Authors: Gerri Russell
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #Romance, #Historical, #Scottish, #Historical Romance, #Holidays
avid startled at the sight of the blade so close to Jane. Her face went pale as she stared at the still-quivering blade. Lady Margaret gasped, and at the sound many voices rumbled through the chamber. David surged toward the dais and was momentarily pleased when Colin instinctively drew Jane behind him, protecting her from further attack. David spun back toward the chamber, seeking the villain who had thrown the dagger.
All eyes turned to Bryce. His face was a mask, giving no sign of his guilt or innocence. David looked beyond Jane’s cousin and hunted through the assembled crowd, searching for a sign, any sign of the villain who had thrown that knife. Had they all missed whoever had thrown the dagger because each man in the room immediately suspected Bryce? “Did anyone see anything?” David shouted above the noise.
The noise in the room died down and one of his own men, Curtis, from the left-hand side of the chamber said, “Out of the corner of my eye I saw an overhand motion. Before I turned that direction, the assailant was gone.”
If Jane had not moved—David squelched the thought.
David balled his hands at his sides. His worst fear was coming true. Jane was not safe in her own home and she would not be until she married and news that another male had taken charge of the castle spread across the land.
Lord Galloway hastened to David’s side. “You are the best hunter of all of us,” his long-time friend said. “Your skills are best suited to find the villain. How can I help?”
Tracking people was not his specialty, but he accepted the role as leader. “Keep your eyes sharp for anyone or anything out of the ordinary.”
“They all look innocent, like helpless lambs, watching the entertainment that is all of us,” Lord Galloway said with an attempt at a laugh.
“They might look like lambs, but there is a wolf among them. That blade impaled the wood near Jane at chest level. The assailant was aiming for her heart, and would have succeeded, too, had she not moved at the last instant. Someone in this room hurled that blade with speed and precision. It is up to us to determine who.”
Lord Galloway forced a smile. “Then it is a good thing neither of us won this competition. While Colin Taylor escorts Jane to the gardens for his time alone with her, we will be searching the dark halls of the castle for a ‘wolf.’ ”
“Agreed,” said David, as he and Lord Galloway joined the others.
Bryce hung back. No doubt they all assumed the attack on Jane was his doing. He searched the other men’s faces. Not one of them looked at him after their initial suspicion of him. Now, they were all busy, with their heads together, trying to determine how to help Jane. Perhaps that is what he should do as well, show them he was not as cold-hearted as they imagined.
He simply wanted what should be his. Women did not need to inherit things they could not manage or protect. Bellhaven, and all her people, would be better off under his care.
Bryce straightened. Perhaps he had better start showing them that fact instead of trying to force his way into Jane’s affections. He had no doubt he was only here, and involved in the competition, so that he could not object to
her marriage in the end. She had no intention of considering him as her husband.
His tactic for the competition would have to change. Instead of forcing her to choose him, he would see to it she did not choose any of them. No doubt they all had dark secrets they wished kept from Jane. Bryce smiled. He would find out what those secrets were and use them for his own purposes.
By the time he was through, Jane would have to choose between him as her husband, or no one.
Bellhaven would be his either way.
Bryce allowed his gaze to settle on Jane, with her new puppy in her arms and the golden-haired god who hovered near her side. All his earlier pleasure vanished. He would begin his attack on the golden boy first. Behind all that muscle no doubt were a few secrets the man wished no one else would discover.
Bryce needed to know more about Colin Taylor. And there was no time like the crisis-filled present. Before the day was through, he would set that plan in motion.
Feeling once more in control of the situation, Bryce headed for the dais, Jane, and his newfound target.
Nicholas moved to Jules’s side. “Come,” he said. “Let us talk to the men that make up the retinues. You take the left side of the chamber. I will take the right. Anyone who is the least bit suspicious, pull them aside for further questioning. Whoever threw that knife has to be here. No one can simply vanish like that.”
Jules nodded and headed off to interview the men. Two hours and nearly sixty men later, Jules and Nicholas came back together. “Did you find anything?” Jules asked.
“Nothing.” Nicholas exhaled in frustration. “They all seemed as baffled as we are by the attack.”
Jules fell silent. He swayed on his feet.
Nicholas reached out to steady him. “Are you well?”
“Tired. My entrance back into the world has been rather sudden. I am still trying to adjust.”
Nicholas nodded. “I think we can leave Sir David and Lord Galloway in charge here. “Want to help me with something else?”
Nicholas clapped his one-time friend on the back as they turned toward the doorway.
Jules stumbled, then caught himself.
Nicholas frowned. Jules might be tired, but he was not as healthy as he appeared if a swift clap on the back could set him off balance. Gaol had taken its toll on him. “You are certain all is well with you, my friend?”
A look of challenge came into Jules’s eyes as he tried to appear casual and easy. “I told you. I am tired from travel.”
He lied. His flesh had turned gray. “Come along,” Nicholas said. “There is one more security measure I would like to take. Then, I know just the thing to help you get your strength back.”
Jules nodded and together they walked out of the great hall toward the outer bailey. At the main gate, Nicholas signaled the guard to lower the gate and raise the drawbridge.
“What are you doing?” Jules asked, his face reddening in anger. “You are locking the would-be assassin inside the castle.”
“Aye,” Nicholas replied. “We are also locking accomplices out.”
“I see the sense in that,” Jules said after a moment, then nodded his approval.
Nicholas ordered that nobody be let in or out “In your lady’s name.” After the guards nodded in compliance, he turned to Jules. “Come,” Nicholas said, angling his head toward the gate to the inner bailey. “We need to stop at the kitchen before we get back to the others.”
Inside the kitchen, four women shuffled back and forth from the hearth to the long table in the center of the stone building. Standing at the edge of the enormous hearth, Marthe the cook hummed a lilting tune as she stirred what was most likely their midday meal in the cauldron set over the fire. At
their entrance, the women paused in their duties and all eyes turned toward the two invaders of the female sanctuary.
As though sensing the sudden tension in the chamber, Marthe turned around. Her mouth was an irritated slash when her gaze lit on Nicholas. When she saw Jules, she smiled.
“Saints be praised. Do my eyes deceive, or could it possibly be Master Jules here in my domain again? You rapscallion, you haven’t come lookin’ for scraps from me for years.” She set down her spoon and bustled to greet them. She took Jules’s hands in hers. “You’re a sight for sore eyes—” She stopped speaking as she sized Jules up, her smile slipping. “You don’t look so well, young man.”
“That’s why we are here, Marthe,” Nicholas said, bringing her gaze back to him. “We need one of your special tisanes to help Jules recover his strength.”
She frowned at Jules and dropped his hands. “He looks like he needs more than that. Both of you, sit down before he falls down from exhaustion.” She strode toward the far wall where she kept a full pantry of herbs and what Nicholas had always termed her “potions.” The woman had a gift for knowing how to treat any ailment as well as how to season food.
Nicholas directed Jules to the small table in the corner of the room. “Thank you, Marthe.”
“I am not doing this for you, Nicholas Kincaid,” she said while she studied her shelf. “You have some nerve comin’ here after all you put our mistress through.”
Nicholas frowned. Lady Margaret’s cool greeting he had understood. She and Jane were close and no doubt talked about his dismissal from her life two years ago. But Marthe? The cook had always loved him. “What have I done to deserve such a chilly reception from my favorite cook?”
She turned around and fixed him with a chilling stare. “Anyone who hurts our lady hurts us all.”
Nicholas pressed his lips together. He wanted to deny the accusation, to proclaim his innocence, to tell her that it was Jacob who had sent him away,
but he remained quiet. He had hurt Jane. There was no denying that. “I never should have left her.”
Marthe’s gaze warmed somewhat. “You did more than leave her, Nicky.” She sighed. “You hurt her somethin’ fierce.”
He could only nod, uncertain to what she referred, but he intended to find out. And soon.
“Regardless of your feelings for me, I thank you for helping Jules.”
She waved a hand in the air. “Don’t thank me yet, but when Jules is back to himself, he can come back here and thank me properly.” She busied herself with her jars and bags, tossing a bit of this and that into a small basket before she scurried to the hearth and dumped the herbs into a kettle already heating over the flames.
She glanced up from her kettle at Nicholas. “Darn you, Nicholas Kincaid. I want to be mad at you, but seein’ you again in my kitchen…” She stirred the contents of the kettle. “Promise me you won’t tarnish our lady’s reputation any further.”
“I would never—”
“That’s right. Never is the right word. And if you do,” she said narrowing her gaze once more, “you’ll have to answer to me.”
Nicholas could only stare. He did not know what to think or what to feel.
Tarnish her reputation?
he repeated in his mind, trying to let the words sink in. He closed his eyes and concentrated on his breathing. Was that why Lady Margaret had treated him that way? Why Jane had been distant? Had he wronged her in some way he was not aware of?
Then very slowly he opened his eyes. “I will set things right.”
“You do that,” she said with a nod. Moments later she returned to them with the kettle and a cup. “As for payment for my tisane, a kiss on the cheek should get my heart pumpin’… that would be reward enough.” She smiled again at the two of them and an impish sparkle came into her eyes. “Better make that a kiss from each of you. One for each cheek.”
“Done,” Nicholas said, grateful the cook had warmed up to him once more.
Jules smiled. “ ’Twould be an honor.”
She released a girlish giggle as she poured the steaming brew into the cup and slid it toward Jules. “Drink all of it. It’ll be a bit bitter. That’s the burdock root, but you’ll be right as rain soon after drinkin’ this.”
“My thanks,” Jules said as he took his first sip.
Marthe watched him for a moment then moved back to the hearth. “One more thing,” she said as she reached for a knife and sawed thin slices of meat from the boar roasting on a spit over the flames. She returned with two plates of shaved meat and set them before the two men with a triumphant smile. “ ’Tis just like old times, feeding you both here in the kitchen. I have missed you both,” she said, her voice soft. A faraway look came into her tired gray eyes.
“We missed you, too,” Nicholas said, patting her time-weathered hands.
“I’m pleased you both responded to Lady Margaret’s plea for help. Lady Jane needs you both.”
Jules finished the cup and set it down on the table with a soft thud. “She can only choose one of us as her husband.”
Marthe slid the plate of meat and a two-pronged fork closer to Jules as she nodded. “That is true, but there are no limits on friendship. And she needs friends now more than ever.”
Nicholas frowned. “What do you mean?” He took a bite of the meat. Jules ate his eagerly.
She looked past the two men at the wall behind their shoulders, her eyes shadowed. “The accidents. They seemed only to be small mishaps at first, but they are becomin’ more frequent and more disturbin’ ”
“What manner of accidents?” Jules and Nicholas said together as they shared a look of concern.
“Jane fell when a wooden stair collapsed beneath her. The week before that there was a piece of the castle wall that fell from the tower. It landed where Jane had been standin’ moments earlier. And Lady Margaret was badly shaken when the wheel of her carriage broke and nearly sent the vehicle with her inside into a nearby stream.”
“And today, someone threw a dagger at Jane in the great hall,” Nicholas said, pushing the remainder of his meat aside as his appetite faded.
Marthe gasped. “Nay.”
“Jane is well, but you have convinced me that someone wishes her ill.” Jules finished his meat and set the plate aside.
Nicholas could feel the muscles of his neck tighten as fear for Jane’s well-being overtook him. “I agree. All these events were no mere accidents. Someone is trying to harm Jane, and perhaps Lady Margaret as well. The question is who?”