He hated the fact that he had an audience. Brodick, true to his impatient nature, blurted out, "Judith, you aren't going back to England. Not now. Not ever. Iain isn't going to take you home."
The warrior sounded quite cheerful when he gave her his news. She turned her gaze to him. "He isn't? Then who will take me back?"
"No one," Brodick answered.
Iain took hold of both her hands and squeezed to get her attention. Then he took a deep breath. Even with his men watching, he wanted the words to be right, his declaration to be one she would always remember. It was a damned awkward undertaking, trying to think of loving words, and he had absolutely no experience in this area, but he was still determined not to muck it up.
The moment needed to be perfect for her. "Judith," he began.
"I'm keeping you."
"You can't just… keep me."
"Aye, he can, lass," Alex cheerfully explained.
"He's laird," Graham reminded her. "He can do anything he's wanting to do."
"It doesn't matter that he's laird," Brodick interjected. "Franklen kept Marrian and he isn't laird. Robert kept Meagan," he added with a shrug.
"I kept Isabelle," Winslow added.
"It's our way, lass," Gowrie explained.
"You didn't just keep Isabelle," Brodick told his brother, determined to set that misconception straight. "You asked for her. There's a difference."
"I would have taken her if her father had been difficult," Winslow argued.
Judith couldn't believe what she was hearing. They had all gone daft. She pulled her hands away from Iain's grasp and took a step back, away from this madness. She stepped on Graham's foot. She turned around to give him her apology.
"I'm sorry, Graham. I didn't mean to step on—He can't just keep me, can he?"
Graham nodded. "Gowrie was right when he told you it's our way," he explained. "Of course, you're going to have to agree."
His voice was filled with sympathy. Iain had given the pretty woman quite a startle. She seemed to be a little overwhelmed, but certainly thrilled with this announcement. It was the highest of honors to be chosen as wife of the laird. Aye, she was so pleased, she couldn't seem to form a coherent word of appreciation, he supposed.
Graham supposed wrong. In the space of a minute or two, Judith recovered. Then she shook her head. She might have been able to control her anger if Iain's supporters hadn't all nodded at her again.
God's truth, she wanted to kick every one of them. She'd have to quit sputtering first. She took a deep breath in an effort to gain control, then said in a hoarse voice, "Iain, might I have a word in private with you?"
"There really isn't time for chitchat now, lass," Father Laggan called out. "Merlin won't keep."
"Merlin?" she asked in confusion.
"He's a Dunbar," Graham explained. With a smile he added, "He's in need of a priest."
Judith turned to look at Father Laggan. "Then you must go to him," she said. "Is he dying?"
The priest shook his head. "He's dead, Judith. His family's waiting on me to bury him. It's the heat, you see. Merlin isn't going to keep much longer."
"Aye, he's got to get him in the ground," Brodick explained. "He'll marry you first. The Maitlands come before the Dunbars."
"Merlin won't keep?" Judith repeated the priest's explanation and put her hand to her forehead.
"The heat," Brodick reminded her.
She started trembling. Iain took mercy on her. It had taken him days of hard thought before he'd come to the conclusion that he couldn't let Judith leave. He realized now he probably should have given her more time to think about his proposal.
Unfortunately, there wasn't any time left to consider all the reasons. After talking to Patrick and confirming his own suspicions, he knew he had to marry Judith as soon as possible. He wasn't about to take the chance that someone else might find out about her father. No, he had to marry her now. It was the only way he could protect her from the bastard Macleans.
He took hold of her hand and led her over to the corner of the hall. She stumbled and he ended up half dragging her. She stood with her back against the wall. He stood in front of her, effectively blocking her view of the rest of the room.
He nudged her chin up so she would look at him. "I want you to marry me."
"Yes, you can."
"Iain, will you be reasonable about this? I can't marry you. Even if I wanted to, it isn't possible."
"You do want to marry me," he countered. "Don't you?"
He was staggered by the possibility that she didn't want him. He had to shake his head. "You damn well do," he told her then.
"Oh? And why is that?"
"You trust me."
The bluster went out of her anger. Of all the reasons he could have given her, he'd centered on the one she couldn't argue with. She did trust him, with all her heart.
"You feel safe with me."
She couldn't argue with that truth, either. "You know I'll protect you from harm," he added with a gentle nod.
Her eyes filled with tears. Dear God, she wished it were possible. "Do you love me, Iain?" she asked.
He leaned down and kissed her. "I have never wanted another woman the way I want you," he said. "You want me, too. Don't deny it."
Her shoulders slumped. "I don't deny it," she whispered. "But wanting and loving are two different matters. I might not love you," she added.
She knew that was a lie as soon as the words were out of her mouth.
He knew it, too. "Aye, you do love me."
A tear slipped down her cheek. "You're putting impossible thoughts in my head," she whispered.
He gently wiped the tear away. His hands cupped the sides of her face. "Nothing is impossible. Marry me, Judith. Let me protect you."
She had to tell him the truth now. Only then would he change his mind about this rash decision. "There's something you don't know about me," she began. "My father—"
His mouth covered hers, effectively stopping her confession. The kiss was long, passionate, and when he pulled back, she barely knew her own thoughts.
She tried to tell him again. He stopped her with another kiss.
"Judith, you will not tell me anything about your family," he ordered. "I don't care if your father's the king of England. You will not speak another word on the topic. Understand?"
"Your past isn't important," he told her. He took hold of her shoulders and squeezed. His voice was low, fervent. "Let it go, Judith. You're going to belong to me. I'm going to be your family. I'll take care of you."
He made it sound so appealing. Judith didn't know what to do. "I must think about this," she decided. "In a few days—"
"Good Lord," Father Laggan called out. "We can't expect Merlin to keep that long, lass. Consider the heat."
"Why wait?" Patrick called out.
"Aye, he's told you he's keeping you. Get the wedding done," Brodick said.
It wasn't until that moment that Judith realized they'd all been listening to her private talk with Iain. She felt like screaming. Then she did. "I will not be rushed into this," she told them. In a softer voice she added, "There are plenty of reasons why I shouldn't marry your laird, and I need time to consider…"
"What are these reasons?" Graham asked.
Iain turned to the leader of the council. "Are you for or against us?"
"I'm not overly pleased, of course, but you know I'll stand beside you. You have my support. Gelfrid, what about you?"
Gelfrid frowned at Judith while he gave his answer. "I'm in agreement."
The other council members, like dominoes, followed Gelfrid's voice of approval.
Judith had heard enough. "How can you give your approval and glare at me at the same time?" she demanded. She turned back to Iain and poked him in his chest. "I don't want to live here. I already made up my mind to live with my aunt Millicent and uncle Herbert. And do you know why?" She didn't give him time to answer. "They don't consider me inferior, that's why. Well?" she demanded in a challenge.
"Well, what?" Iain asked, trying not to smile over the outrage she was giving him. The woman was feisty when she was riled.
"They like me," she stammered out.
"We like you fine, Judith," Alex told her.
"Everyone does," Patrick added with a nod.
She wasn't believing that nonsense for a minute. Neither was Brodick. He gave Patrick a look that suggested he'd lost his head.
"But I don't particularly like any of you brutes," she announced. "The thought of living here is simply not acceptable. I won't raise my children—Oh, God, Iain, I'm not having any, remember?"
"Judith, calm yourself," Iain commanded. He pulled her up against him and hugged her tight.
"She's not wanting children?" Graham asked. He sounded appalled. "Iain, you can't allow that kind of talk. You need an heir."
"Is she barren?" Gelfrid called out.
"She isn't saying that," Vincent muttered.
"This is my fault," Winslow interjected.
"It's your fault the woman's barren?" Gelfrid asked, trying to understand. "How can that be, Winslow?"
Patrick started laughing. Brodick elbowed him to get him to stop. "She had to help with Isabelle's birthing," Brodick told Gelfrid. "It made her afraid. That's all there is to it. She isn't barren."
The council members grunted with relief. Iain wasn't paying any attention to anyone but Judith now. He leaned down and whispered, "You're right, you need more time to consider this proposal. Take as long as you need."
There was something in his voice that made her suspicious. She realized what it was almost immediately. Iain was vastly amused. "How long do I have to consider this proposal?"
"You're sleeping in my bed tonight. I thought you might want to be married first."
She pushed herself out of his arms and looked up at him. He was smiling. She never stood a chance. She realized that now. Lord, she did love him. And at this very moment she couldn't think of one good reason why.
They'd all made her daft. "Why in God's name do I love you?"
She hadn't realized she'd shouted her question until Patrick started laughing.
"Well now, that settles it. She's agreed," Father Laggan called out. He hurried across the hall. "Let's get it done. Patrick, you stand on Iain's right, and Graham, you put yourself next to Judith. You can give her away. In the name of the Father, and of the Son—"
"We're giving her away, too," Gelfrid announced, determined not to be left out of this important ceremony.
"Aye, we are," Duncan muttered.
The scuffle of chairs interrupted the priest's concentration. He waited until the other elders had all squeezed themselves around Judith, and then began again. "In the name of the Father—"
"You only want to marry me so you can order me around all the time," Judith told Iain.
"There is that benefit," Iain drawled out.
"I thought the Dunbars were your enemies," she said then. "Yet your priest—"
"How do you think Merlin died?" Brodick asked.
"Now, son, you can't be taking credit for that death," Graham advised. "It was the fall over the cliff that did him in."
"Winslow, didn't you do the pushing when he came at you with the knife?" Brodick asked.
His brother shook his head. "He slipped before I could get to him."
Judith was appalled by their talk. Patrick decided to answer her initial question about the priest since no one else seemed inclined. "There aren't enough men of the cloth to serve up here," he said. "Father Laggan's allowed to come and go as he pleases."
"He serves a wide area," Alex interjected, "and all the clans we consider our enemies. There are the Dunbars, the Macphersons, and the Macleans, and others, of course."
She was astonished by their list of enemies. She made that mention to Graham. She wanted to learn everything she could about the Maitlands, of course, but there was another motive, too. She needed time to collect herself. She felt as though she were in a daze. She was trembling like an infant freshly washed in cold water.
"Alex has only given you a partial list," Graham told her.
"Don't you people like anyone?" she asked, incredulous.
"Can we get on with this?" Father Laggan cried out. "In the name of the Father…"
"I'm inviting my aunt Millicent and uncle Herbert to come for a visit, Iain, and I'm not going through the council to get permission first."
"… and of the Son," the priest continued in a much louder voice.
"She'll be wanting King John next," Duncan predicted.
"We can't allow that, lass," Owen muttered.
"Please join hands now and concentrate on this ceremony," Father Laggan shouted, trying to gain everyone's attention.
"I don't want King John to come here," Judith argued. She turned to frown at Owen for making such a shameful suggestion. "I want my aunt and uncle. I'm getting them, too." She turned and had to peek around Graham in order to look up at Iain. "Yes or no, Iain."
"We'll see. Graham, I'm marrying Judith, not you. Let go of her hand. Judith, move over here."
Father Laggan gave up trying to maintain order. He continued on with the ceremony. Iain was paying some attention. He immediately agreed to take Judith for his wife.
She wasn't as cooperative. He felt a little sorry for the sweet woman. She looked thoroughly confused.
"Judith, do you take Iain for your husband?"
She looked up at Iain before giving her answer. "We'll see."
"That won't do, lass. You've got to say I do," he advised.