Authors: Gerri Russell
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #Romance, #Historical, #Scottish, #Historical Romance, #Holidays
“How does it feel to see him again? You parted so suddenly.”
The memory of that day stabbed her with the agony of a knife. All the emotions of the day must have breached the wall she had erected between herself and Nicholas. Her heart raced and her pain was palpable. With her emotions so raw, she felt stripped bare and more vulnerable than she liked. She stared blandly back at Margaret.
“Nicholas was once very dear to you,” Margaret said, watching her reaction with caution.
Jane stood and moved to the opposite side of the room, leaving Margaret holding the brush in empty air. She needed distance, but there was no distancing herself from the memories and emotions now pouring through her mind. She needed to close herself off again, pull that wall back around her. Her brother had sent Nicholas away, and Nicholas had left without a fight. But it was what happened after that tightened her rib cage and made it hard to breathe.
Margaret caught her gaze and in it read her anxiety and her pain. “Oh, Jane. I understand what his words have done to you more than anyone else. I was furious with him for a time, however, with time and distance, I cannot help but wonder if he was tricked into saying such things about you. The Nicholas I knew would never have hurt you in such a horrible way.”
Jane did not know what to think. A part of her had hoped it was all a mistake, but the men whose jeers she had had to endure for the last six months were no fantasy. Jane swallowed hard. Could she ever forgive him for the pain he had caused her? Could she ever trust his love again?
“I need time to think about Nicholas, about them all,” Jane finally replied when she could do so in a steady tone. Her back was to a wall. She had to choose one of them if she wanted to keep her home. She let loose a hitched breath. It was more than that—she would lose so much more than her home. But asking one of them to join with her might also end their very lives, and in a much more violent way than Margaret’s husband met his end.
Jane had been so deep in her own thoughts that she had not noticed Margaret approach. Margaret reached for Jane’s hand. “I know the fear you carry in your heart. But trust in these men to protect you and love you as you deserve. You must choose one of them. Marry for love, Jane, if at all possible, and let the rest take care of itself.”
That would mean trusting in someone else again—something she had not done in a very long time. There was no one else to help her and Margaret but the six men and their men-at-arms, who were below stairs settling in for the night. Jane fully grasped the danger they faced. She had to marry to get the army she needed and to mend her tarnished reputation.
Jane brought her gaze to Margaret’s, saw the earnest expression there, and against all rationality, made a decision with her heart. “I will keep myself open to possibility, Aunt Margaret. Love is a stretch, but I will not close myself off to their affections over the next few days.” She drew a sharp breath. “I will let destiny take me where it will with any one of these men.”
The next morning was crisp and a new layer of snowfall covered the ground as Jane rode her gray mare from the stable to where her suitors had gathered in preparation for the hunt. For a moment she signaled her horse to stop. The hunt would be the second competition between her suitors. Her bold statement last night to keep herself open came back to her and her stomach knotted as six gentlemen turned her way. Of all the six, it was Nicholas her gaze moved to.
A familiar warmth simmered in his sherry-colored eyes and a sudden thrill echoed inside her. She smiled at him, but that smile died a heartbeat later as he turned away.
“A beautiful day for a hunt, wouldn’t you say?” Lord Galloway asked as she neared. His breath rose in a warm, thin coil matched only by his gaze as it lingered on the slight glimpse of her leather boot peeking out from beneath her riding habit.
Heat flooded Jane’s cheeks. She shifted the corner of her woolen skirt to cover herself more fully. Jane had enjoyed it when Nicholas had looked at her that way. With Lord Galloway, she felt bared and uncomfortable.
An amused smile lifted the corner of Lord Galloway’s lips.
“Indeed,” Jane replied in a tight voice, shifting her gaze from him to the chaos around her. David was dressed in the traditional scarlet coat and white breeches. He would act as the master of the hunt and guide the pack of twenty dogs through the competition. The dogs danced in the excited knowledge that they would be dashing across the pristine snow cover any moment in search of the scent David would offer them on a coiled piece of cloth. Baying filled the air as the dogs scratched at the frosty earth and frolicked with each other. The horses danced with as much anticipation as the dogs.
Jane held her reins loose, but signaled her horse to remain still with her knees. Lord Galloway, Jules, Bryce, Colin, and Nicholas all wore black coats, buff-colored breeches, and shiny black boots. Of all the men, only David looked entirely comfortable in the clothing of the hunt. Colin looked entirely uncomfortable as he fidgeted with his white cravat. As he noticed Jane’s glance, he offered her a smile and brought his horse alongside hers.
“Judging by the way you sit your horse, you appear to be a skilled rider,” Colin commented.
“I am no stranger to this horse or the hunt.”
Colin smiled. As his features brightened, Jane’s pulse leapt. The man was devastatingly handsome when he smiled.
“Are we to hunt a red fox?” he asked Jane.
She nodded. “How else are we to determine a winner of this competition if not for the fox?”
Bryce frowned and his eyes narrowed at the two of them. “As I am most familiar with the woodlands, I will win this farce before any of you or your dogs have caught the scent.”
“We will see about that,” Colin replied with confidence.
Jane turned her horse away from the two men beside her to seek out Nicholas and Jules. They hung back from the others, gazing off into the distance, searching the woodlands beyond.
A shiver danced across Jane’s neck. She forced it away. The accidents of the past few weeks would not touch her here, with so many protectors nearby. David blew a horn, indicating the hunt was about to begin. At the call of the horn and the barking of the racing dogs, Jane gave her horse a thump of her heels and urged herself forward into the fray. Careful to keep her distance, Jane surged into the woodlands behind her six suitors. David was in the lead, followed by Bryce and Nicholas. Lord Galloway rode more carefully alongside Jules, and Colin brought up the rear, almost as if he were hanging back in order to keep an eye on her. As the forest became dense with foliage, Jane soared over a fallen tree that lay across the path and came to earth again. The rushing wind tugged at her hat, but it remained in place as they zigzagged from the woodlands to an open field.
“Well done, milady,” Colin shouted, sending her one of his devastating smiles.
The smile distracted Jane. She startled at the sudden movement of a deer darting back to the safety of the trees.
Instantly Nicholas was beside her. He said nothing, but his gaze spoke volumes as he first assessed her then the surrounding area for signs of danger.
Egan, the one servant who had come along with them, corralled the dogs with the crack of a whip and kept them on the scent of the fox. The open field was cloaked with drifting shreds of fog that dispersed briefly as the horses pelted across the sleepy earth. A glance back over her shoulder showed the fog settling again as though undisturbed. The echo of hoofbeats sounded in the morning air.
Colin, sensing his private moment was over, moved ahead with the others, but another rider remained.
“You will not win this competition if you hang back here with me, Sir Nicholas.”
“You know I do not care one whit for winning if it means you come to harm,” Nicholas replied without looking at her. His shoulders were tense.
“Relax. What could happen out here while we are moving?”
His lips tightened, but he said quietly, “Anything.”
Jane was about to laugh when her horse suddenly pitched forward, in but a moment hitting the ground with an audible thud. She released the reins and rolled away from the beast as the ground slammed up to meet her. She gasped at the shock of pain that radiated through her side.
Before she could even orient herself to the situation, Nicholas was beside her. Instead of scooping her into his arms as she expected, he pulled her gently behind the fallen horse, using the animal as a shield as he peered out over the meadow.
All was quiet except for the retreating hoofbeats from the riders who had not seen what had happened. A moment later, she and Nicholas were alone in the open space. His horse pranced while hers whinnied, frightened in her entangled state.
“Are you hurt?” Nicholas said, hovering over her. The concern in his eyes nearly brought tears to her own. A warm sensation moved through her, dispelling the remnants of pain. “Only my pride.”
He reached out and touched her cheek with one finger. “I could not bear it if something happened to you.” A heartbeat later his finger was gone and he reached for his boot, withdrawing a small dagger.
“Stay low,” he warned as he stroked the neck of her horse, then reached over the animal to slice through the rope that entangled her feet. The horse kicked until her feet were free.
“Get ready to move,” he warned as the horse rocked back and forth a moment before gaining its feet. Once the horse was in motion, so were they. Jane
got to her feet, but then she found herself lifted as Nicholas ran for his own mount, set her on its back, then joined her. With a click of sound he guided the horse back toward the castle at breakneck speed. Her own horse followed. She was pleased to see her gait steady and strong as the scared animal hung close to Nicholas’s mount. Jane was scared, too, as she clung to the horse’s mane and took comfort from the solid wall of muscle at her back.
“I need to stay with the hunt.” The masculine scent that was Nicholas’s own spun Jane’s head so thoroughly she could barely think straight.
“No.” The harsh sound brought her gaze to his. Anger and frustration darkened his eyes.
“But the competition—”
“There will be no need of a competition if you are dead.” The words were rough, crisp, and true.
Jane turned back around as a frisson of fear tingled across her flesh. There could be no more denying that she was the target of the so-called accidents that had occurred over the past several weeks. Someone wanted her dead. Bryce? Or someone else? Bryce could not have orchestrated this attack. He was hunting with the rest of her suitors. She had seen him only moments before the attack, riding beside David for the lead.
Then who? Jane shook off her thoughts and looked about her. Nicholas had changed his course while she was lost in thought, no longer heading toward the castle. Instead, he came to a halt outside the vacant woodcutter’s cottage on the eastern side of Bellhaven’s land. He slid down from the horse then, gripped her waist, and lifted her down beside him. He did not linger beside her. He grabbed his satchel and headed for the door.
Jane halted in the doorway of the musty cabin, waiting for him to locate a candle or lantern. “Why are we here? I thought it was protection you sought?”
“I am adequate protection for you right now.” He shuffled in the darkness until a flare of light suddenly lit the small room. He set the candle on the rickety table. “We cannot give ourselves away with a fire,” he said as the small flame sputtered in the chill air.
Jane shut the door, then unfastened her crushed hat and set it on the rough-cut table two paces from him. Her heart hammered at the sight of his lean power and strength. His dark gaze fixed on her. The raw hunger in them made her hot and shivery.
Jane broke her gaze and turned away even as a shiver that had nothing to do with the chill air slipped down her spine.
Nicholas moved to the closed doorway. A heartbeat later, Jane heard someone walking around outside. Nicholas stepped back from the doorway, swept Jane into his arms and pulled her behind him into the shadows while they listened.
Jane went stock-still as her chest connected fully with his back and a wave of familiarity and desire tore through her. The heat of him warmed her and his raw masculine power overwhelmed her. Even more disturbing was the fact that she closed her eyes and drew in the scent of leather and sandalwood. Nicholas’s scent. She had never forgotten it. But she also had never forgotten the way he had left her behind. Her brother had demanded Nicholas leave her, accusing him of only wanting her title and land. Instead of fighting for her and what they had once shared, he vanished from her life.
It had taken her months to get over his betrayal and to feel as though her life was not fracturing into a million little pieces. Jane opened her eyes. Her body still remembered his and mourned his loss, but she was older, wiser, and would never allow him to hurt her that way again. She clenched her fingers at her side, fighting for control as the sound of boot heels stopped right in front of the door.
icholas could not breathe with Jane so close to him. He had always been highly tuned to Jane’s senses, and with her this close, the torture was all too real. He felt her all the way through his body. He flexed his hand at his side, fighting the desire that had been theirs so long ago. They had only ever shared passionate kisses, but the memory of her touch, her softness, haunted him now.