"The council won't cooperate," Brodick predicted after his laird had given his report. "Their past grievances make any kind of union impossible."
"The Dunbars are in a tenuous position sitting between us," Alex interjected. "If they unite with the Macleans, their warriors will outnumber us by at least ten to one. I'm not liking those odds."
Iain nodded. "I will call the council together tomorrow," he announced. "For two separate purposes. First I'll talk to them about an alliance with the Dunbars."
He didn't continue. "What is the second purpose?" Brodick asked.
Iain found his first smile. "Judith."
Patrick and Brodick were the only ones who immediately understood what Iain was telling them.
"Father Laggan's thinking to leave early tomorrow morning," Brodick said.
"For what purpose?" Alex asked.
"The wedding," Iain answered.
Patrick laughed. Brodick joined in. Alex continued to look confused. "What about Judith?" he asked. "Will she agree?"
Iain didn't answer him.
Patrick didn't tell Frances Catherine or Judith that Iain had returned home. He left early in the morning to go up to the keep. Judith helped her friend give the cottage a thorough cleaning.
It was a little past the nooning hour when Iain knocked on the door. Judith opened it. Her face was covered with smudges and her hair was in wild disarray. She looked as though she'd just finished cleaning the inside of the hearth.
He was so damned happy to see her, he frowned. She smiled back. She was flustered over her appearance. She tried to straighten her hair by brushing the curls away from her face.
"You're back," she whispered.
The man wasn't much for greetings. "Yes. Judith, come up to the keep in one hour's time."
He turned and walked away. She was crushed by his cold attitude. She chased after him. "Why must I go up to the keep?"
"Because I wish you to," he answered.
"But I might have plans set for this afternoon."
"You're as stubborn as a goat," she muttered.
The gasp from the doorway indicated Frances Catherine had heard her remark. Judith still wasn't sorry she had said such a rude thing, because she believed it to be true. Iain was stubborn.
She turned away from him. "I don't believe I missed you at all."
He grabbed hold of her hand and pulled her back. "Exactly how long was I gone?"
"Three weeks, two days," she answered. "Why?"
He grinned. "But you didn't miss me, did you?"
She realized she'd trapped herself. "You're too clever for me, Iain," she drawled out.
"'Tis the truth, I am," he agreed with a grin.
Lord, she was going to miss this battling of wits with him, she realized. God's truth, she was going to miss him.
"If you want me to come up to your keep," she said, "you should put the request to Patrick first so your chain of command will be properly followed. Do let me know what he has to say."
She was deliberately trying to provoke him. He laughed instead.
"Iain?" Frances Catherine called out. "Is the council up at the keep?"
He nodded. Judith saw her friend's reaction to that news and pulled her hand away from Iain's.
"Now you've done it," she announced in a low whisper.
"You've upset Frances Catherine. Just look at her. She's worried, thanks to you."
"What did I do?" he asked, thoroughly confused. Frances Catherine did look upset, and he couldn't imagine why.
"You've just told her the council's up at the keep."
Judith explained. "Now she's worried I've done something wrong and they'll send me back home before she has her baby."
"You gathered all that from one frown?"
"Of course," she answered, exasperated. She folded her arms in front of her and frowned at him. "Well?" she demanded when he kept silent.
"You needn't raise your voice to me," she ordered. "You upset her. Now soothe her. Tell her you won't let the council send me back home yet. It's the least you can do. She's your dear sister-in-law and you really shouldn't want to see her upset."
He let out a sigh fierce enough to part the branches on the trees. He turned and yelled to Frances Catherine. "Judith isn't going anywhere." He looked at Judith again. "Have I fixed it to your satisfaction?"
Frances Catherine was smiling. Judith nodded. "Yes, thank you."
He turned and walked toward his stallion. Judith hurried after him. She grabbed hold of his hand to get him to stop.
His gruff tone of voice didn't bother her. "Did you miss me?"
That answer did prick her temper. She let go of his hand and tried to walk away. He caught her from behind. Wrapping his arms around her waist, he leaned down close to her ear and whispered, "You really should try to do something about your temper, lass."
He kissed her on the side of her neck, sending shivers down her legs.
He never did answer her question. Judith didn't realize it until he'd ridden away from her.
The man could turn her mind into mush just by touching her. Judith wasn't given long to mull over that flaw, however, for Frances Catherine was insisting on gaining her attention.
She all but shoved Judith through the doorway, then shut it behind her.
"Iain's in love with you."
Frances Catherine sounded thrilled. Judith shook her head. "I will not allow myself to think about love," she announced.
Her friend laughed. "You may not allow yourself to think about it, Judith, but you're in love with him, aren't you? I've kept silent long enough. He never needs to know."
The last remark caught Judith's full attention. "Know what?"
"About your father. No one ever needs to know. Let yourself—"
"Just think about what I'm suggesting," Frances Catherine said.
Judith collapsed into the chair. "I wish you would have your baby so I could go home. Each day I stay makes it more difficult. Dear God, what if I am falling in love with him? How do I stop myself?"
Frances Catherine walked over to stand behind her. She put her hand on her shoulder. "Would it help if you thought about all his flaws?" she asked.
She was jesting with her friend. Judith took the suggestion to heart. She tried to come up with as many flaws as possible. She couldn't think of very many. The man was almost perfect. Frances Catherine suggested that was probably a flaw, too. Judith agreed.
The two friends were so intent on their discussion, they didn't notice Patrick standing in the entrance. He'd been very quiet when he opened the door out of consideration for his wife. She often took afternoon naps, and he didn't want to disturb her if she was sleeping now.
Judith's remarks caught his attention. As soon as he realized she was giving his wife her opinion of Iain, he couldn't help but smile. Judith knew his brother almost as well as he did, and when she mentioned how stubborn he was, Patrick found himself nodding agreement.
"But you're still attracted to him, aren't you?"
Judith sighed. "Yes. Frances Catherine, what am I going to do? I feel such panic inside when I think about what's happening to me. I can't love him."
"And he can't possibly love you, either," Frances Catherine asked. "You're fooling yourself if you believe that. The man cares about you. Why can't you just accept it?"
Judith shook her head. "What do you suppose he'd do if he ever found out Laird Maclean was my father? Do you honestly believe he'd still care about me?"
Years of training to control his reactions kept Patrick on his feet. God's truth, he felt as though he'd just been given a hard blow to his midsection. He staggered back outside, then hastily pulled the door closed behind him. Patrick found Iain in the great hall. "We have to talk," he announced. "I've just found out something you need to know."
His brother's expression told Iain something was terribly wrong. "Walk with me outside, Patrick," he ordered. "I would rather hear your news in private."
Neither brother said another word until they were well away from the keep. Then Patrick repeated what he'd heard. Iain wasn't surprised. "It's a hell of a mess," Patrick muttered.
Iain agreed. It was one hell of a mess.
It took Judith almost an hour to clean up. The topic of Iain kept coming up. Frances Catherine was determined to make Judith admit she was already in love with Iain, and Judith was just as determined not to admit any such thing.
"You should be helping me get over this attraction," Judith insisted. "Do you realize how painful it's going to be for me to leave? I have to go back, Frances Catherine. It doesn't matter if I want to or not. This topic is most distressing for me. I don't wish to talk about it any longer."
Frances Catherine was immediately contrite. She could tell her friend was close to tears. She patted Judith's shoulder. "All right," she said, her voice a soothing whisper. "We won't talk about it. Now then, help me change my gown. I'm going up to the keep with you. Heaven only knows what the council's wanting. There has to be trouble brewing."
Judith stood up. "You're staying home. I'll go by myself. I promise to tell you everything that happens."
Frances Catherine was having none of that. She was determined to stand beside Judith in the event of trouble.
Judith was just as determined to make her friend stay put. Patrick came inside in the middle of their disagreement. He tried to get their attention with a word of greeting, and when that didn't work, he arrogantly raised his hand for silence.
They ignored him. "You always were as stubborn as a mule," Frances Catherine told her friend.
Patrick was appalled. "You mustn't talk to our guest like that," he ordered.
"Why not? She just called me worse."
Judith smiled. " 'Tis the truth, I did," she admitted sheepishly.
"Do stay out of this, Patrick," his wife suggested. "I'm just warming to this argument. I'm going to win. It's my turn."
Judith shook her head. "No, you're not going to win," she countered. "Patrick, please make her stay here. I have to go up to the keep. I won't be gone long."
She hurried out of the cottage before her friend could continue the argument. It would be up to Patrick to keep her home.
Judith knew she was probably late and Iain would surely be irritated, but she really wasn't worried about his temper. On the way up the steep hill she thought about that amazing fact. Iain was such a big, fierce-looking warrior, and his gigantic size alone should have turned her hair gray by now. She remembered feeling a little nervous the very first time she had seen him crossing the drawbridge to her uncle Tekel's home. The feeling had quickly vanished, however, and she had never, ever felt trapped or helpless when she was with him. Iain's manner was as gruff as a bear's, yet each time he touched her, he was very gentle.
Uncle Tekel frightened her. The realization popped into her mind all at once. She didn't understand why she was afraid of him. Her uncle was an invalid who had to be carried about on a litter from place to place. As long as she stayed out of striking distance, he couldn't hurt her. Yet whenever she had been forced to sit beside him, she had always been afraid.
His cruel words still had the power to hurt her, she admitted. She wished she was stronger and not so vulnerable. Then he couldn't hurt her. If she could learn how to protect her feelings, if she could learn to separate her mind from her heart, she wouldn't care what her uncle Tekel said to her. Nor would she care if she ever saw Iain again… if she were stronger.
Oh, what did it matter? She was going to have to go home, and Iain was certainly going to marry someone else. He would probably be very happy, too, as long as he could order his wife around for the rest of his life.
She let out a groan of disgust. Thinking about Iain kissing any other woman made her stomach hurt.
God help her, she was acting like a woman in love. She shook her head. She was far too intelligent to allow her heart to be crushed. She wasn't that ignorant, was she?
She burst into tears. She was racked with heart-wrenching sobs in a matter of seconds. She couldn't make herself stop. She blamed Frances Catherine for her shameful condition because she had prodded and prodded until Judith had finally been forced to confront the truth.
Judith moved off the path as a precaution against someone coming along and seeing her distress, and even hid behind a fat pine.
"Good Lord, Judith, what happened?"
Patrick's voice made her groan. She took a step back.
He followed her. "Did you injure yourself?" he asked, his concern obvious.
She shook her head. "You weren't supposed to see me," she whispered. She wiped her face dry with the backs of her hands and took several deep breaths to calm herself.
"I didn't see you," Patrick explained. "I heard you."
"I'm sorry," she whispered.
"What are you sorry for?"
"For being loud," she answered. "I only wanted a few minutes of privacy, but that isn't possible here, is it?"
She sounded downright pitiful. Patrick wanted to comfort her. She was his wife's dearest friend, and he felt it was his duty to try to make her feel better. He put his arm around her shoulders and gently turned her back to the path.
"Tell me what's wrong, Judith. No matter how terrible this problem seems to be, I'm certain I can correct it for you."
It was an extremely arrogant thing to say, but then, he was Iain's brother, after all, and some of his arrogance would surely dribble down to his sibling, she supposed. He was trying to be good-hearted, and for that reason alone she wasn't irritated.
"You cannot correct this," she told him. "But I thank you for offering."
"You can't know what I can do until you explain."
"All right," she agreed. "I've only just realized how ignorant I am. Can you correct that?"
His smile was gentle. "You aren't ignorant, Judith."