This simple errand had already become complicated. Iain decided it would be best if he separated himself from her as much as possible for the duration of the journey. He would ignore her, too.
After forming that plan of action, he felt better. He went back to the camp and saw that Judith had already gone inside the tent Alex and Gowrie had built for her. Iain went over to the tree next to Brodick, sat down and leaned back against the trunk. Alex and Gowrie were already sound asleep. Iain thought Brodick was too, until Brodick turned and spoke to him. "She's English, Iain. Try to make that matter." Iain glared at his friend. "Meaning?"
"You want her."
"How the hell would you know what I want?" Brodick wasn't intimidated by Iain's angry tone of voice. The two men had been friends for long years. Besides, Brodick had Iain's best interests at heart, and knew his friend understood that his motives were good-hearted.
"If you don't hide your feelings, Alex and Gowrie will soon know about this attraction."
"Damn it all, Brodick—"
"I want her, too."
Iain was astonished. "You can't have her," he commanded, before he could stop himself.
"You're sounding possessive, Iain." His friend didn't answer that statement of fact. Brodick let out a long sigh.
"I thought you hated the English, Brodick," Iain remarked after several minutes of silence.
"I do," Brodick answered. "But when I look at her, I forget. Her eyes… it's an affliction…"
"Get over it." Iain's voice had gone hard.
Brodick raised an eyebrow over that ferocious command. Iain was finished with the discussion. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He couldn't understand his reaction to Brodick's admission that his friend also wanted Judith. He'd been furious. Hell, he still was. Why did he care if Brodick wanted the woman or not? No, it shouldn't have mattered to him, yet the mere thought of anyone touching her—anyone but him, he qualified to himself—set his blood boiling.
Iain didn't go to sleep for a long, long while. He kept trying to sort out his irrational thoughts.
His mood didn't improve the following morning. He waited until the last possible minute to wake Judith. She hadn't moved at all during the night. He knew that for a fact because he'd spent the night watching her. The tent concealed most of her body, and only her feet and ankles were visible to him, but they hadn't moved at all during the dark hours.
Only after the horses were readied did Iain go over to the tent to wake Judith. He tossed the furs covering the posts to Alex, then knelt down on one knee and gently touched Judith's shoulder. He called her name, too.
She didn't move. Iain nudged her again, more forcefully.
"Lord, she's a sound sleeper, isn't she?" Gowrie made that remark. He'd walked over to stand next to Iain. "Is she breathing?"
Judith finally opened her eyes. She stared up at the giants looming over her and almost screamed. She caught herself in time and only a startled gasp escaped.
Iain noticed her fear. He noticed she'd grabbed hold of his hand, too. He stood up, then helped her stand.
"It's time to leave, Judith," he said when she continued to stand there. "Why don't you go to the stream and wash the sleep away."
She finally started moving. Brodick caught her from behind. His hands rested on her shoulders as he slowly turned her around so that she was facing in the right direction. Then he had to nudge her to get her moving again.
The men were vastly amused by Judith's stupor, but none of them smiled until she was out of sight.
"Think she'll walk into the water?" Alex asked.
"She might wake up before then," Gowrie said with a chuckle.
Judith was wide awake by the time she reached the water's edge. The water was refreshing, too. She took care of her personal tasks as quickly as possible, then hurried back to the camp.
Everyone but Iain was mounted and waiting. Judith didn't know who she was supposed to ride with today. Both Alex and Gowrie motioned to her to come to them.
Iain was on the opposite side of the clearing. She watched him mount his stallion's back, and when he still didn't look her way, she decided that since Alex was closer, she'd ride with him.
Iain had made the decision the night before to distance himself from Judith. That intention was completely forgotten, however, when he saw her walking toward Alex.
She was just taking hold of the soldier's hand when she was intercepted. Iain's stallion didn't pause in his gait. He had his arm wrapped around her waist and lifted her up onto his lap without breaking stride.
She didn't even have time to grab hold. Iain took the lead. She heard someone laugh behind her, but when she tried to turn around to see which one of the soldiers was making all the racket, Iain pulled her up against his chest and wouldn't let her move.
His hold was downright painful. She didn't have to tell him to let up on his grip, though. As soon as she touched his arm and relaxed against him, he lessened his hold.
The next several hours proved to be an exhausting ordeal for Judith. They had veered away from the broken north road and ridden as though they had a legion of devils chasing them. The pace was grueling until they reached the rugged steep mountain terrain. They had to slow down then.
Iain finally allowed a short respite. They stopped in a small clearing surrounded by thick thistle. The prickly plant was filled with vibrant purple and yellow flowers. Judith thought the area was beautiful. She walked around the lovely paradise, careful not to step on any of the blooms while she worked the ache out of her legs. She wanted to rub the sting from her backside, too, but didn't dare because the men were watching her every move.
They weren't a very talkative group, and so she spent her time touching the surprisingly durable flowers and sniffing their unusual fragrance. Judith walked to the pond Gowrie told her about and drank a fair amount of cold water. When she returned to the clearing, Alex handed her a square of cheese and a huge helping of thick bread.
She sat by herself on a smooth-topped boulder, her nooning meal in her lap. Iain came back to the clearing and joined the other men. The four warriors stood near their horses, talking to each other. Every now and then Iain would turn to look at her, as if making certain she was still where she was supposed to be.
She took her time finishing her food, staring at Iain most of the time. It occurred to her that she really didn't know much about any of the men, except that they were all in some way related to Frances Catherine. They were loyal to her too. She hoped that her dear friend realized how fortunate she was to have so many caring people around her. Of course, they were damn lucky to have Frances Catherine in their family now too.
She suddenly remembered the very first time they met. She had been too young at the time to remember all the details of that day, but over the years since then, Frances Catherine's papa had liked to recall the first time he'd met Judith. She'd heard about the story of the stinging bee from him so many times that she no longer knew which details she remembered and which ones she'd been told.
She thought about that incident now. According to Frances Catherine's papa, there was this bothersome bee…
"What has you smiling, lass?"
Judith had closed her eyes and was so intent on her recollection, she didn't hear Alex's approach. She opened her eyes and found him standing just a foot away from her.
"I was remembering the first time I met Frances Catherine," she answered.
"When was that?" Alex asked.
He seemed genuinely interested. She assumed he wanted to hear about Frances Catherine's childhood. She told him now she met her friend, and by the time she'd finished the story, Gowrie and Iain had joined in to listen. Alex asked her several questions, too. Judith didn't embellish on her answers until the topic of Frances Catherine's father came up. She lingered over the explanation of how she'd met that wonderful man, even described his appearance. His voice had taken on a soft, loving tone. Iain noticed the change, noticed too that she had mentioned three times how kind Frances Catherine's father had been to her. It was as though she was still, after all these years, surprised by that realization.
"Did Frances Catherine take to your father the way you took to hers?" Gowrie asked.
"My father wasn't there."
The smile had left her voice. She stood up and walked toward the privacy of the trees. "I'll just be a "few minutes," she called over her shoulder.
Judith was quiet the rest of the day. She was subdued during supper, too. Gowrie, the most outspoken of the group, asked her if something was wrong. She smiled, thanked him for inquiring, and then excused her behavior by telling him she was just a little weary.
They slept outdoors that night, the following four nights as well, and by the sixth day of the journey, Judith had reached the point of real exhaustion. The cold nights didn't help. The farther north they rode, the more frigid the wind became. Sleeping was an almost impossible task, and when she did doze off, it was only for a few minutes at a time. The tent offered little protection against the fierce wind, and there were times during those dark hours when she felt as though the cold was slicing through her bones.
Iain had become just as withdrawn. He still insisted she ride with him, but he barely spoke a word to her.
She'd learned from Alex that Iain was the newly appointed laird over the clan, and she wasn't at all surprised by that news. He was a born leader of men, which she thought was a blessing because he was far too arrogant to follow orders. He liked to have things his way. Oh, she'd noticed that flaw quick enough.
"Are there problems at home that have you worrying?" she asked when the silence of the long ride started to grate on her nerves.
They were riding through a difficult mountain pass and the pace was slow. Judith turned to look up at him while she waited for his answer.
He didn't expound on that answer.
Another hour passed in silence. Then Iain leaned down and asked, "Do you?"
She didn't know what he was talking about. She turned to look up at him again. His mouth was only inches away from hers. He abruptly pulled back. She quickly turned around. "Do I what?" she asked in a tight whisper.
"Do you have problems at home that have you worrying?"
"We were surprised your family allowed you to leave with us."
She shrugged. "Will it get warmer during the summer or is it always this cold up here?" she asked in an attempt to change the topic.
"It's as warm now as it's ever going to be," he answered. The amusement in his voice confused her. "Is there a baron back home who has spoken for you, Judith? Are you pledged to anyone?"
The man wouldn't let up on his personal questions. "Why not?"
"It's complicated," she answered. In a rush she added, "I really don't wish to discuss this. Why aren't you married?"
"There hasn't been time or the inclination."
"I don't have the inclination either."
He laughed. She was so surprised by that reaction, she turned to look at him again. "Why are you laughing?" she asked.
Damn, he was appealing when he was happy. The corners of his eyes crinkled with his merriment, and his eyes fairly sparkled silver. "Then you weren't jesting with me?" he asked.
She shook her head. He laughed all the louder. She didn't know what to make of him. Neither did Gowrie. He turned in his saddle to see what was going on. He looked a little stunned too. Judith decided the soldier wasn't used to hearing his laird laugh.
"In the Highlands, it doesn't matter if a woman is inclined or not," Iain explained. "I assumed it was the same in England."
"It is the same," she said. "A woman doesn't have a voice in the matter of her future."
"I've already explained," she said. "It's complicated." Iain relented. He quit his questions. Judith was immensely thankful. She didn't want to talk about her family. She'd really never given the matter of her future much thought. She doubted a marriage could be arranged by her mother, though. It was a fact that both mother and daughter were still the property of the laird Maclean… if he was still alive. If he'd died, then Uncle Tekel would become her guardian… or would he?
Aye, it really was complicated. She decided she was simply too tired to think about it. She leaned back against Iain and closed her eyes.
A little while later, Iain leaned down and whispered, "In an hour or so, we'll be riding through hostile territory, Judith. You must be silent until I give you permission to speak again."
Her safety was in his hands, and for that reason she immediately nodded agreement. She fell asleep minutes later. Iain adjusted her in his arms so that both her legs were drapped over one of his thighs. The side of her face rested against his shoulder.
He motioned both Gowrie and Alex ahead of him and left Brodick to protect the rear from attack.
The secluded area they rode through was thick with foliage and summer blooms. The sound of the falls roaring down into a gigantic gorge drowned out the sound their horses made.
Gowrie suddenly reined in his mount and raised one fist into the air. Iain immediately turned to the east and nudged his stallion into a thick cluster of trees. The others followed his lead now and hid themselves in the surrounding forest.
A shout of laughter came from the broken path not twenty feet away from where Judith and Iain waited. Other laughter joined in. Iain strained to hear over the thundering of the falls. He calculated that at least fifteen Macphersons were in the area. His hand itched to reach for his sword. Damn, he wished he could take the enemy by surprise. The odds were in his favor. With Gowrie, Alex, and Brodick fighting by his side, fifteen or twenty inept Macphersons wouldn't even provide a victory large enough to talk about.
Judith's safety came first, however. Iain instinctively tightened his hold around her waist. She snuggled closer, then started to let out a little sigh. His hand clamped down over her mouth. That action woke her up. She opened her eyes and looked at him. He shook his head. He still didn't remove his hand. She realized then that they were in enemy territory. Her eyes widened for just a second or two over that worry. Then she forced herself to relax.
She was safe as long as she was with him. Judith didn't understand why she had such confidence in his ability, but in her heart she knew he wouldn't let anyone harm her.