"Oh, Patrick," she blurted out. "I'm so sorry to be putting you through this embarrassment."

"Does that mean you won't hold me to my promise?" he asked her in that deep rich voice she loved so much.

"No."

Her bluntness made him laugh. "I didn't think so."

She wasn't in the mood to be teased. She only wanted to concentrate on the ordeal ahead of her. "Is he inside yet?" she asked in a bare whisper.

Patrick knew who she was talking about, of course. Frances Catherine had a most unreasonable fear of his brother. He thought it might be because Iain was laird over the entire clan. The number of warriors alone reached well over three hundred. His powerful position would make him unapproachable to a woman, Patrick supposed.

"Please answer me," she pleaded.

"Yes, love, Iain's inside."

"Then he knows about the promise?" It was a foolish question to ask. She realized that fact almost as soon as the words were out of her mouth. "Oh heavens, of course he knows. Is he angry with us?"

"Sweetheart, everything's going to be all right," he promised. He tried to pull her through the open doorway. She resisted the gentle tug.

"But the council, Patrick," she rushed out. "How did they react to your explanation?"

Advertisement..

"They're still sputtering."

"Oh, God." She went completely rigid on him.

He realized he shouldn't have been so honest with her. He put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. "It's all going to work out," he whispered in a soothing voice. "You'll see. If I have to walk to England to fetch your friend, I'll do it. You trust me, don't you?"

"Yes, I trust you. I wouldn't have married you if I didn't trust you completely. Oh, Patrick, you do understand how important this is to me?"

He kissed the top of her forehead before answering. "Yes, I know. Will you promise me something?"

"Anything."

"When your friend comes here, you'll laugh again?"

She smiled. "I promise," she whispered. She wrapped her arms around his waist and hugged him tight. They stood holding on to each other a long minute. He was trying to give her time to regain her composure. She was trying to remember the correct words to use when she was asked to give her reasons to the council.

A woman hurrying past with a basketful of laundry paused to smile over the loving couple.

Patrick and Frances Catherine did make a handsome pair. He was as dark as she was fair. Both were tall, though Patrick reached a full six feet in height, and the top of his wife's head barely reached his chin. It was only when Patrick stood next to his older brother that he appeared small, for the laird was several inches taller. Patrick was certainly every bit as wide through the shoulders, though, and had the same shade of black-brown hair. His eyes were a darker shade of gray than Iain's were, and he didn't have nearly the number of battle scars to mar his handsome profile.

Frances Catherine was as slight as her husband was muscular. She had pretty brown eyes that Patrick swore sparkled gold when she laughed. Her hair was her treasure, though. It was waist length, deep auburn in color, with nary a bit of curl to take away from the glorious shine.

Patrick had been drawn first to her appearance, for he was a man with a lusty appetite and she was a fair prize for the taking, but it was her wonderful wit that had snared him. She continually enchanted him. She had such a dramatic way of looking at life, and there was such a burning passion inside her to experience each new adventure. She never gave anything half measure, including the way she loved and pampered him.

Patrick felt her shiver in his arms and decided it was high time they went inside and get the ordeal finished so she could quit fretting. "Come inside now, love. They're waiting for us."

She took a deep breath, pulled away from him, and walked inside. He hurried forward to walk by her side.

They'd reached the steps leading down into the great hall when she suddenly leaned into her husband's side and whispered, "Your cousin Steven said that when Iain gets angry, his scowl can make a person's heart stop beating. We really must try not to make him angry, Patrick. All right?"

Because she sounded so serious and so worried, Patrick didn't laugh, but he couldn't quite contain his exasperation. "Frances Catherine, we really are going to have to do something about this unreasonable fear of yours. My brother—"

She grabbed hold of his arm. "We'll do something about it later," she rushed out. "Just promise me now."

"All right," he agreed with a sigh. "We won't make Iain angry."

She immediately relaxed her grip on his arm. Patrick had to shake his head over her behavior. He decided that just as soon as she was feeling better, he would find a way to help her get over this fear. He wouldn't wait to have a talk with Steven, however. No, he was going to take his cousin aside at the first possible opportunity and demand he quit telling the women such outrageous stories.

Iain was an easy subject for the exaggerated tales. He rarely spoke to any of the women, except on those rare occasions when as laird he was forced to give specific instructions, and his hard manner was often mistaken for anger. Steven knew most of the women were frightened of Iain, and he found it vastly amusing to stir up that fear every now and again.

His brother was unknowingly frightening Frances Catherine now. He stood alone in front of the hearth, facing them, with his arms folded across his massive chest. The stance was casual, the look in his piercing gray eyes anything but. The frown he wore made the fire in the grate behind him seem cold in comparison.

Frances Catherine had just started down the steps when she looked across the room and caught Iain's frown. She promptly lost her footing. Patrick reached out to grab her just in the nick of time.

Iain noticed her fear. He assumed she was afraid of the council. He turned to his left, where the elders were seated, and motioned for Graham to begin. The sooner the inevitable fight was over, the sooner his sister-in-law could calm her fears.

The elders were all staring at her. In size, the five men resembled stair steps. The oldest, Vincent, was also the shortest. He sat at the opposite end of the line from Graham, their spokesman. Duncan, Gelfrid, and Owen took up the spaces in between.

Various amounts of gray streaked through the hair of each elder, and they had enough scars amongst them to cover the stone walls of the keep. Frances Catherine concentrated on Graham. The leader had deep lines around the corners of his eyes, and she wanted to believe he'd laughed those lines there over the years. That thought made it easier to imagine he would be understanding about her problem.

"Your husband has just shared an astonishing story with us, Frances Catherine," Graham began. " 'Tis the truth we're hard pressed to believe it."

The leader nodded to emphasize the last of his remarks, then paused. She wasn't certain if she was supposed to speak now or wait. She looked up at Patrick, received his encouraging nod, and then said, "My husband would only speak the truth."

The four other council members frowned in unison. Graham smiled. In a gentle tone of voice he asked, "Will you give us your reasons for demanding this promise be kept?"

Frances Catherine reacted as though Graham had shouted at her. She knew he'd used the word "demand" as a deliberate insult. "I'm a woman and would never demand anything from my husband. I would only ask, and now I ask that Patrick's word be honored."

"Very well," Graham conceded, his voice still smooth. "You don't demand, you ask. Now I would like for you to explain to this council your reasons for making such an outrageous request."

Frances Catherine stiffened. Outrageous indeed. She took a deep, calming breath. "Before I would agree to marry Patrick, I asked him to promise me that he would bring my dearest friend, Lady Judith Elizabeth, to me if and when I found I was expecting a child. My confinement is nearly over now. Patrick agreed to this request, and we would both like it carried out as soon as possible."

The look on Graham's face indicated he wasn't at all happy with her explanation. He cleared his throat and said, "Lady Judith Elizabeth is English, but that doesn't matter to you?"

"Nay, my lord, it doesn't matter at all."

"Do you believe that keeping this promise is more important than the disruption she'll cause? You would deliberately upset our lives, lass?"

Frances Catherine shook her head. "I would not deliberately do such a thing."

Graham looked relieved. She guessed he believed he now had a way to manipulate her into dropping the matter. His next remarks confirmed that suspicion.

"I'm pleased to hear this, Frances Catherine." He paused to nod to his four companions. "I never believed for one minute our lass would cause such an uproar. Now she'll forget this nonsense—"

She didn't dare let him finish. "Lady Judith Elizabeth won't cause any disruption."

Graham's shoulders slumped. Changing Frances Catherine's mind wasn't turning out to be such an easy task after all. He was frowning when he turned back to her. "Now lass, the English have never been welcomed here," he announced. "This woman would have to share her meals with us—"

A fist slammed down on the tabletop. The warrior named Gelfrid was responsible for that show of temper. Gelfrid stared up at Graham and said in a low, raspy voice, "Patrick's woman shames the Maitland name by asking this."

Tears filled Frances Catherine's eyes. She could feel herself beginning to panic inside. She couldn't think of a logical argument to give in response to Gelfrid's statement.

Patrick moved to stand in front of his wife. His voice shook with anger when he spoke to the council member. "Gelfrid, you may show me your displeasure, but you will not raise your voice in front of my wife."

Frances Catherine peeked around her husband to see Gelfrid's reaction to that command. The elder nodded. Then Graham waved his hand for silence.

Vincent, the eldest of the group, ignored the signal. "I've never heard tell of a woman having two full names before Frances Catherine came to us. I thought it was an oddity the border people shared. Now I'm hearing about another woman having two full names. What do you make of it, Graham?"

The leader let out a sigh. Vincent's mind tended to stray every now and again. It was an irritant everyone put up with. "I don't know what to make of it," Graham replied. "But that isn't the issue now."

He turned his attention back to Frances Catherine. "I ask you again if you would willingly disrupt our lives," he repeated.

Before giving her answer, she moved to stand next to Patrick rather than behind him, so she wouldn't appear to be a coward. "I don't know why you would think Lady Judith Elizabeth would cause any disruption. She's a kind, gentle woman."

Graham closed his eyes. There was a thread of amusement in his voice when he finally spoke again. "Frances Catherine, we don't particularly like the English. Surely you've noticed that in the years you've been with us."

"She was raised on the border," Gelfrid reminded his leader. The warrior scratched his whiskered jaw. "She might not know any better."

Graham agreed with a nod. A sudden sparkle came into his eyes. He turned to his companions, leaned down and spoke to them in a low voice. When he'd finished, the others were nodding agreement.

Frances Catherine felt sick. From the victorious look on Graham's face, she could only conclude he'd found a way to deny her request before asking the laird's counsel.

Patrick had obviously come to the same conclusion. His face turned dark with anger. Then he took another step forward. She grabbed hold of his hand. She knew her husband fully intended to keep his promise to her, but she didn't want him sanctioned by the elders. The punishment would be harsh, even for a man as proud and fit as Patrick was, and the humiliation would be unbearable for him.

She squeezed his hand. "You'll decide that because I cannot possibly know better, it therefore becomes your duty to know what's best for me. Isn't that right?"

Graham was surprised by her cleverness in knowing what was in his mind. He was about to answer her challenge when Patrick spoke up. "No, Graham would not decide he knows what's best for you. That would be an insult to me, wife."

The leader of the council stared at Patrick a long minute. In a forceful voice he commanded, "You will abide by the decision of this council, Patrick."

"A Maitland has given his word. It must be honored."

Iain's booming voice filled the hall. Everyone turned to look at him. Iain kept his gaze centered on the leader of the council. "Don't try to confuse this issue," he ordered. "Patrick gave his woman a promise and it must be carried out."

No one said a word for several minutes. Then Gelfrid stood up. The palms of his hands rested on the tabletop when he leaned forward to glare at Iain. "You are advisor here, nothing more."

Iain shrugged. "I'm your laird," he countered. "By your vote," he added. "And I now advise you to honor my brother's word. Only the English break their pledges, Gelfrid, not the Scots."

Gelfrid reluctantly nodded. "You speak the truth," he admitted.

One down and four to go, Iain thought to himself. Damn, he hated having to use diplomacy to get his way. He much preferred a battle with fists than with words. He hated gaining anyone's permission for his or his brother's actions, either. With an effort, he controlled his frustration and focused on the matter at hand. He turned his attention back to Graham. "Have you become an old man, Graham, to be so concerned about something as insignificant as this? Are you afraid of one English woman?"

"Of course not," Graham muttered, his outrage over the mere possibility apparent in his expression. "I'm afraid of no woman."

Iain grinned. "I'm relieved to hear this," he replied. "For a minute, I did begin to wonder."

His cunning wasn't lost on the leader of the oligarchy. Graham smiled. "You dangled your clever bait and my arrogance reached for it." Iain didn't remark on that truth. Graham's smile was still in evidence when he turned his attention back to Frances Catherine. "We are still confused by this request and would appreciate it if you would tell us why you want this woman here."

"Have her tell you why they both have two names," Vincent interjected.

Graham ignored the elder's request. "Will you explain your reasons, lass?"