"Oh yes I am," she cried out. "I should have protected myself." She didn't go on.

"Judith?"

"Never mind. I don't wish to discuss this."

Advertisement

"You shouldn't be weeping, not today of all days," Patrick told her.

She mopped at the corners of her eyes again. "Yes, it is a beautiful day, and I shouldn't be crying." She took another deep breath. "You can let go of me now. I've recovered."

He removed his arm from her shoulder and walked by her side up to the crest of the hill and across the courtyard. Patrick had one more errand to complete before he went inside. He bowed to Judith and started to turn away.

"Do I look like I've been weeping?" she asked him in a worried tone.

"No," he lied.

She smiled. "Thank you for helping me sort through this problem," she said.

-- Advertisement --

"But I didn't—"

He quit his protest when she turned and ran up the steps to the keep. He shook his head in confusion and turned back toward the hill.

Judith didn't knock. She took a deep breath before pulling the heavy door wide and hurrying on inside.

The interior of the keep was just as cold and ugly as the exterior. The entrance was wide, with gray stone floors, and a staircase built against the wall to the right of the double doors. The great hall was on her left. It was huge in size and as drafty as an open meadow. A stone hearth took up a fair portion of the wall opposite the entrance. There was a fire blazing away, but it didn't warm the room. There was more smoke than heat circulating in the hall.

There weren't any of the aromas usual in a home, like the smell of bread baking or meat sizzling over a flame, nor was there any clutter of personal possessions to indicate someone actually lived here. The hall was as stark as a monastery.

Five steps led down into the room. Judith waited at the top for Iain to notice her. He was sitting with his back to her at the head of a long narrow table. Five older men Judith assumed were the members of the council were huddled together at the opposite end.

The atmosphere crackled with tension. Something terrible must have happened. It was apparent from the looks on the elders' faces they had received some distressing news. Judith didn't believe she should intrude on their unhappiness now. She would come back later, when everyone had recovered from their upset. She backed up a space and turned around to leave.

Alex and Gowrie blocked her exit. She was so surprised to see them, her eyes widened in reaction. The two warriors hadn't made a sound when they came inside. Judith was about to skirt her way around the big men when the doors were thrown wide and Brodick swaggered inside. Patrick was right behind him. He caught hold of one of the doors before it slammed shut and motioned for the priest to come inside. Father Laggan didn't look very happy. He forced a smile for Judith, then hurried on down the steps into the hall.

She watched the priest until he reached Iain's side. Yes, something terrible had happened, all right. There wouldn't be need for a priest otherwise. She said a silent prayer for whoever was in need of it, then turned around to leave again.

The warriors had formed a line behind her. Alex, Gowrie, Brodick, and Patrick were deliberately blocking her path.

Patrick stood on the end nearest the door. She edged her way over to him. "Did someone die?" she whispered.

Brodick found her question vastly amusing. The others continued to frown. None of them would let her leave. They wouldn't answer her question, either. She was about to tell the rude men to get out of her way when the door was thrown open again and Winslow came inside.

Isabella's husband looked ready to do battle. He was barely polite. He gave her a curt nod, then took his place in the line of warriors.

"Judith, come here."

Iain gave that command in such a bellow, he scared the breath right out of her. She turned around to frown at him, but it was a wasted effort on her part because he wasn't even looking at her now.

She couldn't make up her mind if she wanted to obey his rude summons or not. Brodick made the decision for her. He gave her shoulders a nudge. It wasn't an overly gentle one. She looked back over her shoulder to glare at him for being so rude.

He winked at her.

Alex waved her forward to do his laird's bidding. She glared at him, too. Someone really needed to take the time to teach the warriors some simple manners, she decided. Now wasn't the time, however. Judith lifted the hem of her skirt, straightened her shoulders, and went down the steps.

The priest, she noticed, was highly agitated. He was pacing back and forth in front of the hearth. She forced a serene expression for his benefit while she hurried across the room. When she reached Iain's side, she put her hand on his shoulder to get his attention, then leaned down.

"If you ever shout at me again, I do believe I'll throttle you."

After giving him that empty threat, she straightened up again. Iain had an astonished look on his face. She nodded to let him know she wasn't bluffing.

He smiled to let her know he thought she was daft.

Graham watched the couple and quickly came to the conclusion Lady Judith intrigued him. He could easily see why a man would be taken with her, why he might even forget she was English. Aye, she was that pleasing to look upon with her pretty golden-colored hair and her big blue eyes. Still, it wasn't her appearance that held Graham's interest. Nay, it was what he had learned about her character that had made him curious to know her better.

Winslow had told him about Lady Judith's assistance in helping with the birthing of his son, and the report had been closely followed by Father Laggan's praise over what had taken place the following day. Judith hadn't wanted to take on the duty. Winslow reported she'd been terrified. The fear hadn't stopped her from doing what was necessary, however. He'd heard she'd helped to bring three more babies into the world while Iain was away from the holding, and each time she'd been beside herself with fear and worry for the new mothers.

Graham didn't know what to make of those reports. He knew they were true, of course, but such kindness and courage coming from an Englishwoman confused him. It was such a contradiction.

There would be plenty of time later to think about this confusing issue. He could tell from Judith's expression Iain hadn't told her about the decision he'd just given the council. Graham looked at his companions to judge their reactions. Duncan looked like he had just swallowed a vat of vinegar. Vincent, Gelfrid, and Owen were in much the same condition.

It appeared he was the only one who wasn't still reeling from the stunning announcement. Of course, Iain had taken him aside before the meeting to tell him what he intended to do. Patrick stood by his brother's side. Graham had known then, before Iain had spoken a single word, that the issue was of an extremely important nature. The two brothers always stood together, united as one, on all crucial issues. Aye, he'd known it was important, but he had still been left speechless.

Graham finally stood up. He was filled with conflicting emotions. As leader of the council, he knew his primary duty was to try to talk some sense into Iain, and if that didn't change his determination, then to cast his vote against him.

Yet Graham felt another duty as well, and that was to find a way to support Iain's decision. His reason was simple to understand. He wanted Iain to be happy. God only knew the laird deserved to find love and contentment.

He felt a tremendous responsibility for the laird. In all the years they had served together, Graham had taken on the role of father to Iain. He set out to train him to be the best. Iain hadn't disappointed him. He met every expectation, surpassed every goal Graham set for him, and even as a young lad, his strength and determination far excelled the efforts of all the others near his age and older.

At the tender age of twelve Iain became the sole parent to his younger brother, who was then only five years old. Iain's life had always been filled with responsibilities, and it didn't seem to matter how much more was heaped upon his shoulders, he easily carried the load. When it was necessary, he worked from dawn until darkness. There had been a reward for his diligence, of course. Iain became the youngest warrior ever to be granted the privilege of leading the clan.

But there had also been a price to pay. In all the years of relentless work and struggle, Iain had never had time for laughter, or joy, or happiness.

Graham clasped his hands behind his back and cleared his throat to get everyone's attention. He decided to go through the motions of arguing against Iain first. Once the other elders were satisfied he'd done his duty as their leader, he would publicly announce his support for the laird.

"Iain, there is still time for you to change this inclination of yours," Graham announced in a hard voice.

The other council members immediately nodded. Iain stood up with such quickness, the chair flew backward. Judith was so startled, she backed up. She bumped into Brodick. That startled her even more. She turned around and saw that all the warriors were now lined up in back of her again.

"Why are you following me?" she demanded in exasperation.

Iain turned around. Her ridiculous question took the edge off his anger. He shook his head at her. "They aren't following you, Judith. They're showing me their support."

She wasn't appeased by that explanation. "Then make them show you their support from over there," she suggested with a wave of her hand. "They're blocking my exit and I would like to leave."

"But I want you to stay," he told her.

"Iain, I don't belong here."

"Aye, she doesn't."

Gelfrid shouted his agreement. Iain turned to confront him.

All hell broke loose then. Judith felt as though she was standing in the center of a hailstorm. The shouting soon gave her a headache. Iain never raised his voice, but the elders were bellowing every other word.

The argument seemed to be centered around some sort of alliance. At least that was the one word that kept popping up again and again and getting the council members thoroughly riled. Iain was in favor of this alliance and the council was vehemently opposed.

One of the elders worked himself into a frenzy in no time at all. After he finished shouting his opinion, he had a fit of coughing. The poor man was choking and gasping for air. She seemed to be the only one in the room who noticed his distress. Judith righted the chair Iain had overturned, then hurried over to the serving stand to pour water into one of the silver-edged goblets. No one tried to stop her. The battle of words had escalated. Judith handed the drink to the elder, and after he had taken a long swallow, she started pounding on his back.

He waved his hand to let her know she didn't need to continue her ministrations, then turned to give her his appreciation. He was in the middle of offering his thank-you when he suddenly stopped. His watery eyes widened in disbelief. Judith thought he only just realized who was helping him. He let out a gasp and started coughing again.

"You really shouldn't allow yourself to get so worked up," she told him as she once again started pounding him between his shoulder blades.

"You really shouldn't dislike me, either," she remarked. "It's a sin to hate. Just ask Father Laggan if you don't believe me. Besides, I haven't done anything to hurt you."

Because she was so intent on giving the elder sound advice, she didn't notice the shouting match had stopped.

"Judith, quit beating Gelfrid."

Iain gave the command. She looked up and was surprised to find him smiling.

"Do quit giving me orders," she replied. "I'm helping this man. Take another drink," she instructed Gelfrid. "I'm certain it will help."

"Will you leave me alone if I do?"

"You don't need to take that tone with me," she said. "I'll be happy to leave you alone."

She turned and walked back to Iain's side. In a whisper she asked, "Why do I have to stay here?"

"The lass deserves to know what's going on," Father Laggan called out. "She's got to agree, Iain."

"She will," Iain called back.

"You'd best get on to it, then," the priest suggested. "I've got to get to Dunbar land by nightfall. Merlin isn't going to keep. I could come back after, of course, if you think you'll need more time convincing her…"

"I won't."

"Am I supposed to agree to something?" she asked.

He didn't immediately answer her. He turned to stare at his soldiers, willing them with his scowl to back away. They deliberately ignored his silent command. They were enjoying his discomfort, Iain realized, as every damn one of them was grinning.

"Graham?" Iain demanded.

"I support your decision."

Iain nodded. "Gelfrid?"

"Nay."

"Duncan?"

"Nay."

"Owen?"

"Nay."

"Vincent?"

The elder didn't answer. "Someone wake him up," Graham ordered.

"I'm awake. I'm just not finished considering this matter."

Everyone patiently waited. A good five minutes passed in silence. The tension in the hall increased tenfold. Judith edged closer to Iain until her arm touched his. He was rigid with anger and she wanted him to know he had her support. She almost smiled over her own behavior. She didn't even know what the issue was about, yet she was ready to stand with Iain.

She didn't like seeing him upset. She took hold of his hand. He didn't look down at her, but he did give her fingers a little squeeze.

Since everyone was staring at Vincent, she did the same. She thought the elder might have gone back to sleep. It was difficult to tell. His bushy eyebrows hid his eyes from his audience, and he was hunched over the table with his head down.

He finally looked up. "You have my support, Iain."

"I count three against, and with our laird, three in favor," Graham announced.

"What in thunder do we do now?" Owen rasped out.

"We've never faced this dilemma before," Gelfrid interjected. "But a tie's a tie."

"We'll wait to decide this alliance," Graham announced. He paused until each member of the council had nodded his agreement, then turned to Iain. "You might as well get on with it, son."

Iain immediately turned to Judith. He was suddenly feeling very ill at ease.

This meeting hadn't turned out the way he had thought it would. He fully expected everyone but Graham to vote against the alliance. The discussion shouldn't have taken up so much time, and he'd planned to have a good five minutes alone with Judith before the priest arrived. Surely it wouldn't take him longer than that to tell her what he wanted her to do.

-- Advertisement --