Home > The Secret (Highlands' Lairds #1)

The Secret (Highlands' Lairds #1)
Julie Garwood

Prologue

England, 1181

They became friends before they were old enough to understand they were supposed to hate each other.

The two little girls met at the annual summer festival held on the border between Scotland and England. It was Lady Judith Hampton's first experience attending the Scottish games, her first real outing away from her isolated home in the west of England as well, and she was so overwhelmed by the sheer adventure of it all, she could barely keep her eyes closed during her mandatory afternoon naps. There was so much to see and do, and for a curious four-year-old, a good deal of mischief to get into, too.

Frances Catherine Kirkcaldy had already gotten herself into mischief. Her papa had given her a good swat on her backside to make her sorry she'd misbehaved, then carried her over his shoulder like a sack of feed all the way across the wide field. He made her sit on a smooth-topped rock, far away from the singing and the dancing, and ordered her to stay put until he was good and ready to come back and fetch her. She would use the quiet time alone, he commanded, to contemplate her sins.

Since Frances Catherine didn't have the faintest idea what the word "contemplate" meant, she decided she didn't have to obey that order. It was just as well, for her mind was already completely full, worrying about the fat, stinging bee buzzing circles around her head.

Judith had seen the father punish his daughter. She felt sorry for the funny-looking, freckle-faced little girl. She knew she surely would have cried if her uncle Herbert had smacked her bottom, but the redheaded girl hadn't even grimaced when her papa smacked her.

She decided to talk to the girl. She waited until her father had quit wagging his finger at his daughter and had strutted back across the field, then picked up the hem of her skirt and ran the long way around to sneak up on the rock from behind.

"My papa never would have smacked me," Judith boasted by way of introduction.

Frances Catherine didn't turn her head to see who was talking to her. She didn't dare take her gaze away from the bee now lingering on the rock next to her left knee.

Judith wasn't daunted by her silence. "My papa's dead," she announced. "Since before I was even borned."

"Then how would you be knowing if he would smack you or not?"

Judith lifted her shoulders in a shrug. "I just know he wouldn't," she answered. "You talk funny, like you've got something trapped in your throat. Do you?"

"No," Frances Catherine answered. "You talk funny, too."

"Why won't you look at me?"

"I can't."

"Why can't you?" Judith asked. She twisted the hem of her pink gown into a wrinkle while she waited for an answer.

"I have to watch the bee," Frances Catherine answered. "It wants to sting me. I have to be ready to swat it away."

Judith leaned closer. She spotted the bee flittering around the girl's left foot. "Why don't you swat it away now?" she asked in a whisper.

"I'm afraid to," Frances Catherine answered. "I might miss. Then it would get me for certain."

Judith frowned over that dilemma a long minute. "Do you want me to swat it for you?"

"Would you want to?"

"Maybe I would," she answered. "What's your name?" she asked then, stalling for time while she gathered her courage to go after the bee.

"Frances Catherine. What's yours?"

"Judith. How come you have two full names? I've never heard of anyone having more than one."

"Everybody always asks me that," Frances Catherine said. She let out a dramatic sigh. "Frances was my mama's name. She died birthing me. Catherine's my grandmama's name, and she died just the same way. They couldn't be buried in the sacred ground 'cause the Church said they weren't clean. Papa's hoping I'll start in behaving and then I'll get to Heaven, and when God hears my two names, he'll remember Mama and Grandma."

"Why did the Church say they weren't clean?"

"'Cause they were birthing when they died," Frances Catherine explained. "Don't you know anything, girl?"

"I know some things."

"I know just about everything," Frances Catherine boasted. "Leastways, papa says I surely think I do. I even know how babies get into the mamas' stomachs. Want to hear?"

"Oh, yes."

"Once they get married, the papa spits into his goblet of wine and then he makes the mama take a big drink. As soon as she swallows, she's got a baby in her stomach."

Judith made a grimace over that thrillingly disgusting information. She was going to beg her friend to tell her more when Frances Catherine suddenly let out a loud whimper. Judith leaned closer. Then she let out a whimper, too. The bee had settled on the tip of her friend's shoe. The longer Judith stared at it, the bigger it seemed to grow.

The talk about birthing was immediately put aside. "Are you going to swat it away?" Frances Catherine asked.

"I'm getting ready to."

"Are you afraid?"

"No," Judith lied. "I'm not afraid of anything. I didn't think you were, either."

"Why didn't you?"

"Because you didn't cry when your papa smacked you," Judith explained.

"That's because he didn't smack me hard," Frances Catherine explained. "Papa never does. It pains him more than me, too. Leastways, that's what Gavin and Kevin say. Papa's got his hands full with me, they say, and ruining me good for some pitiful man I got to marry when I'm all grown up because papa pampers me."

"Who are Gavin and Kevin?"

"Half my brothers," Frances Catherine explained. "Papa's their papa, too, but they had a different mama. She died."

"Did she die birthing them?"

"No."

"Then why'd she die?"

"She just got tuckered out," Frances Catherine explained. "Papa told me so. I'm closing my eyes real tight now if you want to swat the bee."

Because Judith was so determined to impress her new friend, she didn't think about the consequences any longer. She reached out to slap the bee, but as soon as she felt the flutter of its wings against the palm of her hand, it tickled her so, she instinctively closed her fingers.

Then she started wailing. Frances Catherine bounded off the rock to help the only way she knew how. She started wailing, too.

Judith ran around and around the rock, screaming so vigorously she could barely catch her breath. Her friend chased after her, screaming just as fiercely, though in sympathy and fear rather than in pain.

Frances Catherine's papa came running across the field. He caught hold of his daughter first, and when she'd stammered out her problem, he chased down Judith.

In a matter of minutes the two little girls had been properly soothed. The stinger had been removed from the palm of Judith's hand and cool wet mud applied. Her friend's papa gently mopped away her tears with the edge of his woolen plaid. He sat on the punishment rock now, with his daughter cuddled up on one side of his lap and Judith cuddled up on the other.

She'd never had anyone make such a fuss over her before. Judith turned quite shy because of all the attention she was getting. She didn't turn away from the comfort, though, and in fact edged a little closer to get even more.

"You two are a sorry pair," the papa announced when they'd quit their hiccuping and could hear him. "Screaming louder than the trumpets sounding the caber toss, you were, and running in circles like hens with your heads cut off."

Judith didn't know if the papa was angry or not. His voice had been gruff, but he wasn't frowning. Frances Catherine giggled. Judith decided her friend's papa must have been jesting after all.

"It was paining her considerably, Papa," Frances Catherine announced.

"I'm certain it did pain her," he agreed. He turned his gaze to Judith and caught her staring up at him. "You're a brave little lass to help my daughter," he praised. "But if there be a next time, try not to catch the bee. All right?"

Judith solemnly nodded.

He patted her arm. "You're a pretty little thing," he remarked. "What's your name, child?"

"Her name's Judith, Papa, and she's my friend. Can she have her supper with us?"

"Well now, that depends on her parents," her father replied.

"Her papa's dead," Frances Catherine announced. "Isn't that pitiful, Papa?"

"It surely is," he agreed. The corners of his eyes crinkled up, but he didn't smile. "She's got the prettiest blue eyes I've ever seen, though."

"Don't I have the prettiest eyes you've ever seen, too, Papa?"

"Aye, you do, Frances Catherine. You've got the prettiest brown eyes I've ever seen. You surely do."

Frances Catherine was so pleased with her father's praise, she scrunched up her shoulders and giggled again.

"Her papa died before she was even borned," Frances Catherine told him then. She'd only just remembered that information and was certain her papa would want to hear it.

He nodded, then said, "Now daughter, I want you to keep real quiet while I talk to your friend."

"Yes, Papa."

He turned his attention back to Judith. He found it a little unnerving, the way she was intently staring up at him. She was such a serious little thing, too serious for someone of her young age.

"How old are you, Judith?"

She held up four fingers.

"Papa, do you see? She's just my age."

"No, Frances Catherine, she isn't just your age. Judith's four in years and you're already five. Remember?"

"I remember, Papa."

He smiled at his daughter, then once again tried to talk to Judith. "You aren't afraid of me, are you?"

"She's not afraid of anything. She told me so."

"Hush, daughter. I want to hear your friend speak a word or two. Judith, is your mama here?"

She shook her head. She started twisting a lock of her white-blond hair around and around her finger in a nervous gesture, yet kept her gaze fully directed on the papa. The man's face was covered with red whiskers, and when he spoke, the bristles wiggled. She wished she could touch the beard to find out what it felt like.

"Judith? Is your mama here?" the papa repeated.

"No, Mama stays with Uncle Tekel. They don't know I'm here. It's going to be a secret, and if I tell, I won't ever be able to come back to the festival. Aunt Millicent told me so."

Once she started talking, she wanted to tell everything she knew. "Uncle Tekel says he's just like my papa, but he's only mama's brother and I never sit on his lap. I wouldn't want to if I could, but I can't so it doesn't matter, does it?"

Frances Catherine's father was having difficulty following the explanation, but his daughter wasn't having any trouble at all. She was filled with curiosity, too. "Why can't you if you wanted to?" she asked.

"He got his legs broke."

Frances Catherine let out a gasp. "Papa, isn't that pitiful?"

Her father let out a long sigh. The conversation was getting away from him. "Aye, it surely is," he agreed. "Now, Judith, if your mother's at home, how did you get here?"

"With Mama's sister," Judith answered. "I used to live with Aunt Millicent and Uncle Herbert all the time, but Mama won't let me anymore."

"'Cause why?" Frances Catherine asked.

"'Cause Mama heard me call Uncle Herbert 'Papa.' She was so fuming mad, she gave me a smack on the top of my head. Then Uncle Tekel told me I had to live with him and Mama for half the year long so I'd know who I belonged to, and my aunt Millicent and uncle Herbert would just have to do without me. That's what Tekel said. Mama didn't want me to go away even half the year, but Tekel hadn't started his after-supper drinking yet, so she knew he would remember what he told her. He always remembers when he isn't drunk. Mama was fuming mad again."

"Was your mama fuming mad because she was going to miss you half the year?" Frances Catherine asked.

"No," Judith whispered. "Mama says I'm a bother."

"Then why didn't she want you to go?"

"She doesn't like Uncle Herbert," Judith answered. "That's why she was being contrary."

"Why doesn't she like him?" Frances Catherine wanted to know.

"'Cause he's related to the damn Scots," Judith answered, repeating what she'd heard time and time again. "Mama says I shouldn't even want to talk to the damn Scots."

"Papa, am I damn Scots?"

"You most certainly are not."

"Am I?" Judith asked, her worry obvious in her voice.

"You're English, Judith," her friend's papa patiently explained.

"Am I damn English?"

Her friend's papa was clearly exasperated. "Nobody's damn anything," he announced. He started to say more, then suddenly burst into laughter. His big belly jiggled with his amusement. "I'd best remember not to say anything in front of you two little tarts I don't want repeated."

"'Cause why, Papa?"

"Never you mind," he answered.

He stood up, holding his daughter in one arm and Judith in the other. Both little girls let out squeals of delight when he pretended he was going to drop them.

"We'd best find your aunt and uncle before they start in worrying, Judith. Point me the way to your tent, lass."

Judith immediately became frightened inside. She couldn't remember where the tent was located. Since she didn't know her colors yet, she couldn't even give Frances Catherine's papa a description.

She tried not to cry. She bowed her head and whispered, "I don't remember."

She tensed in anticipation of his anger. She thought he'd shout at her for being ignorant, the way her uncle Tekel always did whenever he was drunk and pricked about something she'd inadvertently done that displeased him.

Frances Catherine's papa didn't get angry, though. She peeked up to look at him and caught his smile. Her anxiety completely vanished when he told her to quit her fretting. He'd find her relatives soon enough, he promised.

"Will they miss you if you don't come back?" Frances Catherine asked.

Judith nodded. "Uncle Herbert and Aunt Millicent would cry," she told her new friend. "Sometimes I wish they were my mama and papa. I do."

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