"You could scream here and no one would hear you." There was a sparkle in his eyes when he gave her that suggestion.

"You would hear," she said.

"I wouldn't mind."

"But I would mind. It wouldn't be proper."

"It wouldn't?"

She shook her head. "Nor ladylike," she added with a nod.

She looked terribly earnest. He couldn't resist. He leaned down and kissed her. His mouth brushed over hers just long enough to feel her softness. He pulled back almost immediately.

"Why did you do that?"

"To get you to quit frowning up at me."

She wasn't given time to react to his admission. He took hold of her hand. "Come along, Judith. We'll walk until your anger is completely gone."

She had to run to keep up with him. "This isn't a race, Iain. We could walk at a more leisurely pace."

He slowed down. They walked along for several minutes in silence, each caught up in his own thoughts.

"Judith, are you always proper?"

She thought it was an odd question to ask her. "Yes and no," she answered. "I'm always very proper the six months of each year I'm forced to live with my mother and my uncle Tekel."

He caught the word "forced," but decided against questioning her now. She was being unguarded, and he wanted to learn as much as he could about her family before she closed up on him again.

"And the other six months of each year?" he asked, his tone casual.

"I'm not proper at all," she answered. "Uncle Herbert and Aunt Millicent let me have quite a bit of freedom. I'm not at all restricted."

"Give me an example of not being restricted," he requested. "I don't understand."

She nodded. "I wanted to find out all I could about childbirth. Aunt Millicent allowed me to pursue my goal and helped every way she could."

She continued to talk about her aunt and uncle for several more minutes. The love she felt for the couple came through in each remark. Iain kept his questions to a minimum and slowly worked his way around to her mother.

"This Uncle Tekel you mentioned," he began. "Is he your father's brother or your mother's?"

"He's my mother's older brother."

He waited for her to tell him more. She didn't say another word. They turned back to where the horses were secured, and had passed through the cemetery before she spoke again.

"Do you think I'm different from other women?"

"Yes."

Her shoulders slumped. She looked terribly forlorn. He felt like laughing. "It isn't bad, it's just different. You're more aware than most women. You aren't as accepting."

"It will get me into trouble some day, won't it?"

"I'll protect you."

It was a sweet pledge, arrogant as well. She didn't think he was really serious. She laughed and shook her head.

They reached the horses. He lifted her into her saddle. He brushed her hair back over her shoulder and gently prodded the bruised skin on the side of her neck. "Does this pain you?"

"Just a little," she admitted.

The chain drew his attention. He pulled the ring from her gown and once again looked at it.

She immediately snatched the ring away and hid it in her fist.

And it was the fist that prodded his memory at last.

He took a step back, away from her. "Iain? Is something the matter? You've turned gray."

He didn't answer her.

It took Judith a long while to give Frances Catherine all the details of the inquisition. The retelling was made more difficult because her friend kept interrupting her with questions.

"I think you should go with me to see Isabelle and the baby," Judith told her.

"I would like to help her," Frances Catherine replied.

"And I would like for you to become Isabella's friend. You have to learn to open your heart to these people. Some of them are certainly as sweet as Isabelle is. I know you'll like her. She's very kind. She reminds me of you, Frances Catherine."

"I'll try to open my heart to her," Frances Catherine promised. "Oh God, I'm going to be so lonely after you leave. I only see Patrick during the evenings, and I'm so sleepy by then I can barely concentrate on what he's saying to me."

"I'll miss you, too," Judith replied. "I wish you lived closer to me. Perhaps then you could come to see me every now and then. Aunt Millicent and Uncle Herbert would love to see you again."

"Patrick would never let me go into England," she said. "He'd think it was too dangerous. Will you braid my hair for me while we wait?"

"Certainly," Judith replied. "What are we waiting for?'

"Patrick made me promise to stay home until he finished an important duty. He'll be happy to walk with us over to Isabelle's."

She handed Judith her brush, sat down on the stool, and asked about Isabelle's laboring again.

The time got away from them, and a good hour passed before they realized Patrick still hadn't returned. Since it was almost the supper hour, they decided to put off the visit until the following morning.

They were in the midst of preparing the dinner when Iain knocked on the door. Frances Catherine had just made an amusing remark, and Judith was still laughing when she opened the door.

"Oh heavens, Iain, you aren't going to tell me Father Laggan has thought of another question to put to me, are you?"

She was jesting with him, and fully expected a smile at the very least. She got a curt answer instead. "No."

He walked inside, gave Frances Catherine a quick nod, then clasped his hands behind his back and turned to Judith.

She couldn't believe this was the same man who had been so sweet and kind to her not two hours ago. He was as cold and distant as a stranger.

"There won't be any other questions from the priest," he announced.

"I knew that," she replied. "I was only jesting with you."

He shook his head at her. "Now isn't the time for jests. I've more important matters on my mind."

"What pressing matters?"

He didn't answer her. He turned to Frances Catherine. "Where is my brother?"

His abruptness worried Frances Catherine. She sat down at the table, folded her hands together in her lap and tried to look calm. "I'm not certain. He should be back any time now."

"Why do you want Patrick?" Judith asked the question she knew her friend wanted to ask but didn't dare.

Iain turned around and started for the door. "I need to speak to him before I leave."

He tried to walk outside after making that remark. Judith rushed in front of him to block his path. He was so surprised by that boldness, he stopped. He smiled, too. Her head was tilted all the way back so she could look up at him. She wanted him to see her frown of displeasure.

Before she realized his intent, he lifted her out of his way. She looked over at Frances Catherine. Her friend waved her after Iain. Judith nodded and went running outside.

"Where are you going? Are you going to be gone long?"

He didn't turn around when he answered her. "I'm not certain how long I'll be gone."

"Why did you want to speak to Patrick? Are you going to take him with you?"

He came to an abrupt stop and turned around to give her his full attention. "No, I'm not taking Patrick with me. Judith, why are you asking me all these questions?"

"Why are you acting so cold?" She blushed after blurting out that thought aloud. "I mean to say," she began again, "earlier you seemed to be in a much more lighthearted mood. Have I done something to displease you?"

He shook his head. "We were alone earlier," he told her. "We aren't now."

He tried to leave again. She rushed in front of him to block his way a second time. "You were going to leave without saying good-bye, weren't you?"

She made the question sound like an accusation. She didn't give him time to answer, either. She turned around and walked back to Frances Catherine. He stood there watching her leave. He could hear her muttering something about being damn rude, and assumed she was referring to him. He let out a sigh over her impudence.

Patrick came down the hill, drawing his attention. Iain explained his intention to take Ramsey and Erin to the MacDonalds' holding for a meeting with the Dunbar laird. The conference would be held on neutral ground, but Iain was still taking all the necessary precautions. If the Macleans got word of this meeting, they would attack in force.

Iain didn't go into detail, but Patrick was astute enough to understand the significance of the conference.

"The council didn't give their blessing, did they?" Patrick guessed.

"They don't know about the meeting."

Patrick nodded. "There'll be trouble."

"Yes."

"Do you want me to go with you?"

"I want you to look out for Judith while I'm away," Iain said. "Don't let her get into trouble."

Patrick nodded. "Where do the elders think you're going?"

"To the MacDonalds," Iain answered. "I just didn't tell them the Dunbars would also be there." He let out a sigh. "God, how I hate this secrecy."

Iain didn't expect a reply to that statement. He turned to remount his stallion, then suddenly stopped. He tossed the reins to Patrick and strode back over to the cottage.

He didn't knock on the door this time. Judith was standing by the hearth. She turned when the door slammed against the stone wall. Her eyes widened, too. Frances Catherine was sitting at the table slicing bread. She half stood, then sat back down again when Iain walked past her.

He didn't say a word in greeting to Judith. He grabbed hold of her shoulders and hauled her up against him. His mouth slammed down on top of hers. She was too stunned to react at first. He forced her mouth open. His tongue moved inside with blatant determination. The kiss was possessive, almost savagely so, and just when she was beginning to respond, he pulled away from her.

She sagged against the corner of the hearth. Iain turned around, nodded to Frances Catherine, and left the cottage.

Judith was too stunned to say anything. Frances Catherine looked at her friend's expression and had to bite her lower lip to keep herself from bursting into laughter.

"Didn't you tell me the attraction was over?"

Judith didn't know what to tell her friend. She did a lot of sighing the rest of the evening. Patrick walked with Frances Catherine and her over to Isabelle's after supper. Judith met several more relatives, all women, and all on Winslow's side of the family. A pretty little woman named Willa introduced herself. She was heavy with child, and after explaining that she was Winslow's third cousin twice removed, she asked Judith if she would please go outside with her for just a few minutes to discuss an important issue. Judith was immediately filled with dread. She guessed the issue was actually a request for help with the birthing.

She couldn't deny the tearful woman's plea, of course, but she made certain Willa understood how inexperienced she was. Willa's elderly aunt Louise had followed them outside, and she stepped forward with the promise that although she had never had children of her own and didn't have any training, she would be willing to help.

Iain was gone three full weeks. Judith missed him terribly. She didn't have time to be completely miserable, though. She delivered Willa's infant daughter while Iain was away, and Caroline's and Winifred's sons as well.

She was terrified each time. It never seemed to get any easier. Patrick had his hands full trying to soothe her fears. He was thoroughly confused by the bizarre ritual she seemed determined to put herself through. All three women began their laboring in the dead of night. Judith would be instantly frightened. She would stammer out all the reasons she couldn't possibly take on this duty, and continue ranting and raving all the way over to the birthing mother's cottage. Patrick would always accompany her, and she was usually trying to rip his plaid off his chest by the time they reached their destination.

The self-torture stopped the minute she walked through the entrance. From then on Judith was calm, efficient, and determined to make the birthing mother as comfortable as possible. She stayed composed until after the baby was born.

After the work was done, Judith would cry all the way home. It didn't matter who was walking with her, either. She wept all over Patrick's plaid, Brodick's as well, and with the third birthing, Father Laggan happened to be strolling by when she'd finished, and she cried all over him.

Patrick didn't know how to help Judith get over this torment she put herself through, and he was immensely relieved when Iain finally returned home.

The sun had already set when his brother, flanked by Ramsey and Erin, rode up the incline. Patrick whistled to his brother. Iain motioned for him to follow him, then continued. Patrick went back inside to tell his wife he was going up to the keep, but she was already sound asleep. He glanced behind the screen and saw that Judith was also dead to the world.

Brodick and Alex met Patrick in the courtyard. The three warriors went inside together.

Iain was standing in front of the hearth. He looked exhausted. "Patrick?" he called out as soon as his brother walked inside.

"She's fine," Patrick called back, answering the question he knew Iain was about to ask. He walked over to stand in front of his brother. "She assisted with three more birthings while you were away," he added. He smiled when he added, "She hates being a midwife."

Iain nodded. He asked Alex to find Winslow and Gowrie, then turned to talk privately with his brother.

Patrick was Iain's only family. For as long as either one could remember, they'd taken care of each other. Iain needed to hear now that he had his brother's backing for the changes he was going to make. Patrick didn't say a word until Iain had gone through the list of possible ramifications. And then he simply nodded. It was all that was needed.

"You have a family now, Patrick. Consider—"

His brother didn't let him finish the warning. "We stand together, Iain."

"They're here, Iain," Brodick called out, interrupting the conversation.

Iain slapped his brother on his shoulder in a show of affection, then turned to face his loyal men. He hadn't called the council together to join in. That notice wasn't missed by anyone. He explained what had happened at the conference. The Dunbar laird was old, tired, and anxious to form an alliance, and if the Maitlands weren't interested, the Macleans would do just as well.



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