Authors: Gerri Russell
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #Romance, #Historical, #Scottish, #Historical Romance, #Holidays
“You’ll get yer strength back in time, son.” Angus patted his leg before he moved to his own horse and settled onto the animal’s back. With a soft cluck, he encouraged both beasts forward.
Silence hung between them as they made their way down the road, leaving the gaol behind. Only when they could no longer see the building did Angus stop. He turned to Jules. “No doubt yer wondering why I came for ye.”
“You are about to tell me that.” Instead of trepidation, excitement pulsed through his veins. Angus had had a purpose for releasing him. What would it be like to have purpose in his life again? Headiness almost made him dizzy. He clutched the reins more firmly. The horse beneath him responded with a sideways shuffle. Jules relaxed his grip and the horse settled once more.
“Aye. I am.” Angus chuckled. “Yer freedom is yours whether ye agree to what I offer or not.”
“What do you offer?”
Jules frowned. “I am in no shape currently for any type of sport.”
Angus’s gray eyes sparkled. “This sport ye have always excelled at.”
Jules’s frown deepened. “Please, Angus, speak plainly. My wit is not as sharp as it used to be.”
Angus reached inside his tunic and withdrew a folded sheet of parchment. He extended the missive to Jules. “This will explain everything.”
Jules broke the seal and unfolded the message. He read the words penned in ink, then read them again. “Whose hare-brained idea was this?”
“Lady Jane is the prize?”
Angus nodded. “Will ye compete?”
A surge of strength infused Jules’s tired body. He would do anything for Jane. He would regain his strength for her. He would compete for her. And if he won, he would release her from this crazy directive… if that was what the lady wanted.
Because while he had spent the last sixteen months in gaol, if it had not been for Jane, who had stood up for him when his own father would not, he would be dead.
“I will compete.”
Angus smiled. “I’m pleased to hear that, son. Very pleased, indeed.”
Jules swallowed hard, thinking. Angus might be happy at his decision, but the more important question was, would Jules’s reappearance in her life please Jane?
Bryce MacCallister moved with the utmost care down the stone stairway. His head felt as though it had a heartbeat of its own. It pulsed with every step. He walked slowly, his muscles stiff, in an attempt to silence the relentless throbbing. That fifth tankard of ale had seemed like a good idea last night while he celebrated his narrow escape from the marriage knot. This morning he was not so certain. He released a groan. Then regretted it as his head thrummed all the harder.
As he neared the bottom of the stairs, he realized the thrumming in his head was actually a steady knock upon his door. “Mendleson,” he called, and turned his head to look for his steward, then cursed softly as pain stabbed his temples and behind his eyes. Where was the man? And who could this be knocking on his door so early in the morning?
Bryce jerked the door open. “Stop that incessant noise!” Slanted rays of afternoon sunlight hit him squarely in the eyes. He squinted against the glare and recognized the hunched, familiar silhouette framed in the doorway. “Come in and shut the goddamn door,” he said in a growl as he turned away from the light.
“My apologies, Sir Bryce.” Ollie’s voice was cheerful as he entered the foyer and shut the door. “You look like you’ve had a hard night, sir. My own experience has taught me that another tankard of ale with a raw egg mixed in will serve you well.”
The thought of more ale turned Bryce’s stomach. But he knew Ollie was right. Ollie was always right. “Have you traveled all this way to dispense your wisdom about drinking too much?”
“Nay, sir.” Ollie’s lips quirked as he shuffled past Bryce into the sitting room on the left. “You look as though you’re going to fall over. Why don’t we sit down while we discuss why I’ve come?”
Bryce had no choice but to walk slowly after the man. He gave Ollie a sour look as he dropped into the chair nearest the door. “Why are you here?” he asked flatly.
“I came to invite you to Bellhaven Castle.” With gnarled fingers, Ollie thrust a folded missive at him. “This will explain everything.”
“Read it to me.” Bryce’s stomach curled at the thought of reading anything. He drew a sharp breath, alleviating his nausea as he made a mental note to himself to never drink ale again in celebration or misery. Mary Thorne had lived up to her name. Despite the dowry she would have brought him, she had become a thorn in his side. Thank goodness he’d had the sense to cut his losses and leave when he did, or he would have made the foolish mistake of proposing. Then he would have been tied to that harridan forever.
While Ollie fumbled with the seal, Bryce closed his eyes and leaned his head back. An ache unfurled within him that had nothing to do with his overindulgence of the previous night. He wanted to belong somewhere, not just feel as though he waited for something that was never going to happen. He wanted to belong at Bellhaven. He wanted the castle, the land, and all the glory that came with the Lennox fortune. But Jacob and Jane stood in his way. And he was not the murdering type.
Although, he had considered such a dreadful deed in the dark hours of last night.… Poison would be the easiest way to rid himself of Jane and Jacob. Bryce gave a mental sigh. What was he thinking? He would never…
“You are invited…” Ollie’s voice broke through his thoughts. “A competition…” The deep-throated voice droned on. “Lady Jane Lennox’s hand in marriage…”
Bryce snapped his eyes open, ignoring the rush of dizziness that followed, and met Ollie’s curious stare. “What did you say?”
Ollie set the invitation aside and leaned forward in his chair. “You have been invited to Bellhaven to compete for Lady Jane Lennox’s hand in marriage.”
“They are putting Lady Jane on the auction block?” Bryce pressed his fingers to his temples as he tried to make sense of Ollie’s words. “Compete? Whatever for?”
“Both Lord Lennox and Master Jacob are missing. Presumed dead,” Ollie said softly, all his good humor gone.
“I saw them at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge.” Memories of the battle turned over in his mind. The battle had been a bloody one. So many Covenanters had died. Bryce frowned. “I saw them both before the conflict.”
“They never returned.”
“Never returned? That was six months ago.” Bryce pressed his fingers to his temples again in hopes that the pressure would help him clear his thoughts.
His breath stilled. A sense of disbelief tingled in his chest, radiating out to his hands and feet. Bryce knew the provisions of Lord Lennox’s estate. With both of the male heirs to the Lennox fortune gone, Jane was the only obstacle left to conquer. If Jane were to inherit, she would have to marry before Christmastide began. If she did not, everything—the castle, the land, the fortune—would all become his. But if he married her, he would have the estate, the fortune, and Jane.
Bryce sat up, suddenly sober. They were trying to marry her off to someone other than him. Bryce muttered a low curse.
Ollie straightened, looking much younger suddenly than his seventy-one years. “I know what thoughts are going through that pickled brain of yours right now, sir. But the only way for you to get what you want is to compete with the others, fairly.”
“I should not have to compete for what is mine.”
“It’s not yours. It’s Lady Jane’s until she fails to marry. And I suspect she will marry one of the other gentlemen who have been invited just to make certain that doesn’t happen.” Ollie got to his feet and headed for the door. “I need your response, Sir Bryce. You have just as good a chance of winning her hand as any of the others.”
“God’s Blood,” Bryce muttered through clenched teeth.
Ollie nodded. “I’ll take that as a
.” He placed the invitation on the seat of the chair he had just vacated. “I’m off to visit another suitor nearby. Read the invitation yourself after you have that morning ale. We look forward to your arrival at Bellhaven,” he said as he left. A moment later Bryce heard the front door close.
He’d be damned if he would let Lady Jane Lennox marry another man. Entering this competition might make him a laughingstock among his peers, but what other choice did he have?
His earlier thought came back to him. He shook his head, then regretted the action. He clamped his head in his hands as he made his way to the kitchen. A glass of ale would help him think more clearly. Once the pounding in his head was gone, he had figure out what he would do to keep what he so desperately wanted.
A chill that heralded snow filled the late afternoon air as Sir Nicholas Kincaid brought his horse to a stop outside his own stable. A man in a familiar livery waited for him there, standing at the arched doorway.
“Sir Nicholas.” The man he once knew as the steward of Bellhaven Castle greeted him with a bow.
Nicholas jumped from his horse as a sense of unease filled him. “Ollie, what brings you here?” Why would Ollie come to him? He had not seen Jacob Lennox for the past two years, not since Jacob’s father had come back into his friend’s life.
“I have a message for you.”
“Nay.” The old man’s eyes filled with sorrow. “From Lady Margaret.” Ollie extended a folded missive. “This will explain everything.”
Nicholas did not reach for the missive. What could the Lennoxes want with him? His and Jacob’s friendship had run its course. There was nothing left between them but painful memories of the last time Jacob had dismissed him from Jane’s life.
“Sir Nicholas,” Ollie said, taking the three steps that separated them. “The message from Lady Margaret is most urgent.”
Nicholas reached awkwardly for the paper. The only reason Lady Margaret would contact him was if Jacob were dead. He shivered involuntarily as pain snagged his heart. He had always meant to return to Bellhaven one day and make amends with Jacob. Now it seemed he would never have that chance.
He read the missive and frowned. “This is not news of Jacob.”
“Nay, sir, as I stated, it is from the Lady Margaret. She needs your assistance with a matter concerning Lady Jane Lennox.”
. Nicholas had wanted to pursue her. Jacob had let him know, in no uncertain terms, that Nicholas was not good enough for his sister. A mere “sir” with questionable heritage would never be a match for his precious sister.
Nicholas stared down at the note in his hands. Why did Jacob not object to
? If he had read the invitation correctly, it appeared that Lady Margaret was about to barter off Jacob’s sister to the man who could pass a few feats of skill. Her hand in marriage would be essentially auctioned off to the man with the most resolve.
“Where is Jacob?” Nicholas asked.
Ollie’s shoulders slumped. “It appears that he and his father were killed in the Battle of Bothwell Bridge. No bodies were ever recovered, but they left Bellhaven nearly six months ago and never returned.”
“Lady Jane is alone?”
“Lady Margaret and I have been watching over her, but others are starting to deduce that the Lennox men are not returning. The ladies have been challenged four times already. Lady Jane fears a much larger attack is imminent. The land, the title—”
“Aye, sir. The situation is tenuous.” Ollie’s brows drew together as he appraised Nicholas.
Nicholas could feel judgment radiating from Ollie. That was all he needed, another pair of accusing eyes, another person judging him by an invisible standard he had never understood. Nicholas shook off the thought, forcing himself to relax. Ollie was not his father.
“I remember you once had a fondness for our Jane. If you care at all about her still, you will come to Bellhaven and help her.”
Nicholas squeezed his eyes shut, battling memories with everything inside him. There had been a time in his life when he had thought perhaps he had a chance with someone like Jane. The years he had spent in her presence were a time that stood apart in his mind—like a shining haven amidst the ruthless beatings from his own father, the dark holes he had lived in, the long nights without food, no security, and no hope. All he had to do was look into Jane’s eyes, feel her hand tucked into his own, and his loneliness fled. She was a sliver of goodness in his life—something worth fighting for, something worth risking everything for. Until he had looked into Jacob’s unrelenting eyes and had seen the truth. He never had a chance with Jane.
Nicholas rubbed his temples in an attempt to banish his memories. That was long ago. He straightened and opened his eyes. Life had been a cruel teacher, but Nicholas was a different man now. No longer was he anyone else’s pawn. He had fame, riches, and independence. But no one else had ever filled that void in his heart like Jane.
He took a deep breath as hope began to unfurl. She was up for bid in a ridiculous contest of wit and skill. Without Jacob nearby to question his suitability, he just might stand a chance of winning her hand. “I accept,” Nicholas said, his tone firm. “I will join Lady Jane at Bellhaven in two days’ time.”
In two days, he would change his life forever.
Hollister Cay, the Earl of Galloway, stood at the open window and stared to the south toward Renfrewshire. He could not see the object of his thoughts, but somehow it helped to look in her direction. Lady Jane Lennox. A thrill moved through him as he recalled the invitation he had accepted earlier that day. At thirty-six years of age he finally had what he had longed for, a new challenge, a potential conquest that suddenly left him feeling unsatisfied with all the women who had come before her. Even the one in his bed right now.
He looked back at the palatial bed in the center of the room, and the creamy skin of the woman he had only moments before enjoyed. He had taken her with the same bottomless hunger that stirred his blood each night. She had cried out beneath him with the greatest pleasure and yet he still felt nothing at all. Would Lady Jane touch his heart as no woman ever had before? He had heard the rumors circulating about Lady Jane in the past few months.
A passionate harlot. A seductress. A woman open to experience and desire.