He walked over to stand in front of the tent. She could only see the tips of his boots until he tore the furs away. He destroyed the cocoon in seconds.
"That helped," she muttered. She sat up so she could glare at him.
Iain pushed her back and stretched out on the ground beside her. He rested on his side, giving her the heat from his back.
Brodick suddenly appeared on her other side. He stretched out on his side with his back toward her. Judith instinctively wiggled closer to Iain. Brodick followed her, until his back was pressed against hers.
She was certainly warm enough now. The heat radiating from the giant warriors was amazing.
It felt wonderful.
"She feels like a block of ice," Brodick remarked.
Judith started laughing. The sound made both Iain and Brodick smile.
"What is it?"
He sounded mean again. She didn't let that bother her. She was finally catching on to his ways, and knew the bluster was all for show. Underneath that gruff exterior beat a kind heart. "Thank you."
"For taking the time to talk about Isabelle."
The warrior grunted. She laughed again.
She snuggled closer to Iain's back before answering him. "Yes, Iain?"
"Quit wiggling and go to sleep."
She felt like obeying him. She fell asleep almost immediately.
A long while passed before Brodick spoke again. He wanted to be certain Judith really was asleep and wouldn't hear what he was going to say. "Each time she's given a choice, she turns to you."
"How's that, Brodick?"
"She's glued to your back now, not mine. She prefers riding with you, too. Didn't you notice the pitiful expression on her face when you made her ride with Alex today? She looked damn forlorn."
Iain smiled. "I noticed," he admitted. "But if she prefers me, it's only because I'm Patrick's brother."
"There's a hell of a lot more to it than that."
Iain didn't respond to that comment.
Several minutes passed before Brodick spoke again. "Let me know, Iain."
"Let you know what?"
"If you're going to keep her or not."
"And if I'm not?"
"Then I am."
It took two more days to reach the Maitland holding. They spent the last night in a beautiful forest called Glennden Falls. Birch, pine, and oak trees were so thick in the area, the horses could barely get through the narrow path. A mist, more white than gray, and nearly waist high in some spots, floated around the greenery, giving an air of magic to the paradise.
Judith was enchanted. She walked into the mist until it completely surrounded her. Iain watched her. She turned around, caught him staring at her, and whispered in a voice filled with awe that this was surely the most beautiful spot in all the world.
"This is what I envision Heaven to be, Iain," she told him.
He seemed surprised, took a good look around him, and then, in his arrogant way, said, "Perhaps."
It was evident the man had never taken the time to appreciate the beauty around him. She told him so. He gave her a long, thorough look that started at the top of her head and ended at the tips of her boots. He moved forward, gently touched the side of her face, and then said, "I'm noticing all right."
She could feel herself blushing. He was referring to her, of course. Did he truly find her beautiful? She was too embarrassed to ask. He turned her attention, however, with his announcement that she could have a proper bath.
She was thrilled. The water cascading down the gentle slope was frigid, but she was too happy to have the opportunity to thoroughly scrub herself to mind the cold. She even washed her hair. She had to braid it damp, but that didn't bother her, either.
She wanted to look her best when she was reunited with her friend. Judith was a little apprehensive about seeing Frances Catherine again. It had been almost four years since their last visit. Would her friend think she'd changed very much… and if so, would she think the changes were for the better or the worse?
Judith didn't allow herself to fret over the reunion long. In her heart she knew it would be all right. Her excitement grew as soon as she pushed the silly worry aside, and by the time they'd finished their supper, she was literally pacing around the campfire.
"Did you know Cameron's wife stayed up all night cooking for us?" she asked no one in particular. "She sent Isabelle her favorite sweet biscuits, but she made enough for us as well."
Alex, Gowrie, and Brodick were all sitting around the fire. Iain leaned against a fat birch, watching her. No one replied to her comments about Margaret.
She wasn't daunted. Nothing could dampen her enthusiasm. "Why do we have a fire tonight? We haven't had one before," she remarked.
Gowrie answered her. "We're on Maitland land now. We weren't before."
She let out a gasp. "This wonderland belongs to you?"
Alex and Gowrie both smiled. Brodick frowned. "Will you quit your pacing, woman? You're making my head ache watching you."
She threw Brodick a smile when she strolled past him. "Then don't watch," she suggested.
She wanted to nudge his temper a bit, but he surprised her with a grin.
"Why are you pacing?" Iain asked.
"I'm too excited about tomorrow to sit still. It's been a long while since I've seen Frances Catherine, and I have so many things I want to tell her. My mind's cluttered with them. I wager I won't be able to sleep a wink tonight."
Iain secretly wagered she would. He won. Judith was dead to the world as soon as she closed her eyes.
When morning arrived, she refused to be rushed. She warned them she was going to take her time, and when she returned to the camp where Iain and the others impatiently waited on horseback for her, she looked as magical as her surroundings. She was dressed in a brilliant blue gown that perfectly matched the dramatic color of her eyes. Her hair was unbound, and the thick curls floated around her shoulders when she moved.
A tightness settled in Iain's chest. He couldn't seem to take his gaze away from her. His lack of discipline appalled him. He shook his head over his own shameful behavior and scowled at the woman driving him to distraction.
Judith reached the clearing and then stopped. Iain didn't understand why she was hesitating until he turned and noticed his men had all extended their hands to her. Each was beckoning her forward.
"She's riding with me."
His voice didn't suggest anyone argue. She thought he was irritated because she'd taken so long to get ready this morning.
She slowly made her way over to his side. "I did warn you I'd need more time today, so you really don't have anything to frown about."
He let out a sigh. "It isn't ladylike to speak to me in that tone," he explained.
Her eyes widened. "What tone?"
"I wasn't demanding."
"You really shouldn't argue with me, either."
She didn't even try to hide her exasperation. Her hands settled on the sides of her hips. "Iain, I understand that because you're laird, you're used to ordering people around. However—"
She didn't get to finish her explanation. He leaned down, grabbed her around the waist, and lifted her up into his lap. She let out a yelp. He hadn't hurt her, though. Nay, it was his amazing quickness that caught her off guard.
"You and I are going to have to come to some sort of understanding," he announced in a hard, no nonsense tone of voice.
He turned to his companions. "Go ahead," he ordered. "We'll catch up."
While he waited until his men had left, she tried to turn in his lap so she would be facing the front. He squeezed her around the waist, a silent message to stay where she was.
She pinched his arm to get him to let up on his hold. He watched his men take their leave, waiting for privacy so he could speak to her without being overheard, but he did let up on his grip. She immediately quit squirming.
She turned to look up at him. He hadn't shaved this morning. He looked a little disheveled and very, very masculine.
Abruptly, he turned his full attention to her. They stared into each other's eyes a long minute. He wondered how in God's name he was ever going to be able to leave her alone once they reached his home. She wondered how he'd come by such a fine, unblemished profile. She turned her attention to his mouth. She couldn't seem to catch her breath. Heaven help her, she really wanted to be kissed.
He wanted to kiss her. He took a deep breath in an effort to control his wayward thoughts. "Judith, this attraction between us is probably due to the fact that we've been forced to endure each other's company for over a week now. The closeness—"
She took immediate exception to his poor choice of words. "You feel you've been forced to endure my company?"
He ignored her interruption. "When we reach the holding, everything will change, of course. There's a specific chain of command, and everyone in the Maitland clan adheres to the same rules."
"So there won't be chaos."
He waited for her to nod before continuing. He was trying not to look at her sweet mouth.
"The rule we all follow… or rather, the chain of command, was put aside during this journey for necessity's sake, but once we reach our destination, we will not have such an unstructured relationship."
He paused again. She assumed he was waiting for her agreement. She dutifully nodded. He looked relieved until she asked, "Why is that?"
He let out a sigh. "Because I'm laird."
"I already knew you were laird," she replied. "And I'm certain you're a fine one, too. Still, I do wonder what this talk is about. I believe I mentioned before, I'm not a member of your clan."
"And I'm certain I explained that while you're a guest on my land, you'll obey the same rules as everyone else."
She patted his arm. "You're still worried I'll cause trouble, aren't you?"
He suddenly felt like throttling her.
"I'm really going to try to get along with everyone," she whispered. "I won't make any problems."
He smiled. "I'm not certain that's possible. As soon as they realize you're English, their minds will be set against you."
"That isn't fair, is it?"
He wasn't in the mood to argue with her. "Fairness isn't the issue. I'm simply trying to prepare you. When everyone gets over their initial surprise—"
"Do you mean to tell me no one knows I'm coming?"
"Don't interrupt me when I'm speaking to you," he commanded.
She patted his arm again. "I do beg your pardon," she whispered.
She didn't sound the least bit contrite to him. He let out a sigh. "Patrick, Frances Catherine, and the council members know you're coming. The others will find out when you get there. Judith, I don't want you to have a difficult… adjustment."
He was truly worried about her. And trying to hide his concern with a gruff voice and a hard frown. "You're a very kind man," she said, her voice husky with emotion.
He acted as though she'd insulted him. "The hell I am."
Judith decided then and there she was never going to understand him. She brushed her hair back over her shoulder, let out a sigh, and then said, "Exactly what are you so concerned about? Do you think they'll find me inferior?"
"Perhaps, at first," he began. "But once—"
She interrupted him again. "That attitude won't bother me. I've been considered inferior before. Nay, it won't bother me at all. My feelings won't be so easily injured. Do quit worrying about me, please."
He shook his head at her. "Aye, your feelings will get injured," he countered, remembering the look on her face when his men hadn't immediately sat down with her to eat her supper that first night. He paused, trying to remember what he wanted to tell her, then said in a near shout, "Who the hell thinks you're inferior?"
"My mother," she answered before she thought better of it. "I'm not in the mood to talk about my family," she added with a firm nod. "Shouldn't we get started?"
"Judith, I'm merely trying to tell you that if you should run into any substantial problems, tell Patrick. My brother will find me."
"Why can't I simply tell you? Why must I involve Frances Catherine's husband?"
"The chain of command—" Her sudden smile stopped him cold. "Why are you amused?"
She lifted her shoulders in a dainty shrug. "I'm pleased to know you're concerned about me."
"How I feel about you has nothing to do with this discussion," he told her, his voice downright mean. He was being deliberately harsh because he wanted her to understand the importance of what he was telling her. Damn it, he was trying to protect her from hurt. Women had such fragile feelings, if Patrick's comments were to be taken seriously, and he didn't want Judith upset. He wanted her adjustment to be as peaceful as possible, and he knew that if she didn't behave in an appropriate manner, the members of the clan would make her life miserable. Her every movement would be scrutinized. Judith had been correct. The immediate dislike wasn't fair. How like an innocent to think in such terms. Iain was a realist, however, and knew that fair didn't matter. Survival did. He was almost overwhelmed by his need to protect her any way he knew how, and if that meant intimidating her to get her to understand her tenuous position, then by God he would intimidate.
"I really don't care for the way you're frowning at me, Iain. I haven't done anything wrong."
He closed his eyes in surrender. She couldn't be intimidated. Lord, he felt like laughing. "Talking to you is an extremely trying experience," he remarked.
"Because I'm an outsider or because I'm a woman?"
"Both, I suppose," he answered. "I haven't had much experience conversing with many women."
Her eyes widened in disbelief. "Why not?"
He shrugged. "It hasn't been necessary," he explained.
She couldn't believe what he was telling her. "You make it sound like a chore."
He grinned. "It is."
He'd probably just insulted her, but she didn't mind. His smile softened the comment. "Aren't there women at home who you enjoy talking to on occasion?"