Authors: Gerri Russell
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #Romance, #Historical, #Scottish, #Historical Romance, #Holidays
The hulk of a man seemed entirely comfortable dressed in the traditional red-and-green livery of the Earl of Lennox despite the fact he was too large for the chair in which Colin had bid him sit. “The contents of the message are for yer eyes only. All I know is the Lady Margaret sent for ye. Do ye have a response I may carry back tae her?”
Lady Margaret had sent for him? He had met Lady Margaret only a fortnight before when she had been traveling through Renfrewshire and her carriage had thrown a wheel. He had come to her aid that day, and they had spent the better part of an afternoon together. She knew nothing more about
him than a few trivialities. Now she wanted him to “compete” for her niece’s hand in marriage?
“Where are Lady Jane’s father and brother?” Colin asked. “Do they not object to a competition of matrimony?”
The hulk of a man straightened and seemed to grow even larger, if it were possible. “They’re no longer with us.”
Colin frowned. “Dead?”
A look of regret shadowed the man’s eyes. “It appears so.”
The opulence of Colin’s self-made home faded. No amount of money had ever purchased him what his heart truly wanted. Colin sat forward in his chair as a million questions raced through his mind. He studied the servant. “Who are the other competitors?”
“People from Lady Jane’s past, friends, one relative. Ye are the only stranger…” The man paused, then cleared his throat. “Forgive me, ye are the only one who is unknown to our lady.”
The only stranger
. Colin was not offended by the word. He had been a stranger to most people his whole life. He was used to learning how to fit in by charming those around him. In fact, it was that skill that would help him now. If this was truly a competition of courtship, charm would be an asset. And perhaps it would help him achieve the one thing he wanted most—to settle down, which he had always denied himself while warring in lands far and near. It was time to grow roots and become a part of something. He might be the only stranger invited to this “competition,” but being the only one without history might give him an added advantage.
Over the years, he had learned advantage was everything in battle. Colin tempered a smile as a surge of hope filled him. “Tell the lady I will arrive at Bellhaven in two days’ time.”
The man stood, bowed, then withdrew, leaving Colin alone with his thoughts.
Lady Jane Lennox could change everything for him—change everything for the better. He was a man with no past. At least not one he remembered. He
was an orphan, the abandoned child of a nobleman. He was supposed to have traveled to England, to his guardian. He remembered the old nurse that took him to the orphans’ home saying so. He remembered the feeling of her gnarled fingers wrapped around his wrist. He was six years old when she left him there on the doorstep in Scotland instead of his intended destination. His guardian had never been contacted. He had never come looking for Colin, either. And with the old woman’s death, the knowledge of who his guardian was had died, along with Colin’s dreams of being part of a family.
Colin shivered. There were so many things he had forgotten in the days after that time. All he remembered was the cold, the confusion, and the fear. All of it had blurred into a long, seemingly endless nightmare from which he had eventually escaped through his own cleverness and skill.
He was a soldier for hire, a self-made man. A man with a name he had borrowed from the town tailor and a dream of making a home with a woman who truly cared about him.
Was this that opportunity to become more than what life had offered him thus far? He clenched the invitation in his hand. It was a beginning. A beginning was all he needed.
“What is this you say? Lady Jane alone at the castle?” Sir David Buchanan tossed his invitation aside and unfolded himself from his chair near the hearth in the great hall. In a much-practiced motion, he grasped his sword and sheath, then lashed it to his side.
“Lady Jane is not precisely alone. Her aunt and the servants are with her,” a young Bellhaven servant David knew as Egan explained. “All the servants are doing double duty. We’ve all done our best to protect our mistress. I might be a groom, but I’m also skilled with a sword.”
“Her father is gone?” David asked, already calculating in his mind how many men he could spare from his own defenses to take with him to Bellhaven.
“Her brother is gone?”
“And the men? The castle’s protection? They have not returned since the Battle of Bothwell Bridge?”
He had been there at the battle himself. He had seen the carnage, the loss of life. He blocked the memory. War was war. Men fell. “We achieved our goal of victory over the Covenanters. And mark my words, there will be another battle, and soon. In the meanwhile, unrest in the country is the result. If anyone else discovers Lennox is dead, along with Jacob, Lady Jane will be at risk. There are men out there who would try to take her father’s land and the lady herself by force.”
The servant nodded. “They have already tried four times. And with me and two others gone to deliver these invitations, Lady Jane is more vulnerable than ever.”
David frowned. “How many men are left at the castle?”
“Three men cannot defend a castle,” David said.
The servant straightened and a look of challenge entered his eyes. “For our lady, those who remain can try.”
Despite the desperate situation, David could not help but smile. Jane did that to people. She endeared them to her with her gentle heart. Most of the men who had come to know her would do anything and everything to help her, protect her from harm. Especially himself.
“I will leave for Bellhaven immediately.” David turned and strode toward the door, determined to gather a small retinue of men and leave within the hour. Jane needed him.
“Wait,” Egan called, hurrying to keep up with David’s long strides. “Have you forgotten about the gift?”
David stopped and turned back to the young servant. “A gift?”
“As the invitation explained, if you accept the challenge for Lady Jane’s hand in marriage, you must bring a gift that expresses your devotion to her.”
David tried to still his thoughts from those of men, weapons, and war. “I bring her troops and protection.”
The young servant-turned-warrior frowned. “She is a woman. If you want to win the lady’s hand, I would suggest something more feminine.”
David looked about his great hall, at the many hunting trophies—a boar’s head, five deer, three bear, seven red fox. And those were just the ones he had had prepared and hung. Would she like one of them? His frown deepened. Probably not. Most of the ladies he had met were not fond of staring at the heads of woodland creatures. “I must bring her a gift?”
“Aye,” Egan repeated with a slight smile. “By the look on your face I can see you are baffled by the thought. I will give you a hint. The simpler the better with Lady Jane.” On those words the servant brushed past him and headed for the door. “I have another invitation to deliver if I am to return to the castle and my own role as a defender. Good luck to you, master. And I thank you for your haste in departing for Bellhaven Castle. Arriving before the others will serve you well.”
Would his arrival be enough of a gift to her? Was that simple enough? Is that what the young man meant? David continued toward the door at a much slower pace than before as his thoughts spiraled from war to gifts, then the woman herself.
When the servant had arrived with the invitation and news, his first impulse had been to protect Jane. She needed him. Yet now that he had set those thoughts aside, he realized it was he who needed what the invitation offered—a wife, a partner, a mother to his children.
He put his hand against his right side, covering the healed wound he had incurred in the same battle in which Jane’s father and brother had vanished. He had escaped with only a reminder that life was precious and tenuous. That wound had made him confront what was lacking in his life, what he tried to avoid with hunting and warring.
It was time for a wife, regardless if he loved the woman or not. He needed an heir. Love could come in time. He had lived alone for nearly ten years now. That was long enough. It was time for a change. A change that Jane now offered.
He pursed his lips as he headed for the door and the stable beyond. It was a change that all started with a gift.
He had to think of something.
The door to Jules MacIntyre’s gaol cell opened. He was alone in his cell, as he had been for the majority of the past year, chained to the cold stone wall at his back. Heavy manacles circled his wrists. The false charge of murder hung over him, threatening him with his own death.
But today something was different. With cold anticipation, Jules rubbed his jaw against his shoulder. The pleasure of having a clean-shaven face once more was as heady a sensation as any he had known since his incarceration. He had been in prison sixteen months. Instead of beating him, the guard had tied him to a chair and shaved him. That was his first signal that something was about to change.
Light shone through the sliver of the open door. An overly large, polished boot stepped into his cell, followed by its mate. The boots were not those of the guards. Nay, these boots had never seen the mire and muck that was the gaol floor.
He felt a surge of bitterness. Was it his father after all this time? Had he finally come to retract his false accusations and pay for Jules’s release?
The first three months Jules had been hopeful that his father would come. Yet as the months slid by, he had realized his mistake. There was no hope of that—instead a desire for revenge had taken hold. He had survived in this hellish place driven by a seething need to make his father pay for ignoring him yet again. As time went by, even that need had slipped away. Gaol had a way of stripping a man of all but his most basic drives. Eventually his pride had withered and died as he focused on the herculean task of staying alive until he could find some way to escape this hellhole.
The light at the doorway increased and Jules was forced to look away as his eyes adjusted to the brightness. Once the pain eased, he turned back to peer through the curious mix of light and gloom to see a dark figure standing in the doorway.
Something about the man was familiar.
Jules’s attention sharpened as he watched the monolith step through the cell door. The time alone in silence had sharpened his senses. He heard the crisp rustle of finely starched linen as the man stepped toward him, his footfalls heavy but confident. He smelled the scent of roasted pork and rosemary mixed with horse and peat. The man, whoever he was, had taken a fine meal before coming to him on horseback.
A second figure appeared in the doorway. The guard. He followed close behind the large man. “Are you sure you want this one?”
“Absolutely,” the man replied in a deep voice.
As Jules’s eyes adjusted to the light, he could see the figure was clad in the red-and-green livery of the Earl of Lennox. A man who was not the earl looked at him, his eyes large and piercing. Eyes he remembered from his youth as a squire to Lord Lennox. “Angus?” The word came out as a croak. Jules swallowed, moistening his dry throat, and tried again. “Angus?”
“ ’Tis I.” Angus drew nearer, then frowned as he stared into Jules’s face. “Good God. Ye look like hell.” He turned back to the guard. “He’s too thin. Have ye not been feeding the man?”
The guard scuttled to his side. He picked up Jules’s shackled left wrist and squeezed his biceps. “He’s firm and vital and feisty as sin.”
Angus grunted and handed the man a sheaf of papers. “These documents proclaim his innocence in the murder of Mary MacIntyre.”
The man shoved the papers in his belt. “I cannot release him until his fines are paid.”
Angus held out a heavy-looking black pouch. “He’s mine now. His fines are paid.”
Jules longed to ask if his father had finally sent for him, but the look in Angus’s tired gray eyes told him the truth. His father had no part of what now transpired. He tucked away the hurt and lifted his chin, prepared for whatever came next.
Questions swirled through his brain, but he held his tongue, praying Angus would not change his mind before he was freed. He held his breath as
the guard looped the long end of the pouch around his belt and fished for his keys. With a flick of his hand he opened the lock that held Jules manacled to the wall. “Shall I leave the chains?”
“He’s a free man. Free men are not chained.”
“As I said before, he’s a wild one.” The guard shrugged. “But he’s all yours. Bought and paid for.” He released the bindings at Jules’s wrists and the chains clanked to the floor.
Jules could only stand where he was, allowing his body, his arms, to adjust to their sudden lightness. Taking his inaction for hesitation, the guard jerked Jules forward. At the rapid motion he nearly tumbled to the floor before Angus caught him. The big hands set Jules on his feet once more, then Angus shrugged off his cape and placed it around Jules’s shoulders. “Come. We’ve a ways to travel.”
Jules followed, forcing himself to keep up with the larger man’s steps. He bit back the pain the movement caused and shuffled through the doorway after his benefactor. He did not know why Angus had come for him. He did not care as long as he would be free. They made their way down a low corridor toward a flight of stairs leading to the gaol’s receiving yard. There, just outside the gate, waited two horses.
Outside, Jules lifted his face to the sky and sucked in a breath of sweet-smelling air. This was what freedom smelled like. He almost smiled, then caught himself. He still had no idea why Angus had come. He was certain there would be some way he would be made to pay for his release.
“Go ahead and mount, Master Jules.” Angus’s voice was surprisingly gentle as he led him to stand beside the smaller of the two horses.
Jules grasped the edge of the saddle and tried to pull himself up. He floundered, his legs too weak to push himself upward. His strength had deteriorated in the past sixteen months. He would have to do something about that, and quickly, if he were to survive and thrive in the world beyond the gaol walls. He clenched his teeth and tried once more to mount on his own. A heartbeat later, Angus’s hands unceremoniously lifted him off the ground and settled him on the horse’s back.