As a child, Judith Hampton, an English girl, attended a border festival and became the best of friends with Frances Catherine, a little Scottish girl of about the same age. In their childish innocence, they had no idea they were supposed to be enemies. Instead, they reconnected at the festival year after year as though no time had passed at all. Because Frances Catherine's mother and grandmother had both died in childbirth, Judith made a pact to attend Frances Catherine and be of whatever help she could when the time came for her to give birth to her own child. Now with her friend due in about two months time, Judith is more than prepared to go to her. But what she isn't quite prepared for is the handsome, but fierce Scottish laird who comes to escort her to his holding in the Highlands and the feelings that he stirs within her.
As Frances Catherine's brother-in-law and leader of his clan, Iain Maitland volunteered to bring Judith to Scotland, vowing that nothing would stop him from fulfilling his sister-in-law's wish, even though he didn't understand the close friendship between the two women. On the long journey to his land, Iain is bemused and bewitched by the feisty and beautiful Englishwoman, and so it seems are the rest of his men. Their attentions toward her make him feel unfamiliar pangs of possessiveness, which cause him keep her close. Once they arrive at the Maitland holding, Judith gradually earns the respect and admiration of nearly every member of Iain's clan, impressing him even further. However, as the unrest between the Maitlands and the neighboring clans grows more intense, Iain decides to propose marriage to protect Judith. But throughout her time in the Highlands, Judith has been keeping a huge secret regarding her parentage, which could shatter alliances with the other clans and possibly destroy hers and Iain's burgeoning love for one another if the truth ever comes to light.
Julie Garwood has been a long-time favorite author for me. In fact, she was one of the very first mainstream romance authors whose work I ever read. For that reason, it's always fun to revisit some of her books I've read in the past, as well as discover ones that are new to me. I believe The Secret falls into the latter category. Before picking it up, I honestly couldn't recall if it was one that I'd read before or not, but after reading it, nothing about it seemed particularly familiar, other than Ms. Garwood's trademark writing style and character archetypes. As with pretty much all of the author's books I've read to date, The Secret has a gruff and rather stubborn alpha hero with a heart gold and a feisty heroine who isn't afraid to stand up for herself and who ultimately makes a big difference in her hero's life. The story is fairly lighthearted with lots of humor, but still had enough emotional moments to keep me engaged throughout. Overall it was another fun foray into this beloved author's work.
Judith is a young Englishwoman who had a rough life growing up. She lived with a loving aunt and uncle for her first four years, but after that was forced to spend six months every year with her mother, who couldn't stand the sight of her and another uncle, who was a mean drunk. They told her that her father was dead and that her mother didn't like having her around because Judith reminded her of her lost love. It wasn't until many years later that Judith found out the truth that her father was indeed still alive and that he was a Scot. When Judith was only four years old, she attended a summer border festival with the good aunt and uncle, where she met Frances Catherine, a little Scottish girl of the same age. In their childish innocence, they didn't know they were supposed to be enemies, so instead they became best friends. Frances Catherine's mother and grandmother both died in childbirth, so when they reached adulthood, Judith promised that she would be by Frances Catherine's side when the time came for her to give birth. She even spent as much time as she could secretly gaining information and training from midwives, so that she could be of help. When Frances Catherine's brother-in-law comes to fetch Judith, she's more than ready to go see her friend and provide comfort and assistance. She just didn't expect to fall in love with the gruff warrior in the process and end up staying in the Highlands.
I really admired Judith for her outspokenness, which gains the respect of Iain and his men. More than one of them ends up sweet on her before the journey is over, and they only keep their distance out of respect for Iain, who they know is interested in her too. I also loved her ability to engender trust in the women of the clan, especially those who are about to give birth. Even though she thought she was only going to be with Frances Catherine in a support role and is completely freaked out when the other expectant women start coming to her instead of the nasty woman who is the clan midwife, she ends up bravely attending all of them during their labors. Judith also has a way of putting others at ease and making peace in the midst of conflict whenever possible. Nearly everyone ends up loving her, despite her being English, Iain, of course, most of all.
Iain became laird of his clan at a young age. He also raised his younger brother, Patrick, who is Frances Catherine's husband, from the time he was just twelve. Together the two are inseparable and always have each other's backs. That's why when Patrick comes to him with his unusual request that an Englishwoman be allowed to visit to attend his wife during childbirth, Iain goes to bat for him with the council and then travels to England to bring her back. He's instantly attracted to the feisty woman who has a backbone more like a Scot. He always swore he wouldn't turn into a besotted idiot like his brother has, but the more time he spends with Judith, the more he can't help himself. When he sees the ring Judith wears around her neck, one that she says belonged to her father, it's familiar to him. And when he finally realizes it bears the mark of their chief rivals, the Macleans, and that Judith is their laird's daughter, he knows he must marry her to protect her from them.
I liked Iain for being a strong leader and for his protectiveness toward Judith. He even agrees to her bizarre request on their wedding day that he never get drunk in front of her, which was sweet. I also liked that he respected her opinion on many matters and that he showed her how he felt about her even when he didn't want to say the words. That said, though, Iain was perhaps just a tad too alpha for my taste. He's more or less the typical, stubborn, clueless hero who doesn't initially recognize his emotions for what they are, and it takes him a while to get around to telling Judith that he loves her, because he feels that it will make him weak. At his heart, though, I can't deny that he's a good man who treats her with kindness and respect, while protecting and keeping her safe, so I did like him quite a bit even though he won't make the very top of my favorite romance heroes list due to his lack of vulnerability.
The Secret is the first book of Julie Garwood's Highlands' Lairds series. It contains quite a number of secondary characters. Patrick and Frances Catherine have their own sweet little romance going on in the background. Even though they've been married a while, it's obvious they're still crazy about each other. Iain's men, as well as the elders of the council, all have their own unique personalities, which make the story more humorous, more exciting, more sexy (in some cases), pretty much more of everything. Of note among Iain's men are the drop-dead gorgeous Ramsey and the adorable, funny, and also attractive Brodick, who had a major crush on Judith. It appears these two go on to become the co-heroes of the next book of the series, Ransom. Then there are the women of the clan, particularly Isabelle, the first expectant mother Judith delivers and Helen, the apprentice of the midwife from hell, whom Judith eventually wins over with her kindness. And these are just a few of the more notable characters. There are plenty more who play smaller but key roles. All of them and the storytelling came together to create a fun-filled, enjoyable, light-hearted read. A little more vulnerability for Iain and a little deeper characterizations for both him and Judith wouldn't have gone amiss, but in the end, I decided to give The Secret keeper status after all. Since I very much liked both Ramsey and Brodick, I look forward to seeing what's in store for them in the next book.
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