Authors: Gerri Russell
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #Romance, #Historical, #Scottish, #Historical Romance, #Holidays
The claims had seemed so out of line with the young woman he had met on several occasions as she tended to her father’s guests. But then again, people could change—loneliness could make a person do desperate things. And Lady Jane had been alone for the past six months.
She smoothed the sheets with her fingers. “Come back to bed.”
“I am restless tonight, my sweet.” He turned back to look at her. Her ebony hair spilled across the pillow and she had tossed back the sheet, exposing her sultry body.
“Then come here and let me ease your restlessness.”
Instead of renewed interest, a familiar coldness settled inside. “I must prepare to leave,” he said on a sigh.
“Are you going to answer that absurd invitation and go to her?” she said, her voice sharp, then bit her lip, as though she knew she had overstepped her bounds. “You will be one of six men competing for her hand. You do not like competition.” Shapely brows puckered into a scowl above her flashing brown eyes.
“It is a competition I intend to win.”
She sat up and pulled the sheet over her body, shielding herself from his eyes. “And what happens if she does not want you? Or if you do conquer her only to be left unsatisfied, as your reputation claims? What then?”
Hollister turned back to stare out at the starry night. A lonely hoot of an owl echoed through the night and he felt an answering cry well up within him. He knew what loneliness felt like and what it did to one’s soul.
The chill air touched his skin, raising gooseflesh on his bare torso but also his hopes. “Lady Jane will be different.” The thought of her rumored seductive nature, her passionate reaction to his touch, hardened his body.
He had known Lady Jane for years as the daughter of his friend. With Henry gone, the way was clear for him to taste what he had always longed for. Then perhaps his insatiable desire would finally be quenched, his restlessness would end, and he would finally be at peace.
An odd sensation fluttered in his chest. Hollister nearly startled at the intensity of the feeling. How odd. It was not lust he felt. Nay, for the first time in ages, he actually felt hope. ’Twas a heady feeling, indeed.
ane gathered her heavy cloak about her shoulders as she leaned against the cold stone of Bellhaven’s north tower. She peered through the stone crenellations to the castle’s approach. Snow had fallen last night, leaving a chill in the morning air and turning the landscape beyond into a blanket of white. Over the pristine whiteness paraded a column of men on horseback that stretched from the borders of Bellhaven to the lowered drawbridge below. Her army had arrived, an army made up of six men’s retinues.
Jane released a ragged sigh. This was madness. She did not want to pick a husband from a group of men. Margaret had not elaborated on who the men were, other than her cousin, but they would be men she had met before. There was not a single male in her past she would consider marrying… except perhaps… Jane straightened. No, she would not consider such a thing.
There had to be a way out of this
Margaret had concocted. Scottish law allowed for a woman to inherit her father’s lands if there were no
male heirs in the direct line. Her father might not deem her worthy, but she had run Bellhaven in part for many years, though fully over the last two while her father and brother had been too busy with their warring to care about the castle and its inhabitants.
In their absence, she had proven herself a capable heiress. But inheriting Bellhaven would not be any easier than living with her father had been. She knew the provisions he had left behind—a will specifically stating that if her father were declared dead, she must marry by Christmas Eve in order to inherit, or the land and title would go to her cousin Bryce.
The courts would see Bryce MacCallister as the indirect heir no matter if she contested his claim. Jane leaned her head back and closed her eyes. The only way for her to stay in her home and protect her people was to choose one of the other suitors Margaret had provided.
“There you are.” Margaret’s familiar voice sounded in the morning coolness.
“I needed some air.” Jane opened her eyes, returning her gaze to the men below. “Do I truly have to pick a husband from these men?”
“There is no other way.” Margaret brought her hand up to stroke Jane’s cloak-covered shoulder. “The sooner you accept the need, my dear, and turn your mindset to one of pleasure and discovery, the better this competition will go for you.”
Jane groaned. “I have so many other, bigger, problems at present.”
“Such as?” Margaret asked lightly.
Jane frowned. How could the woman be so annoyingly happy when Jane’s own world was about to end? “My need for an army.”
Margaret waved a hand to the crowd below. “They are here. What other problems could you have?”
“Have you forgotten the rumors of my wanton reputation spread by—” Jane broke off as memories surged to the front of her mind, so powerful, they stole her breath. How could a man she had trusted with her whole heart and soul say such horrible things about her?
A look of understanding crossed Margaret’s face. “I know what you are thinking,” she said softly. “There has to be an explanation. Give him the chance to explain.”
“Nicholas is here?”
Jane tried to find words, any words, but all she had were memories and stark, sudden fear. Only moments ago she had wondered what it might be like to have him here, to see him again, but now in the face of that reality she trembled. “No, I cannot face him.”
“Yes, Jane, you can. You are stronger than that.”
In her mind she saw Nicholas as he had been when he had left her two years ago—the dark-haired handsome hero who had stolen her heart and kissed her for the very first time. Then came the hurtful memories, the ones that lingered long after he had gone. Jane forced those thoughts away and raised her chin. Nicholas was here. She would see him again, and she would show him that she was a woman now, not the girl he had left behind. “You are right, Margaret. I have learned to be strong in the past two years.”
Margaret smiled. “Yes, you have.”
Jane returned her gaze to the men below. “Nicholas and Bryce. Who are the others?”
“You will find out soon. But every one of those men arrived one day ahead of schedule.” She winked. “They are eager for you as their prospective bride.”
That left her ten days to choose one of them as her new husband. Jane tensed, angry that Margaret could talk about this with pleasure. She was angry at herself for not having another option. But she was angriest of all that she felt so terribly alone. She wished for a crazy, desperate minute that she had not been born as Lady Jane Lennox, subsequent heir to the Bellhaven fortune. These men were not eager for her. They wanted what she would bring to the winner.
Jane’s throat thickened. She swallowed against it, finding no relief. Then again, who else would she be? And if she was not Lady Jane, she would not have Margaret in her life. Margaret was more than her aunt, she was her closest
friend. And she needed a friend right now. Her aunt was only ten years her senior, yet she had taken on the role of mother after Jane’s own mother had died. At times, Jane forgot how young Margaret truly was, but at the moment she was grateful for her aunt’s friendship above all else.
Jane turned to her aunt with a tremulous smile. “Have I ever told you how grateful I am that you are in my life?”
“Many times.” Margaret opened her arms, and Jane immediately went to her, folding herself into Margaret’s strength and faith and love. Tears came to her eyes. “Oh, Margaret.…”
“I know, dear.” Her aunt hugged her all the harder.
Jane knew Margaret understood what she did not say. Her aunt realized this moment was about more than just the suitors below. It was the first time Jane had cried over the loss of her father and brother. If she must be without them, then at least she was fully in charge of her own life. Whatever good or sorrow came to her from this point on would be a result of her own choices. The thought was a heady and terrifying mix.
“The six men below are a gift, one that will offer you a chance at happiness once more,” Margaret said in a soothing tone.
Jane pulled back, her hands still resting on Margaret’s waist. “Marriage does not necessarily bring happiness. You and I both know that all too well.
Margaret sighed. “Yes, but marriage can bring happiness, no matter how fleeting that emotion.”
Jane knew her aunt referred to her own short marriage, but Jane’s thoughts moved to her parents. “I am not sure my father was ever happy with his choice.”
“You and I do not know what happened between your father and mother. However, you are in control of what happens to you, at least when it comes to choosing a partner for the rest of your days.”
Jane bit down on her lip. “What if I do not want to marry any of them? Or what if none of them fancy me after they get to know me better?”
Margaret smiled and her eyes twinkled once more. “Now you are merely making up obstacles where none exist. These men all accepted the invitations. They like you, Jane, or they would not have come. You should be more worried
about what you will do when they all fall in love with you. I have a feeling it will be you who will be breaking a few hearts before Christmas Eve.”
Margaret took one of Jane’s hands in her own. “Come now, my dear. Let us go below stairs and prepare to meet the men who will court you.”
Jane’s earlier trepidation was replaced with a small bubble of hope. Her aunt had said she would know most of the men below stairs, and they knew her. She should be thinking of this as more of a reunion than a sacrifice of the virgin bride. The thought pulled up the corner of Jane’s mouth into a half smile. “Very well,” she agreed. “They did travel all this way.”
Margaret smiled. “That’s the right spirit for this competition.” She gestured toward the door and together they proceeded down the stairs, through the hallways of the castle, and finally to the stairway that led to the great hall.
Jane paused at the top of the stairwell. Sound roared around her as the men and their retinues talked to each other. The chamber vibrated with energy. There had not been this many visitors to Bellhaven Castle in many years. Jane took four steps down, then paused again as the room suddenly fell silent and all eyes turned toward her. Jane’s heartbeat sped up as Margaret slid the heavy cloak from her shoulders, revealing her green linen dress beneath. She had not dressed with this occasion in mind this morning, yet she was grateful now that she had at least added the flare of her mother’s gold and ruby girdle about her hips.
“You look beautiful, my dear,” Margaret said quietly, as though understanding Jane’s sudden insecurity. Margaret took Jane’s arm and she gave her aunt a quick smile at the show of support. Together they continued down the stairs.
By the time Jane reached the room, her heart was beating wildly and there was a fine sheen of sweat on her palms. She took a deep breath and stepped toward the dais. She could feel the gazes of the men and their retinues watching her, appraising her. Margaret led her to her chair and she eased down into it, grateful for the support. Margaret set aside her cloak and Jane’s, then remained standing beside her chair.
“Welcome, one and all, to Bellhaven Castle. We are pleased you could join us. As your first challenge, I would like you, one at a time, to come forward and present Lady Jane Josephina Catherine Lennox with your gift of welcome. Once you have all greeted Lady Jane, she will determine the winner of the first challenge. After that, you will be taken to your chambers.” Margaret lifted her chin, and after a slight hesitation said, “I will call you forward in the order you arrived at the castle.”
The silence of the room shattered into a hundred voices. “I arrived first,” called out Hollister Cay, the Earl of Galloway. He strode forward with confidence. Jane had not seen him in many years. He had been a young friend of her father’s, but she had never seen him this close before. He was older than many of the others in the chamber, but he wore his age well. Tall and slender and elegant were words she would use to describe him. His broad shoulders tapered to a trim waist, giving him an athletic look. Despite his age, he would be very competitive in the games ahead. She brought her gaze back to his face. His mouth seemed kind, but his eyes bored into hers. In their dark depths she read hunger, weariness, and strength.
“Lord Galloway,” Jane acknowledged with a thickness in her voice. Men did not usually look at her in that way, or at least they did not until the rumors of her licentious nature had started.
Jane pressed back into her chair as she continued her visual exploration. His dark hair was neatly trimmed and his brows perfectly sculpted above his dark, searching eyes. He wore a coat of deep blue velvet with a white linen shirt beneath. Brussels lace fell gracefully over the knuckles of his long, lean fingers, and more lace cascaded from beneath his chin. His breeches were tight and made of tawny doeskin. His leather boots hugged his calves, climbed past his knees and were folded in cuffs over his muscular thighs.