Iain had opened the door, and stood there listening to the argument. He was having difficulty believing what he was hearing… and seeing. His warriors were acting like lovesick squires while they argued over who would escort Judith.
She didn't have a clue as to their real motives, however. Judith looked confused by all the attention she was getting.
Alex drew Iain's notice. He planted his hands on the tabletop and leaned forward to glare at Brodick. "Isabella's cottage is close to my uncle's and I was going to stop by there anyway. Therefore, I'll see to this chore of showing Judith the way."
Patrick did laugh then. Everyone seemed to notice Iain at the same moment. Judith's reaction was the most telling to Patrick's way of thinking. The joy in her expression was more than evident.
Iain looked irritated. He barely spared Judith a glance before turning his full attention to his brother. "Now do you understand my reasons?"
Judith and Frances Catherine shared a look. "What reasons, Laird Iain?" Frances Catherine asked.
"Laird Iain?" Judith repeated before Iain could answer the question. "Why don't you just call him Iain?"
Frances Catherine folded her hands together in her lap. "Because he's our laird," she explained.
"He's still your brother," Judith countered. "You shouldn't have to be so formal with him."
Her friend nodded. She looked up at Iain and forced a smile. The warrior was intimidating to her and it took a great deal of effort to stare into his eyes. The man took up the entrance. He ducked under the door overhang, and once he was fully inside, leaned against the corner of the wall and folded his arms across his chest, his stance casual.
"Iain," Frances Catherine began again, grimacing inside over the shiver in her voice. "What reasons do you mean?"
Iain realized his sister-in-law was actually afraid of him. He was quite astonished by that revelation. He forced a mild voice in an effort to ease her fear when he answered her. "Patrick asked that Judith be allowed to stay in the vacant cottage. I've denied his request. Your husband understands my reasons."
Frances Catherine immediately nodded. She wasn't about to argue with her laird. Besides, the arrangement suited her just fine. She wanted Judith to stay with her and Patrick.
"Your guests are leaving now," Iain told his brother.
Alex, Gowrie, and Brodick immediately filed out of the cottage. Iain moved out of their way, then resumed his place near the door. He'd said something to the warriors as they walked past, but his voice was so low, neither Judith nor Frances Catherine could overhear. Patrick heard, though, and his sudden smile indicated he was amused by his brother's remarks.
"Iain, may I please speak to you in private for just a moment?" Judith asked.
Judith wasn't daunted. There was more than one way to flay a fish. "Patrick?"
"I have need to speak to your laird in private. Would you arrange it please?"
Patrick looked as though she'd lost her senses. Judith let out a sigh. She tossed her hair back over her shoulder. "I'm following the chain of command around here. I'm supposed to ask you and you're supposed to ask the laird."
Patrick didn't dare look at Iain. He knew his brother was already riled. The look in his eyes when he'd seen Alex, Gowrie, and Brodick gawking at Judith was one
Patrick had never seen before. If he didn't know better, he would think his brother was actually jealous.
"Iain—" Patrick began.
"No." Iain snapped that denial.
"Lord, you're difficult," Judith muttered.
Frances Catherine let out a sound somewhere between a snort and a gasp. She was still sitting on the side of the bed. She reached up to touch Judith's arm. "You really shouldn't criticize Laird Iain," she whispered.
"Why not?" Judith whispered back.
"Because Ramsey says Iain's a mean son of a bitch when he gets riled," Frances Catherine replied.
Judith burst into laughter. She turned around to look at Iain again, and immediately knew he'd heard Frances Catherine's remark. He wasn't angry, though. Nay, the sparkle in his eyes indicated just the opposite. Patrick looked quite appalled by his wife's loudly whispered comment.
"For the love of God, Frances Catherine—" Patrick began.
"It was a compliment Ramsey was giving," his wife replied. "Besides, you weren't suppose to hear it."
"Who is Ramsey?" Judith asked.
"An incredibly handsome devil," Frances Catherine replied. "Patrick, don't frown at me. Ramsey is handsome. You'll easily recognize him, Judith," she added with a glance in her friend's direction. "He's always surrounded by a crowd of young ladies. He hates the attention, but what can he do? You'll like him, too."
"No, she won't."
Iain made that prediction. He took a step forward. "You'll stay away from him, Judith. Do you understand me?"
She nodded. She didn't care for his surly tone of voice one bit, but she decided not to take issue with him now.
"How do we keep Ramsey away from her?" Patrick wanted to know.
Iain didn't answer him. Judith remembered the chore she wanted to complete before night was full upon them, and picked up Margaret's satchel filled with the sweet biscuits.
"Patrick, would you please ask Iain to show me the way to Isabelle's cottage? I must give her this gift from her mother and relay messages."
"Judith, the man's standing right in front of you. Why don't you ask him?" Frances Catherine asked.
"It's this chain-of-command thing," Judith answered with a wave of her hand. "I have to follow it."
"Come here, Judith."
His voice was soft, chilling. She forced a serene smile and walked over to him. "Yes, Iain?"
"Do you deliberately try to provoke me?"
He waited for her denial. An apology, too. He didn't get either.
"Yes, I do believe I am trying to deliberately provoke you."
The look of astonishment on his face was slowly replaced with a fierce frown. He took a step closer to her. She didn't back away. God's truth, she took a step closer to him.
They were just a breath away from touching. She had to tilt her head all the way back to meet his stare. "In all fairness, I think I should point out the fact that you actually provoked me first."
The woman was a temptress. Iain was having difficulty following her explanation. His concentration was centered on her mouth. His own lack of discipline was more appalling to him than her impudent behavior.
He couldn't stay away from her. The woman hadn't even settled in his brother's cottage and he was already looking in on her.
Judith really wished he'd say something to her. His expression didn't give her a hint of what he was thinking. She was suddenly feeling very nervous. She told herself it was only because Iain was such a big man, he seemed to swallow up all the space around him. Standing so close to him didn't ease her discomfort, either.
"I did ask you to please give me a private moment of your time, and you were most abrupt in your denial. Yes, you did provoke me first."
Iain couldn't make up his mind if he wanted to strangle the woman or kiss her. Then she smiled up at him, a sweet, innocent smile that made him want to laugh. He knew he could never touch her in anger, never ever raise a hand against her.
She knew it, too.
She wished she knew what he was thinking. She never should have started this baiting game, either. It was dangerous to tease a mountain wolf, and in her mind Iain, for all his gentle ways, could be even more dangerous than a wild animal. The power radiating from him was nearly overwhelming to her.
She turned her gaze to the floor. "I'm most grateful for all you've done for me, Iain, and I apologize to you if you believe I was trying to rile your temper."
She thought she'd sounded properly contrite. When she glanced up to see his expression, she was surprised to find him smiling.
"You were trying to rile my temper, Judith."
"Yes, I was," she admitted. "But I'm still sorry."
She realized, then, she was clutching the satchel in her arms. Before Iain realized her intent, she skirted her way around him and walked out the doorway.
"She'll knock on every door along the path until someone tells her where Isabelle lives." Frances Catherine made that prediction. "Patrick, would you please go and—"
"I'll go," Iain muttered.
He didn't wait for an argument. His sigh was as loud as the slam of the door when he pulled it closed behind him.
He caught up with Judith just as she was starting down the hill. He didn't say a word to her, but took hold of her arm to force her to stop.
"I made a promise to Margaret, Iain, and I'm going to see it carried through."
Her bluster wasn't needed. Iain was already nodding agreement. "You're going the wrong way. Winslow's cottage is on the other side of the courtyard."
He took her satchel from her and started walking back up the second hill. Judith walked by his side. Their arms brushed against each others, but neither moved apart.
"Iain, now that we're alone—"
His laughter stopped her question. "Why are you amused?"
"We aren't alone," he answered. "I would wager at least twenty of my clan are watching us."
She looked around but didn't see a single person. "You're certain?"
"Yes," he answered in a clipped voice.
"Why are they watching?"
"Iain, why are you angry with me? I've already apologized for trying to provoke your temper."
She sounded upset to him. He let out a sigh. He wasn't about to explain his reasons for being angry. Hell, her nearness was damn disturbing to his peace of mind. He wanted to touch her. He wasn't about to admit that, either.
"I'm not angry with you. You place too much importance upon yourself if you believe I would feel anything other than duty to my brother when I watch out for you."
He might as well have struck her. She didn't know what to say in response to his cruel piece of honesty. She realized he was right. She had placed too much importance upon herself to think he would be concerned about her. A puny attraction was one thing; caring was quite another.
Tears filled her eyes. Thankfully, the fading sunlight hid her expression from him. She kept her head bowed and deliberately edged away from his side until there was enough room for two horses between them.
Iain felt lower than a snake's belly. He damned himself for sounding so harsh, even as he wished to God she wasn't so tenderhearted.
He started to apologize, then immediately discarded the idea. Not only was he sure he'd muck that up, too, but also, warriors didn't apologize. Women did.
She didn't answer him.
That quickly, he gave up trying. He had never told anyone, man or woman, he was sorry for his actions, and by God he wasn't about to start now.
"I didn't mean to hurt you."
He couldn't believe he said the words until he'd muttered them. He had to shake his head over his own inexplicable behavior.
Judith didn't acknowledge his apology, and he was thankful for that consideration. She must have guessed from the strangled sound of his voice how difficult it had been for him.
But Judith didn't believe he meant one word of his apology. There wasn't anything for her to forgive anyway, she told herself. He had hurt her feelings, yes, but he had been telling her exactly how he felt.
Iain was acutely relieved when they reached their destination. Yet he hesitated at the threshold. Both he and Judith could hear Isabella weeping. They heard Winslow's voice as well, and though the words weren't clear, his soothing tone of voice certainly was.
Judith thought they should come back in the morning, but before she could suggest as much, Iain had already knocked on the door.
Winslow opened it. The look of irritation on his face indicated he wasn't happy with the interruption. As soon as he saw Iain, however, his surly look vanished.
Brodick's brother didn't look at all like him, save for the color of his eyes. They were the same intense shade of blue. He was shorter than Brodick, and not nearly as handsome. His hair was a darker blond, unruly with curls, too.
Iain explained his reasons for the visitation, and when he'd finished, Winslow shrugged, then opened the door wide to invite them inside.
The cottage was similar to Patrick's in size, but was filled with clutter of clothes strewn about, and forgotten treachers stacked on top of each other on the table.
Isabelle wasn't much of a housekeeper. The pretty woman was in bed, propped up by a mound of pillows behind her. Her eyes were swollen from crying.
Judith thought she was ill. Her brown hair hung limp around her shoulders and her complexion was as pale as the moon.
"I don't wish to disturb you," Judith began. She took the satchel from Iain and was about to put it on the table when she realized there wasn't room. Since the two stools were also covered with clothing, she settled on placing the satchel on the floor. "Your mother sent a gift for you, Isabelle, messages too, but I'll be happy to come back when you're feeling better."
"She isn't ill," Winslow remarked.
"Then why is she in bed?" Judith asked.
Winslow looked surprised by that question. She thought it was because she'd been impudent asking.
"She's going to have my son any time now," Winslow explained.
Judith turned back to Isabelle. She saw the tears in her eyes. "Are you in labor now?"
Isabelle vehemently shook her head. Judith frowned. "Then why are you in bed?" she asked again, trying to understand.
Winslow couldn't understand why the Englishwoman was asking such foolish questions. He forced a patient voice. "She's in bed so she can conserve her strength."
The midwife Judith put such faith in would have had palpitations over that twisted bit of logic. She smiled at Isabelle before turning to look at her husband again.
"Then why doesn't a warrior conserve his strength before going into battle?"
Winslow raised an eyebrow. Iain smiled. "A warrior must always train for battle," Winslow answered. "He becomes weak and ineffective if he doesn't constantly train. Don't the English follow this dictate?"