Authors: Gerri Russell
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #Romance, #Historical, #Scottish, #Historical Romance, #Holidays
The puppy in her lap growled. A heartbeat later Bryce was ripped away. Jules had him by one arm, David the other. Both men’s faces were flushed and their eyes were wide with anger. “Are you all right?” Jules asked.
“I am unharmed,” she said, dragging the back of her hand across her lips, her gaze fixed on Bryce. “Never kiss me without my permission.” To hide the anger that made her fingers tremble, she turned her attention to the puppy in her lap, stroking the animal behind the ear. The pup immediately curled into a ball and settled in her lap once more as though nothing had transpired.
“You are done here,” David snarled, as he pulled Bryce from the dais and returned him to his men below.
Jane pressed her bruised lips together, then released them. Quietly, to her aunt she said, “I am more determined than ever to continue the competition, because of Bryce and his antics.”
“Then I suppose I should thank him for that,” Aunt Margaret conceded in as hostile a whisper as Jane had ever heard from the woman. “He will never have the opportunity to treat you thusly again, especially in your own hall.”
Jane straightened and abandoned the single flower bud on the arm of her chair. “I am ready to meet the next suitor.”
“Very wise, my dear,” Margaret said. She patted Jane’s shoulder before returning to the edge of the dais. “I call forth Sir Nicholas Kincaid.”
Jane looked up sharply. She longed to see Nicholas again—longed—but half dreaded, too.
He bowed, then came forward carrying a small parcel.
“I trust you to be a proper gentleman,” Margaret said, her eyes narrowing sharply. “You are here by my good graces. Do not do anything, say anything, that might harm Jane any further than you already have.”
Nicholas’s brows drew together in confusion. “I would never hurt Lady Jane.”
Oh, but he had
. Jane had imagined this moment in her thoughts and her dreams for the last six months since the rumors had started to circulate. In
those moments, she had wanted to act with cool reserve. She wanted to hurt him as much as he had injured her and her reputation. Instead, her body rebelled as the old attraction between them sparked, warming her cheeks.
“Thank you for inviting me here,” he said with sincerity.
She had forgotten the sound of his voice, low-toned and warm like honey. Yet today, his tone carried a certain tension.
She drew in a tight breath. “There is no need to thank me,” she answered, proud of the fact her voice sounded unaffected as she gazed into his familiar sherry-colored eyes.
“There is always a need.”
They were speaking about common courtesy, and yet his words sounded like so much more. He offered her a half smile. It did little to soften the hard angles of his face, the edged cheekbones, the long planes of his cheeks, the austere set of his features—large sherry eyes set under a broad forehead, straight brown brows, surprisingly thick lashes, thin chiseled lips, and the strong prow of his nose. His square chiseled chin bore witness to the stubbornness he usually hid beneath a cloak of easy charm.
To Nicholas Kincaid, charm had always come easy, and its effect on her senses, even now, challenged her efforts to remain open to all her suitors. With a good four feet separating them, she could still feel her body responding to him. Her rib cage tightened and her breathing quickened. Her heart fluttered and her nerves tingled in telltale anticipation. She had not seen him for two long years.
She had changed in that time. No doubt he had as well. And yet… Jane pulled her gaze from Nicholas’s. “The others are growing restless. Perhaps we should move our reunion along?”
Something changed in his face—a coolness slid into his expression. “I have not presented you with my gift.” He moved closer and held out a small parcel wrapped in parchment. She accepted it. Immediately the puppy’s eyes snapped open and she started sniffing the parcel.
“If I may,” Nicholas said as he bent to pick up the puppy. He nestled the animal close to his chest, humming to the animal as he carried it toward the
discarded cloth it had arrived in. Nicholas gathered the cloth into a small bundle then set the animal on top. The puppy immediately nestled into the folds and closed her eyes, once again asleep.
Nicholas straightened and came back to Jane’s side just as she reached the contents inside the parchment. Several dark brown chunks of something she had never seen before lay against the honey-colored paper. Wordlessly, she looked back at Nicholas, hoping for an explanation.
“They are shavings,” he explained.
He picked a small piece up off the parchment. “Open your mouth to taste a new delight.”
She eyed him with suspicion. “You are going to feed me?”
That charming smile of his returned. “Must you question everything?”
She obediently opened her mouth. He laid a small flake of what he termed a “delight” against her tongue.
“Let it melt, then press it to the roof of your mouth.”
Bitter sweetness invaded her senses, as did Nicholas’s masculine scent of cinnamon and bay leaves. She closed her eyes as the two scents mixed. She released a soft groan at the intensity of the sensation. The object in her mouth melted and intensified. “What is it?” she begged.
“Where?” she asked, unable to finish her sentence as the chocolate slid down her throat in a wave of ecstasy.
“I found it in a little shop in London called the Coffee Mill and Tobacco Roll. Chocolate is said to have rejuvenating properties and is a natural energizer. Do you like it?”
Enjoyment shuddered through Jane so intensely she could only nod her head in agreement. Just as strongly, so too, did the lies he had spread about her.
A passionate seductress
. Although, at the moment, she did not feel seductive, she felt seduced.
Nicholas brought his finger up to the corner of her mouth and touched the fullness of her lower lip. “Imagine a kiss on top of that sweetness…”
Jane swallowed. She could imagine the sensation would be dangerous. Despite the years that had separated them, she could still remember the pleasure of his touch and his kisses. “Thank you, Nicholas. That was certainly a memorable gift.”
He gave her one last heart-melting smile before he bowed and returned to the others.
Margaret relaxed as he moved away. “That looks unusual,” she whispered from beside Jane.
“Have a taste.” Jane offered the chocolate to her aunt.
Her aunt placed a small shaving on her tongue and groaned. Jane smiled as Margaret’s reaction echoed her own. They both found the treat delicious.
Just like Nicholas. Everything about him was delicious, it always had been. But then again, she had had similar feelings about all the men who had come to greet her. All the men, that was, except Bryce. Suddenly the sweetness lingering in her mouth soured. Bryce was the fly in the ointment, for certain. He would try to stop her from choosing anyone else as her husband.
Jane’s gaze fell to the shavings of chocolate that remained on the parchment. She folded the parcel back into its original form. Perhaps she would save these precious treats for the moments when she needed a bit of rejuvenation. The thought pulled up the corners of her lips as she straightened. She had five suitors to choose from and one suitor to send home. Bryce had no idea of her true mettle. But before this contest was through, he would.
“Are you ready to meet Colin?” Margaret asked. “I saved him for last. I found the young man to be quite pleasant. His quick thinking in the face of my accident saved my life.”
Jane smiled. “Aye. I am so very grateful for your safety. Bring the man forward so I can thank him properly.”
Margaret nodded. “It is with great pleasure that I call forth our final suitor, Colin Taylor.”
As Jane watched the stranger approach, she could not stop a small shocked breath. She had imagined the man who had saved her aunt to be a
simple countryman. There was nothing simple about Colin Taylor. He was sinfully male, with the sculpted physique of a warrior. He had wide shoulders, well-developed arms, and a tight, muscular chest that filled out his fine muslin shirt. Dark breeches were tucked into black boots. His dress was simple, yet the impression that he was lean and powerful was undeniable.
The man was nothing short of gorgeous. He would certainly leave an impression on her heart if she gave him a chance. He was the type of male women dreamed about in dark fantasies but knew did not really exist. Dark brown lashes swept his golden skin beneath arched brows and a silky fall of honey-colored hair. His jaw was angled and strong, with a slight cleft in his chin. Her heart raced and her palms felt clammy as she continued her visual exploration of his lips—pink and firm and sensually full. His eyes glittered like shards of silver, and his pupils were dilated with a touch of amusement and unmistakable masculine interest.
“Good morrow, Lady Jane,” he said with a thick brogue that sounded roughened, as if by too much whiskey and peat smoke. “I am delighted to meet you and honored to be here among your guests.”
Jane smiled. Handsome and polite. It was a good start. “I must first thank you for saving my aunt the other day.”
Jane continued, “It is a pleasure to have you here.”
“Nay, the pleasure has not yet started.” He turned and signaled three men with instruments forward. They gathered in a half circle and the two men with a lute and a cittern tuned the strings a moment before they joined the flute and started playing. “The song is called ‘The Outlandish Knight.’ My gift to you is a dance.” He extended his hand to her. “Dance with me, Lady Jane,” he said, his voice smooth, compelling.
With a smile, she accepted his hand and he pulled her out of her chair to him, uncharacteristically close for such a dance. But before she could offer a suggestion for some distance, he carried her away with a light step. He sent her into a spin as though she were a butterfly suddenly released from its cocoon. She could not hold back a laugh of enjoyment.
Jane glimpsed each of her suitors as Colin twirled her like a feather dancing on the air. Each man wore an irritated frown.
Her gaze lit on Aunt Margaret, who nodded encouragement and clapped her hands in beat to the music. Jane’s cheeks warmed. She had not danced in years. A feeling of euphoria came over her.
The room spun by in a whirl of colors. She closed her eyes and let the sensation of the air swirling past her face take over her senses. She felt the heat of Colin’s presence as he took her arm in a promenade. It had been so long since she had known much else but loss and duty. Her life had become maintaining the estate whether her father was here or not. She let the rhythm of the music move through her swaying body. A swirl of air brushed against her fevered cheeks.
She opened her eyes as the music ended and Colin stopped. “Have you had your fill of dancing or should I have the musicians play another tune?” he asked, flashing a charming grin.
“It was a beautiful gift, Colin. I enjoyed myself very much.” She dipped her head to avoid his gaze, remembering there was duty yet to serve. “I must make my decision now about who wins this competition.”
He nodded, and with a hand on her arm led her back beside her aunt. He took her hand and brought it to his lips, offering her a salute. Heat tingled against her skin where his lips had so briefly touched. She fisted her hand at her side, fighting the sensation.
What was wrong with her to feel attraction for so many men? Aye, they were all handsome, including her cousin Bryce. All except Bryce had fearless hearts, courage, and compassion. And each wanted her to pick him as the winner of this first challenge. Jane stood beside the chair, unable to sit as tension filled her.
“Who will you choose?” Margaret asked, as though reading her thoughts.
At the words, the crowded room rumbled, the voices rising with curiosity. Jane drew in a measured breath. She did not know who had won. Her spirits had been lifted because of the dance. The weight of the pearls pressed against her flesh, and she tasted a lingering hint of chocolate in her mouth.
Her gaze moved to the single stem of snowdrop on the arm of her chair, then dipped to her doll, Meriwether, that she had set on the floor. Finally, her gaze shifted to the puppy asleep on the muslin cloth near her feet. She pressed her hands to her heated cheeks. They were lovely gifts, all.
Then she did what she had been avoiding. She shifted her gaze to the men before her. Each met her gaze in turn. Blood roared in her ears, but she pushed the sensation aside. This was simply a choice. It was not life or death. There would be other opportunities for each of the men to win that had nothing to do with her choice now. And yet, choosing one now over the others would hurt them. It would disappoint each of them in a different way, but the pain would be there, even if it only wounded their pride. Except… a thought emerged from the chaos of her emotions. If she picked Colin, no one would blame her. He was new to her. They had no history. She slid her gaze to him. He seemed nice enough. At least she hoped so.
“I choose Colin Taylor as the winner of this challenge. His dance was refreshing and invigorating. Exactly what I needed.”
Colin broke from the group and came toward her. His silver-gray eyes sparkled with proprietorship.
Nicholas’s eyes were shuttered. Jules’s bore disappointment. Lord Galloway frowned. David’s face was a blank slate, but the sudden twitch of his hand spoke volumes. Bryce’s gaze was as sharp as an ice shard.
Oblivious to the men’s reactions, Margaret beamed. “Excellent. The rest of you will be shown to your chambers. Colin, you will escort Jane through the gardens alone until our midday meal. At that time, we will all reconvene in the great hall for the details of the next challenge.”
“Jane?” Colin’s voice sounded beside her and she turned toward him. A heartbeat later, she saw a silver gleam, then heard a
. Her heart pulsed as she wheeled about. The heat in her cheeks faded to ice. A dagger vibrated in the wood paneling of the wall behind her.
Exactly where she had been standing.