Authors: Gerri Russell
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #Romance, #Historical, #Scottish, #Historical Romance, #Holidays
He had called her a passionate seductress. When those words had first come back to her, they had hurt her to the core. But with him here, standing before her, when it was only the two of them, the term did not seem as harsh as it once had. With Nicholas, passion came easy. Seduction was a natural extension of two people who cared about each other.
The question was, did she still care about him like that? Did she want to play the seductress to his passion once again? Could she survive it if she did?
“What did you want to talk to me about?” she asked, her voice a whisper as she tried to deny the sensations racing across her hand, her flesh.
“I want you to see that I am here, standing before you.” With a hold on her hand, he tugged her gently, drew her a step closer. Still holding her captive with his gaze, he bent his head and pressed his lips to her wrist.
“I see you.” Her pulse leapt as he spoke.
He brushed his lips back and forth across her tender flesh. “No, Jane, you do not. But you will. Eventually you will see that I am here. I am not leaving. Never again.”
A long moment passed while she looked into his eyes. Jane tried to keep her mental distance, to hold tight to the calming effect of the labyrinth on her soul, but she could not, not with his sherry-colored eyes calling to her. She was drawn in by the warmth in his gaze, by the touch of his lips on her sensitive skin.
“I have not decided who is to be my husband.” She said the one thing that could put some distance between them.
Nicholas paid her no heed, as though he sensed what she was trying to do. She was never very good at hiding her emotions. With his arm at her waist, Nicholas drew her gently against him. “Husband or not, you own a piece of me, right here.” He placed her hand over his heart. “You always have.”
She smoothed her hand against the soft fabric of his shirt as though searching for proof that he did possess a heart. Her fingers trembled, but there was no fear in her eyes. “If I were in your heart as you say, how could you leave me so easily and say the things you did?”
“I would never do anything to hurt you, Jane. Not intentionally.” He looked into her eyes. “Your brother demanded I leave. And I did. It was the
worst decision of my life. If I had to do it all again, I would lay down my life rather than leave you.”
In the flickering light of the candles, she studied him. “I knew Jacob was not happy, but it was Father’s approval you needed.”
He raised both hands, framed her face, tipped it up to his. “Jacob never gave me the chance to speak to your father or to you.” Nicholas took a slow, steady breath as he held her.
“Why are you telling me this now, after all this time?”
He kept his gaze locked with hers as she searched his eyes, his expression, most likely considering what she saw. “I want you to know I did not leave you because I grew tired or bored. I left because I was given no options and I think you knew that even then.”
The moment stretched and her gaze remained unwavering. He could sense her hesitation to open herself up to hurt once more. “I was told nothing, other than that you were gone. The knowledge of why you left does not change anything. It is my heart, not my mind that needs persuasion.”
She wanted proof
Her heart had been his once. Could it be his again? He brought his lips to hers and kissed her tenderly, giving her a chance to back away.
But she did not resist. Instead, she melted into his embrace. Need flowed between them, hotter than he remembered. He graciously accepted the gift, and with his tongue stoked the embers into a fire. He would use their attraction, fan it into a bonfire, while she made up her mind about who to marry. He would reassure her of his devotion. He could make her believe in him again, that he would always be there, be there to love her every night and every day. Because he was not sure what he would do if she decided to remain apart from him.
His hands left her face to move over her shoulders and back. He gathered her closer, allowing the familiar heat and the fire to follow as it always had between them, consuming her reservations and the ability to think. He let the demanding heat devour him as one thought settled in his heart. He was back in her life and back in her arms. He was not going to let her go no matter how many suitors stood in the way.
Jane groaned and broke their kiss, pulling back slightly. “We cannot do this,” she breathed against his lips.
“For once, follow your heart, Jane. Not what your head is telling you.” His entire body throbbed and ached at the loss of her touch. He closed his eyes and breathed in her sweet feminine scent. She would step back too soon and the moment would be gone.
As though reading his thoughts, she pulled away, putting distance between them.
“I trusted my instincts once, only to be made a fool. I cannot do that again and survive.”
“Jane—” He reached for her.
She stepped further away. “No, Nicholas. I cannot lose myself in your passion again, no matter how much I might want to. I do need to use my head to decide which of my suitors will be the best choice for me and for my people. Passion can have nothing to do with that choice.”
Nicholas stood in complete silence as her words washed over him. Passion had everything to do with this choice. Did she not see that together they made sense, they were happy, and the world seemed right?
Apart, nothing worked, felt right, or prospered. But only when she stopped denying what was between them did he stand a chance of winning her back.
I choose you.
He would give anything to hear her say those words. But he would have to wait.
“Very well, Jane. I only want what is best for you.” His heart heavy, he offered her his arm. “Allow me to escort you back to the keep.”
She shook her head. “I can find my own way back.”
Nicholas nodded and headed for the door. He had work to do if he were to convince her that the “way back” was with him.
fter Jane fell asleep that evening, her dreams drifted for a time like mist over the moors, coalescing without shape or form. The sweet, lingering sensations of Nicholas’s kiss remained on her lips.
Her thoughts wandered back through the mist, over the land bordering Bellhaven. Men and women from neighboring clans twirled and tumbled in her mind until the images cleared and she saw a single woman with her golden hair streaming in the wind, running over the mossy ground in her bare feet. The hem of her dress was shredded and caked with dirt. A sash in the colors of the MacGuires blurred then became the familiar colors of the Lennox red-and-green tartan.
The dream twisted and turned. Her heart raced. Her pulse quickened as the sounds of laughter came to her ears. She felt a strange mixture of sadness and joy as the woman stopped running and turned instead toward Jane’s bed. The flaxen-haired woman stood over the bed, staring down at Jane with a menacing glare.
Jane thrashed in her bed, tried to wake up. To no avail.
“How dare you,” the woman said, lifting a dagger and thrusting it downward, through Jane’s heart.
Jane’s chest constricted. She cried out and came awake with a start. She sat up and grabbed her chest. No dagger rested there. Her heart thumped beneath her hands. She drew a shuddering breath as her senses reoriented to her chamber and the darkness.
She drew a shallow breath. The dream had seemed so real, frighteningly so. Jane could still feel the presence of another even though her eyes told her she was alone. She paused, listening in the darkness. The sound of her own breathing was all she heard.
Driven by a sudden irrational fear of being alone in her chamber, Jane grabbed her dressing gown and left her room to find Margaret. She made her excuses to the guards at her door as she ran past them, down the corridor, to her aunt’s chambers. Without hesitating, she opened the door. A single candle burned next to the curtained bed, casting shadows against the wall.
Her heart hammering, she slipped under the covers of the bed next to her aunt, as she used to do when she was a child.
Margaret opened her eyes. “Jane?”
“Is it all right if I disturb you?”
“You never disturb me,” Margaret replied, shifting on the bed to allow Jane more room.
“How are you feeling?” Jane asked as she settled on the bed, grateful that her aunt was improving.
“I am happy to be alive.” Margaret smiled, and Jane could see that her aunt’s blue eyes were no longer hazy and unfocused as they had been earlier. Instead, a brightness of spirit entered her gaze as she gathered Jane next to her side. “I am better than I have ever been.”
“Truly?” Jane rested her head on her aunt’s shoulder.
“Truly,” Margaret replied. “Tonight Lord Galloway asked me to marry him.”
Jane pulled back. “He did?”
Margaret nodded. “You could have blown me over with a feather.”
The remnants of Jane’s dream faded as joy filled her heart. She laughed, the merry sound filling the room. “That is marvelous.”
Her aunt bit down on her lip. “I am not certain it is.”
Jane scooted back, no longer needing reassurance. “Are you not convinced of his feelings for you?”
“Oh no,” Margaret replied. “He is devoted, of that I am certain. You should have seen him today while I was in the grips of the poison. He kept begging me to stay with him, not to leave this earth before we had a chance to act on our feelings.” Margaret’s cheeks flamed. She brought her hands up to cover them. “Imagine, at my age, blushing about a man.”
“You are not old.”
“I will admit, around Lord Galloway, I do feel young.”
“Then what is it?” Jane asked. “I know he cares about you. I have seen the way he looks at you, as though he wants to devour you.”
Margaret gave a nervous laugh. “That is the problem, but in reverse. I am afraid ’tis I who will devour him.”
Jane shook her head and gave another laugh. “What is it about the Lennox women? We are so strong when it comes to defending our land and our people, and yet when it comes to our personal relationships, we fall victim to irrational fears?”
“You do understand.” Margaret sighed. “I know what happened with Thomas will never happen again.” She crossed herself. “At least I pray it will not. But that does not stop the fear.”
Jane patted Margaret’s hand affectionately. “Let me ask you something that you asked me not many days ago—do you love him?”
Her aunt smiled a smile that lit up her face and seemed to brighten the room. “With all my heart.”
“Then let that love guide you.”
Margaret laughed. “I should be the one giving you advice, since we started this whole competition to secure you a husband.”
Jane smiled at her aunt, feeling an overwhelming sense of joy. “I am pleased you have found someone to share your life.”
Margaret opened her arms and Jane moved into her embrace. Relief flashed across her face. “Thank you, Jane, for being happy for me.”
Jane pulled back. “It looks like both of our lives will be very different come Christmas Eve.”
Margaret’s smile faded. “I told Lord Galloway I would not marry him until you were settled and I could leave you with someone I trusted.”
Jane forced a smile to hide the sudden stirring of her nerves. “Six more days. Five suitors. Three more competitions.”
Margaret’s mouth quirked. “When you say it that way, it does not sound very romantic.”
Closing her eyes, Jane let the word tumble around in her brain.
She was not certain how much more romance she could take.
The next morning, upon waking, Nicholas stretched and put aside his memories of last night with Jane. He had to concentrate on winning the prize for good, regardless of any competitions or other foolishness. Today her suitors were to compete by running an obstacle course that Angus, Egan, and Ollie had constructed at the far end of the open field.
Nicholas quickly folded his great kilt, then dressed and hurried downstairs to breakfast. The stakes of this next competition were higher than they had ever been before.
He and David met in the great hall. Over breakfast they reviewed all the information they had separately gathered last night. “The girl, Clara, claims the ghost of Jane’s mother is somehow responsible for placing poison in the wine.”
David frowned over a bit of salted pork. “Why would a mother do that to her child in this realm or any other?”
Nicholas’s hand halted as he set down his ale. At times he had longed for his father to do something so sinister—to do anything to end the torment he had put Nicholas through on a daily basis. Poison would have been kind.… He shook off the thought. “The servants revealed nothing. Were you or the other men able to find any sort of evidence at all?”
“I made a rather startling discovery,” Colin said, sliding into a chair across from them. “He is currently occupying space in the dungeon.”
Nicholas and David shared a startled glance. “You found the villain?”
“I do not think so,” Colin admitted. “But the man has been working for Bryce, gathering information on all of us in an attempt to rule us out as marriage partners for Lady Jane.”