Then there have to be other midwives here," Judith said again.
Frances Catherine shook her head. "Agnes runs things," she explained. "And because I'm the laird's sister-in-law, she will insist on delivering the babe. If there are other midwives, they keep quiet about it. They wouldn't want to get Agnes riled."
Judith suddenly felt sick. Panic was beginning to take hold inside. Dear heavens, she wasn't qualified to take on this duty alone. Yes, she had gathered information about the latest birthing methods, but she'd never been allowed to witness an actual delivery, and she felt completely inadequate overseeing Frances Catherine's care.
Why wasn't anything ever easy? Judith had pictured herself mopping her friend's brow during the pains, holding her hand, too, and occasionally whispering "There, there," while the experienced midwife took care of the more necessary duties.
Tears were once again streaming down Frances Catherine's face. Judith let out a little sigh. "Only one thing is certain," she announced. "You're going to have this baby. I'm here to help you, and surely between the two of us, we can solve any problem, no matter how impossible it seems."
Her matter-of-fact tone of voice soothed Frances Catherine. "Yes," she agreed.
"Is it possible to win Agnes over or do we give up on her?"
"We give up," Frances Catherine answered. "She won't change her ways. She's cruel-hearted, Judith. Every chance she gets, she makes horrid remarks about the pain I'm going to have to endure. She likes to tell stories about other difficult birthings, too."
"You mustn't listen to her," Judith said. Her voice shook with anger. She had never heard of anything so appalling. Agnes did sound cruel-hearted. Judith shook her head while she thought about this bleak situation.
"I know what you're doing," her friend whispered.
"You're trying to understand Agnes, aren't you? Once you come up with a reason for her behavior, you'll set out to change it. It won't matter to me," she added. "I don't care if she turns into an angel. She isn't coming near me."
"No, I'm not trying to understand her. I already know why she acts the way she does. She's after power, Frances Catherine. She uses fear and a woman's vulnerability to get what she wants. She feeds on their weakness. Maude told me there are women like her. Nothing I can do will change her attitude, either. Don't you worry. I won't let her near you. I promise."
Frances Catherine nodded. "I don't feel so alone any longer," she confessed. "Whenever I try to talk to Patrick about the birthing, he gets very upset. He's afraid for me, and I always end up comforting him."
"He loves you," Judith said. "That's why he's worried."
"I can't imagine why he loves me. I've been so difficult lately. I cry all the time."
"There isn't anything wrong with that."
Frances Catherine smiled. Judith had always been her champion. She felt very fortunate to have her for her friend. "I've talked long enough about my problems. Now I want to talk about yours. Are you going to try to see your father while you're here?"
Judith shrugged. "It has become a little more complicated. First, I didn't realize how large these Highlands are," she said. "And second, I heard the Macleans were feuding with the Maitlands."
"How did you find that out?"
Judith explained about the discussion she'd had with Isabelle's mother. Frances Catherine was frowning when she finished.
"What she told you is true. The Macleans are enemies."
"My father might be dead."
"How do you know?"
"I asked Patrick to tell me what the Maclean laird was like, pretending only mild curiosity, of course, and he said he was an old man who had ruled his clan for many years."
"What else did he tell you?"
"Nothing else," Frances Catherine said. "I didn't want to prod him. He'd ask me why I was so interested in the Macleans if I asked too many questions. I gave you my promise never to tell anyone who your father was, and since I made that promise before I married Patrick, I can't tell him. Besides, he'd have heart palpitations. Judith, no one must ever know, not while you're here. It would be dangerous for you."
"Iain would protect me."
"He doesn't know about Maclean," she argued. "I don't know what he would do if he found out."
"I think he would still protect me."
"Lord, you sound certain."
Judith smiled. "I am certain," she said. "But it doesn't matter, does it? Iain's never going to find out. I'm not even sure I want to meet my father. I had hoped to see him from a distance, though."
"And what would that accomplish?"
"My curiosity would be appeased."
"You should talk to him," Frances Catherine insisted. "You don't know if he banished your mother or not. You need to find out the truth. You certainly can't believe your mother's story, not after all the lies you've been told."
"I know for certain he never came to England to get us," Judith argued. Her hand instinctively went to her bosom. Her father's ring was nestled between her br**sts on the gold chain, hidden beneath her gown. She should have left the ring at home, but she hadn't been able to do that. She couldn't understand why. Lord, it was a confusion.
She let her hand drop back to the tabletop. "Promise me that if a way doesn't present itself, you'll let this go. All right?"
Frances Catherine agreed just to placate her friend. She could tell this was a painful discussion for Judith. She decided to change the subject, and began to reminisce about some of their adventures at the festivals.
In no time at all, both women were laughing.
Patrick could hear the sound of his wife's laughter outside. He smiled in reaction. Her friend was already helping. Brodick walked by Patrick's side. He also smiled. "Frances Catherine is pleased to have Judith here," he remarked.
"Aye, she is," Patrick replied.
He was still smiling when he walked into the cottage. His wife remembered her manners this time. She immediately stood up and walked over to her husband. Judith also stood up. She folded her hands together and called her greeting to both warriors.
Brodick carried three of her satchels inside. Patrick carried two. The men dropped the baggage on the bed. "Exactly how long are you planning to stay, lass?" Patrick asked.
He sounded worried. Judith couldn't resist teasing him. "Just a year or two," she answered. He tried not to blanch. She laughed. "I was jesting," she told him then.
"Brodick, you must stay for supper," Frances Catherine said. "Judith, don't jest with Patrick. You've made the color drain from his face."
Both women thought that fact was vastly amusing. They were still laughing when Alex and Gowrie appeared in the opened doorway. The two warriors looked a little sheepish. Frances Catherine immediately invited them to supper too.
Patrick seemed surprised to have visitors. Judith helped her friend finish the preparations for the meal. Frances Catherine had made a thick lamb stew and had baked round loaves of rich, black bread.
The men crowded around the table. Judith and Frances Catherine served them before squeezing in next to Patrick to eat.
Neither Judith nor Frances Catherine had much of an appetite. They talked to each other all through the supper. Alex did more staring at Judith than eating, Patrick noticed, and when he realized Gowrie hadn't touched his food, either, the reason for their spontaneous visit became clear.
They were both taken with Judith. Patrick had to restrain himself from laughing. The ladies were oblivious to the men. They excused themselves from the table and went over to the bed. Judith gave her friend all the presents she'd made, then blushed with pleasure over Frances Catherine's joy. All but one of the gifts were for the baby, but Judith had also made her friend a beautiful white nightgown with pink and blue roses embroidered along the neckline. It had taken Judith a full month to finish the garment. The work had been worth the effort, for Frances Catherine thought the gown was exquisite.
Since the women weren't paying the men any attention, the men didn't find it necessary to hide their interest. Their gazes were centered on Judith. Patrick noticed that whenever she smiled, so did the soldiers. Brodick's interest surprised Patrick the most because he was usually quite good at keeping his emotions under tight rein.
"What are you grinning about?" Brodick suddenly asked him.
"You," Patrick answered.
Before Brodick could take exception to that honest reply, Judith called out, "Brodick, I've forgotten to take the sweet biscuits over to Isabelle."
"I'll see she gets them," Brodick said.
Judith shook her head. "I want to meet her," she explained. She stood up and walked over to the table. "I have messages to give her from her mother."
"I'll be happy to show you the way," Alex volunteered.
"I'll do it," Gowrie announced in a much firmer voice.
Brodick shook his head. "Isabelle is my sister-in-law," he snapped. "I'll show Judith the way."