Authors: Gerri Russell
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #Romance, #Historical, #Scottish, #Historical Romance, #Holidays
The earl sketched an elegant bow. He straightened, then continued forward as his mouth stretched into a wide grin. It was a beautiful smile, easy and charming, and it brought shivers of excitement and discomfort. This man was both beautiful and dangerous. She had no idea why she thought that, but just looking at him made her feel as though she were entering some sort of
forbidden, enticing territory. She was afraid to step into the unknown with him. She was certain it would cost her a price she could not name, and yet something about him beckoned her to be reckless.
Jane shook off the unsettling sensation. “My lord, you have traveled a great distance. I thank you for that.”
He stepped closer. “I would have traveled twice the distance and more to bring you this gift.” He extended his hands and offered her a highly polished wooden box. “For you.”
Jane accepted the box, but he did not release it. Instead, his fingers folded around hers. Sensation danced between them and her gaze moved back to his face.
“A beautiful woman deserves beautiful things. Open it.” He released her hands.
Jane took a deep breath, suddenly unnerved by his gift—all the gifts she would receive this day as a means to garner her favor.
She slid back the wooden lid to reveal a long, lustrous strand of ivory pearls. She had never seen such plump pearls before. They shimmered as though they were freshly plucked from the sea.
She returned her gaze to Lord Galloway’s. The dark centers of his eyes flared as his gaze flowed down her body and slowly, incrementally, roved back up her person, settling on the neckline of her gown with lazy regard. Her hand instinctively fluttered to her throat.
“Allow me to help you put them on?” He asked the question, but his fingers had already captured the strand and he lifted it over her head. He slid the cool orbs against her warmed flesh, then settled them in place with capable fingers. “Beautiful,” he said, his voice deep, heavy, and smooth.
“Thank you,” Jane replied, unsettled that his fingers still lingered against the pearls. These men would all try to win the competition with their gifts, their careful smiles, and knowing touches. Her gaze moved from Lord Galloway to the other men gathered at the base of the dais. These men were her suitors, and she would marry one of them.
“Lord Galloway, I thank you for the very thoughtful and very expensive gift of these pearls.” She lifted his hand from where it rested on the pearls and gently set it free near his side. “I adore pearls.”
Lord Galloway straightened and his mouth quirked as he turned back to face his competitors. “ ’Tis only the beginning of the gifts I intend to shower upon you, my lady,” he said, then with a bow strode back to join the others.
Jane allowed her gaze to follow him and then to shift to the others gathered there. For the first time she had a clear view of the men her aunt had invited. Her heart leapt to her throat with a combination of fear and joy as her gaze moved over them. Jules MacIntyre, her cousin Bryce, David Buchanan, a man she did not recognize, and Nicholas Kincaid.
“Sir David Buchanan, come forward and greet Lady Jane,” Margaret called out from beside Jane before she could even react to the tangle of emotions within her.
David came forward wearing leather armor. He knelt before her, his boiled leather creaking as he did. “Lady Jane, I am at your service. To protect you or marry you, whichever pleases you most.”
Jane could feel heat come to her cheeks. “Sir David, please rise,” she said when he remained on the ground before her, his head bowed.
“As you wish,” he said, his deep voice moving through her. He stood and she suddenly remembered how tall he was. Well over six feet. He looked tough, dangerous, and as handsome as ever. Energy shimmered off him in waves as it always had. His brown hair was neatly trimmed around his ears, revealing high cheekbones in his angular face. Somehow she had also forgotten how broad his chest was, made more so by his leather and metal plating, and how the leather of his armor clung to muscular thighs. His arms hung at his sides and his deep brown eyes were fixed on her.
“You will not need your armor here, Sir David.”
He looked back at his competition quickly, then returned his gaze to hers. “In that assessment, you may be wrong.” His mouth tipped briefly to one side in a smile that lived and died in an instant. He moved closer until he was
no more than an arm’s reach away. “I am here to protect you, from harm, from them, whatever is needed.”
His voice was impossible to ignore, and his eyes swirled with power.
Yes, she was certain he would protect her from the others. “But who will protect me from you?” she whispered beneath her breath, but he must have heard because he moved even closer.
“There is no need for protection, Lady Jane, because I am already yours, and you are mine.”
He was just so much of a male specimen, the woman in her had never been able to ignore him. Staring up into his deep brown eyes she wondered if he knew the effect he had on women.
“I am not yours. I am not anyone’s. Not yet,” she said as she straightened in her chair.
Again a brief smile came to his lips. “As you command, Lady Jane.” He bowed once more. “May I offer you a gift, then, to truly get this competition started?”
He moved back to his men to gather something hidden beneath a muslin cloth, then approached her once more. “My gift to you, my lady.” His words lingered on the word
Jane accepted the cloth-covered bundle. It moved and her pulse jumped. Her gaze shot to David’s. “What is it?”
“There is only one way to find out.”
Carefully she set the mass in her lap and pulled back the cloth to reveal a tiny black ball of fur. “It is a puppy?”
“An Aberdeen terrier,” he said proudly. “She is a pup from my own Aberdennies Fala and Brock. And just like her mother and sire, she will be feisty and loyal. She will protect you with her life, if necessary.”
The puppy wiggled free of the cloth, then reached up and chewed the pearls Lord Galloway had given her. The earl frowned. Jane chuckled. At that, the puppy stopped and looked at her with bright brown eyes. A moment later it settled back in her lap and nudged Jane’s arm until it lay across the animal’s
small, furry body. She licked Jane’s hand three times before closing her eyes, suddenly asleep. “She is adorable.” Jane smiled up at David, feeling the happiest she had been in a long while. “Thank you so much for… Oh my, I will have to think of a name for this little girl.”
“I am sure you will think of something fitting.” With another bow, he stepped back into the line of suitors.
Jane was grateful for the diversion of the puppy as her aunt’s voice called out once more. “Jules MacIntyre, please approach Lady Jane and present her with your gift.”
As Jules stepped forward, Jane tried to keep the look of shock from her face. The Jules she remembered from sixteen months ago was gone. This Jules was pale and thin, and lines of weariness had settled around his eyes and his mouth. He looked sad and lost, not his usual dashing self at all. He was wearing a baggy black jerkin and black breeches. Even so, he was still tall with the potential for strength. His long blond hair hung loose about his shoulders as he stared at her with the most startling blue eyes she had ever seen.
“Lady Jane,” he said, bowing deeply.
“It is so very good to see you,” she said, meaning it. She had done the right thing, sending him to gaol instead of the noose. It had cost her every bit of jewelry she owned except her mother’s girdle. He might not have enjoyed his time in gaol, but at least he was alive. Jane sat up in her chair, her spine stiff. Apparently because of this bizarre contest her aunt had devised, he had somehow been set free.
Who had gained his freedom?
Jane pushed the thought aside. It did not matter as long as Jules was safe and free once more. Today was the beginning of a new life for him. Was that new life with her? Did she owe him that for what he had had to endure over the past many months?
“My gift to you.” He stepped forward and presented a parcel wrapped in cloth. “As you have restored something to me—” He stopped and brought his intense blue-eyed gaze back to hers. A rare smile came to his lips. “You have given me back my life. For that, it is time I returned something to you.”
Whatever could he mean? Curious, Jane pulled the wrapping away from the object to reveal a small wooden figure.
“My doll,” she whispered. “However did you find her?” She had lost Meriwether so long ago. Jane had shed many tears over the loss of her favorite toy.
A look of remorse settled over his features. “You did not lose her. We were playing a game of hide-and-go-seek, remember? Below stairs near the buttery, I found a priests’ hole from bygone days and hid Meriwether there. I never went back to get her. I just forgot until…” He paused and his face became a blank slate. “I had time in gaol to remember all sorts of things.”
Despite the mention of his suffering, Jane could not help the wistful feeling that came over her. She and Jules had become the best of friends after that day. But even as the softer emotions came over her, so too did a stab of old hurt. Jane forced it aside. Jules was the injured party here. She could not imagine all he had had to endure in gaol. He started to turn to leave, judging her silence as his signal to go.
She reached for his hand and held it. “Do not go just yet.”
He stared down at her, long and hard, then quietly said, “Thank you for not letting them hang me that day.”
She swallowed thickly. “I wish I could have—”
He reached toward her and pressed his finger to her lips. “You did more than anyone else, especially my father.”
Jane nodded as he shifted his finger to smooth her hair away from her cheek. “You restored my life. I restored your doll. Are we even?” He gave her a soft smile that for a second transformed his weary face.
“A debt repaid,” he said with a soft release of breath.
Jane startled at the sudden realization. He had not been the one to give her a gift this day. She had given him one. With her forgiveness she had put that familiar smile back onto his face. A welcome heat warmed her soul. She grinned at her old friend.
Jules MacIntyre was back.
“You two can reminisce later,” Aunt Margaret interrupted, placing her hand over where the two of theirs were joined. Jules pulled his hand back, bowed, then returned to where the others stood waiting.
Jane’s fingers felt cold at the loss of her friend’s touch. She clamped her hands together, waiting for her next suitor to greet her.
“Bryce MacCallister, please approach Lady Jane.” Her aunt’s voice startled Jane back to the moment.
Her cousin Bryce came forward with his hand behind his back. Jane tensed, expecting the worst, but at that moment, the last rays of the morning sun came through the open doorway to the great hall and highlighted the shining darkness of his neatly barbered hair.
Had Bryce changed? Was that errant ray of light a signal from the universe that her cousin had left his anger at Jacob and herself behind him?
She offered Bryce a smile as he bowed. She searched his face, looking for more signs of transformation. His long sideburns accented the high cheekbones of his slightly elongated face, and the hollow line of his jaw and deeply bronzed skin. Compared to Jules’s paleness, Bryce looked healthy and vital. His attire continued the impression—a waist-length dark blue tunic, a shirt of fine white muslin, and black breeches with polished black boots. He moved with a restless grace as if suppressing a powerful and volatile energy so similar to that of her father and brother. Perhaps her smile shrank a measure.
A shadow of stubble darkened his cheek and a cynical smile curved his lips. He brought his hand out from behind him to reveal a bouquet of tiny white snowdrops. Their heads drooped toward the ground and several petals fell onto Jane’s lap to settle around the puppy as he pushed them toward her.
“Greetings, cousin. Please accept my gift.”
Jane took the wilting flowers. Immediately, the puppy in her lap stirred and began chewing them, tossing the small white heads into the air until only one bent flower remained. Jane held the bruised stem out of the dog’s reach.
“Thank you, Bryce. Very thoughtful.”
He frowned. “I suppose I should thank you for including me among your many suitors.” A hint of irritation lingered in his words. Perhaps he was not so changed after all.
“You are here at my invitation, Bryce,” Aunt Margaret interrupted.
For an instant, venomous anger flickered in Bryce’s eyes. He shot a glance at Margaret then turned back to Jane. “No matter who invited me, I am here.”
Jane frowned. Nay, he had not changed at all.
His dark eyes fixed on her. “I intend to marry you and keep what should be mine.”
“Nothing is certain, Bryce. I get to decide—”
His face hardened. “You brought me here. I must have just as great a chance of winning your hand as any of these fools.” He stepped forward, intent, his concentration focused to a rapier sharpness. Jane pressed back against the chair until the wood bit into her back. He smiled, one side of his mouth turning up and carving a deep line beneath a high, broad cheek. A wicked smile. A devil’s smile.
“Bryce, you will have to play by the rules. All of the rules,” Jane breathed.
Bryce reached past her to place his hand on the back of the chair and lean in. His stance emphasized his much greater height. His gaze drifted down her face and throat and lingered where her breasts swelled in agitation above the low, square neckline of her dress. “Rules are meant to be broken.”
Out of the corner of her eye she saw David tense. Lord Galloway’s eyes darkened.
Jane shifted her attention back to the man before her. His gaze unsettled her. “Bryce, please…”
“Please what? Please myself?” He gave a humorless laugh and darkness flared in his eyes.
A sense of panic rose within her as he closed the short distance between their mouths. He crushed her lips. She fought against the intimacy, pushing him away. When pushing failed to remove him, she struck his chest with her fist.