"That isn't the topic now," he countered.
He was about to return to the original subject but she beat him to it. "I know, I know," she muttered. "Even though your rules shouldn't apply to me, I promise to try to fit in while I'm a guest on your land. There, does that ease your mind?"
"Judith, I won't allow insolence."
His voice was soft and without a hint of anger in it. He'd simply made a statement of fact. She responded in kind. "I wasn't being insolent," she said. "At least not on purpose."
Her sincerity was very apparent. He nodded, satisfied. Then he tried to explain her position again. "While you're on my land, you will obey my orders, because ultimately I'm responsible for you. Do you understand?"
"I understand you're sinfully possessive," she replied. "And Lord, I am weary of this conversation."
His scowl told her he didn't care for that bit of truth.
She decided to turn the topic. "Iain, you don't get much company, do you?"
Was she being flippant with him? He didn't think so. "Very few outsiders are allowed on our land," he admitted.
"Why is that?"
He didn't have a ready answer. In truth, he didn't even know why outsiders weren't allowed. He'd never taken the time to think about it. "It's just the way it's always been," he remarked.
"Why did you kiss me?"
That switch in subjects gained his full attention. "Damned if I know," he replied.
A faint blush colored her cheeks. "Will you be damned if you know again?" He didn't understand what she was asking. The look in his eyes said as much. She pushed her embarrassment aside. She thought the moment of privacy would probably be the last they would share, and she meant to take blatant advantage. She reached up to stroke the side of his face with her fingertips.
"What are you doing?" He captured her hand but didn't push her away.
"Touching you," she answered. She tried to sound nonchalant, yet knew she hadn't managed that feat. The intensity in his expression made her heart take notice. "I was curious to know what your whiskers felt like." She smiled. "And now I know." She pulled her hand away from his and let it drop back into her lap. "They tickle."
She felt like a fool. Iain didn't ease her discomfort, either. He looked at a loss for words. Her boldness had surprised him, all right. She let out a little telling sigh. He probably thought she was just a shameless wench without any morals. She was certainly acting like one. What was the matter with her? She wasn't usually so aggressive.
She was stroking his upper arm with the tips of her fingers while she mulled over his probable opinion of her. She wasn't even aware she was caressing him. He was. The gentle, soft as a butterfly's touch was driving him daft.
She stared at his chin when she gave him her roundabout apology. "I'm not usually so curious or so aggressive."
"How would you know?"
She was so startled by that question, her gaze flew up to his. The amusement in his eyes was evident. Was he mocking her?
She looked as though he had just crushed her heart. "It was a serious question, Judith." His fingers now stroked the side of her face. Her reaction pleased him too. She leaned into his touch, instinctively wanting to gain more, like a kitten would lean into the hand that was stroking, caressing.
"I keep remembering the way you kissed me, and I would like for you to kiss me again. It's a shameful confession, isn't it? I've led a very sheltered—"
His mouth stopped her explanation. The kiss was very gentle, undemanding too, until she put her arms around his neck and turned all soft and willing on him. He couldn't control himself. The kiss turned hard, hot, consuming. Wonderfully arousing. She felt as though she were melting in his arms. She loved the taste of him, the feel of his tongue rubbing against hers, the way his mouth slanted over hers again and again. She loved the low growl that came from the back of his throat, and the rough gentleness in the way he held her in his arms.
But she hated the way he looked at her when he pulled away. It was the same expression he'd worn the first time he'd kissed her. Iain was angry he'd touched her, probably disgusted as well.
She didn't want to see that expression. She closed her eyes and collapsed against him. Her heart was slamming inside her chest. So was his. She could hear the thundering beat against her ear. He had been affected by the kiss, perhaps as much as she had. Was that why he was angry? He didn't want to like touching her.
She was saddened by that possibility. Embarrassed too. She suddenly wanted to put some distance between them. She turned in his lap until her back rested against his chest. She tried to edge off his lap. He wouldn't let her. His hands settled on the sides of her h*ps and he roughly pulled her backside up tight against him. "Don't move like that," he ordered. His voice was harsh, angry.
She thought she'd hurt him. "I'm sorry," she replied. She kept her gaze downcast. "I shouldn't have asked you to kiss me. I won't ever ask again."
He sounded like he was about to laugh. Her spine straightened in reaction. Iain felt as though he were holding a block of ice. "Judith, tell me what's wrong," he commanded in a gruff whisper.
She might have been able to explain if he hadn't leaned down and rubbed the side of her face with his jaw. Shivers of pleasure raced across her shoulders. Lord, she was disgusted with herself. Why couldn't she control her reaction to him?
"I know a future together isn't possible," she began. Her voice trembled. "I'm not a complete fool, even though I realize I've been acting like one. My only excuse is that I felt safe with this attraction for you, because of that very reason." She wasn't making any sense. She was getting all riled up, though. She was gripping her hands together in real agitation.
"Explain this'very reason,'" he asked.
"The very reason that I'm English and you're not," she answered. "I don't feel safe now."
"You don't feel safe with me?"
He sounded appalled. "You don't understand," she whispered. She kept her gaze downcast so he wouldn't see her embarrassment. "I thought my attraction for you was safe because you're a laird and I'm English, but now I've come to the conclusion that it's dangerous. You could break my heart, Iain Maitland, if I allow it. You must promise to stay away from me. It's… impossible."
His chin rested on top of her head. He inhaled her sweet light scent and tried not to think about how good she felt in his arms. "Not impossible," he muttered. "Damned complicated, though."
He didn't realize the significance of what he was saying to her until he had actually spoken the thought aloud. He immediately considered all the ramifications. The problems were staggering. He decided he needed time, and distance, away from Judith, so he could think the matter through.
"I believe it would be easier if we just ignored each other," she suggested. "When we reach your holding, you'll go back to your important duties and I'll keep busy with Frances Catherine. Yes, it will be easier that way, won't it, Iain?"
He didn't answer her. He took the reins in his hands and goaded the mount into a full gallop. His arm blocked the branches as they made their way through the narrow opening. He felt her tremble, and once they were in the fields at the base of his home, he pulled her cloak from behind his saddle and covered her with it.
Neither spoke a word to the other for the next several hours. They rode across a magnificent field of rape; the dazzling yellow was so brilliant to the eye, she had to squint against the sheer beauty of it all. Cottages nestled intimately between the proud pines covering the hills beyond. Flowers of every color in the rainbow spilled down the hillside, surrounded by a thick carpet of grass as green as emeralds.
They rode across an arched bridge atop a sparkling clear stream, then started up the steep climb. The air was thick with the scent of summer. The aroma of the flowers mingled with that of the clean earth.
Scots, both men and women, came outside their cottages to watch the procession pass by. The clan members all wore the same colors, their plaids identical to Iain's, and for that reason she knew they'd finally reached his home.
She was suddenly so excited to see Frances Catherine, she could barely sit still. She turned to smile at Iain. He stared straight ahead, ignoring her.
"Are we going directly to Frances Catherine's home?"
"They'll be waiting in the courtyard at the top of the crest," Iain answered.
He hadn't even spared her a glance when he'd explained. She turned around again. She wasn't going to let his sour mood ruin her excitement. She was enchanted with the rugged beauty around her and couldn't wait to tell Frances Catherine.
Then she got a good look at Iain's keep. Lord, it was ugly. The huge stone structure was on the very top of the crest. There wasn't a wall surrounding the building, either. Iain must not have been worried about the enemy breaching his home. She guessed he'd have plenty of time to become alerted, as an outsider would have quite a climb to reach the top.
A gray mist hung down over the roof of the mammoth structure. The main building was square in shape, and as gray and dreary as the skies above.
The courtyard wasn't any better. It was more dirt than grass, and as worn-out as the scarred double doors leading into the keep.
Judith turned her attention to the crowd gathered before her. The men nodded to Iain, but the women didn't show any outward reaction to their arrival. Most stayed behind the men, silent, watching, waiting.
Judith looked for Frances Catherine. She really wasn't at all apprehensive until she spotted her friend and got a good look at her face.
Frances Catherine looked close to tears. Her face was deathly pale. She was obviously frightened. Judith didn't understand the reason for that reaction, but her friend's worry immediately became her own.
Iain forced his mount to a stop. Gowrie, Alex, and Brodick immediately did the same. Frances Catherine took a step forward. The man standing next to her grabbed hold of her arm and forced her to stay where she was.
She turned her attention to Patrick Maitland. She had little doubt he was Frances Catherine's husband. He looked very like Iain, and though he was slighter in build, his frown was every bit as fierce as Iain's was.
He looked worried too. When he glanced down at his wife, Judith realized his concern was for Frances Catherine.
Her friend was wringing her hands together. She stared up at Judith for a long minute, then took another hesitant step forward. Patrick didn't stop her this time.
It was an incredibly awkward moment because of the large crowd watching so intently. "Why is Frances Catherine frightened?"
She'd whispered that question to Iain. He leaned down close to her ear and answered her question with one of his own. "Why are you?"
She was about to deny that accusation, but Iain drew her attention by gently prying her hands away from his arm. Lord, she'd had a death grip on him.
He gave her a little squeeze before dismounting. He nodded his greeting to Patrick, turned and assisted Judith to the ground.
She didn't spare him a glance now. She turned and slowly walked over to her friend. She stopped when she was a few feet away.
She didn't know what to say to make Frances Catherine's fear go away. Or her own. She remembered that when they were little, when one cried, the other immediately joined in. That memory led to another, and she suddenly knew exactly what she wanted to say in greeting to her dear friend.
Her gaze was centered on Frances Catherine's swollen stomach. She took another step forward and looked up into her eyes. In a low whisper she was certain only her friend could hear, she said, "I specifically remember we both promised never to drink from any man's goblet of wine. From the looks of you, Frances Catherine, I'm thinking you broke your word."
Frances Catherine let out a low gasp. Her eyes widened in surprise. Then she burst into laughter and threw herself into Judith's arms. She remembered how she had been so certain and so full of authority when she'd told Judith a woman could only get pregnant if she drank out of a man's goblet.
She all but swallowed Judith up when she hugged her. The two women were laughing and crying at the same time, and to the crowd gathered around them, they appeared to have lost their senses.
The tension and the worry eased out of Patrick's shoulders. He turned to look at Iain and slowly nodded. His brother nodded back.
The journey had been well worth the trouble, Patrick decided. He clasped his hands behind his back and waited for his wife to remember her manners. The joy in her expression more than made up for her inattention. And Lord, how he had missed the sound of her laughter. A part of him wanted to take this Englishwoman into his own arms and hug her just as fiercely as his wife was doing, to let her know how much he appreciated her loyalty.
He had to wait another five minutes or so before his wife remembered he was there. The two women were talking at the same time, asking and answering their own questions. They created a whirlwind of happy chaos.
Iain was just as pleased as Patrick with the reunion. He was a bit surprised, too, for until this very minute he hadn't realized that women could actually be trusted friends with each other. The strength of the bond between Judith and Frances Catherine was unique. It intrigued him. He remembered Judith had told him they'd become friends before they were old enough to understand they were supposed to be enemies, and he found he admired the two of them all the more for continuing to give each other loyalty even after they had learned the lessons of distrust… and hate.
Judith remembered her audience before Frances Catherine did. "We have so much to catch up on," she said. "But now I must thank Iain and the others for bringing me to you."
Frances Catherine grabbed hold of her hand. "First, I must introduce you to my husband," she said. She turned to smile up at Patrick. "This is Judith."
Patrick's smile was a replica of Iain's. "I gathered as much," he told his wife. "I'm pleased to meet you, Judith."
She would have made a nice curtsy if Frances Catherine had let go of her hand. She smiled instead. "And I'm pleased to be here, Patrick. Thank you for inviting me."
Her attention turned to Iain. He'd taken the reins of his mount and started toward the stables. She tugged her hand away from Frances Catherine, promised to come right back, and then hurried after her escort. "Iain, please wait," she called out. "I wanted to say thank-you."