Authors: Gerri Russell
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #Romance, #Historical, #Scottish, #Historical Romance, #Holidays
Jane drew a shattered breath as he took her chin between his thumb and forefinger and lifted it, forcing her to meet his steady gaze as he quietly asked, “Are you that person?”
Jane looked at his mouth.
He released a soft groan. “I had meant to be a gentleman with you.” His lips descended to hers, just shy of touching.
She sought to forestall what was inevitable by saying, “For all you have been through, you deserve someone wonderful.”
“You are quickly becoming the most wonderful woman I have ever known,” he murmured huskily. His cool lips covered hers. The kiss was soft and sweet at first, then grew bolder and filled with yearning.
He is a stranger,
her mind cautioned.
You do not know this man.
She might not know him, she countered, but he had given her a glimpse of his heart.
As if sensing her hesitation, he pulled his mouth from hers and stepped back. He lifted his hand to her hair, gently brushing a golden lock off her cheek. He tried to smile. “I was swept away,” he said in a husky voice. “I knew this might be my only time alone with you, and when your gaze lit on my lips, I could not help myself.”
At the mention of his lips, her gaze returned there.
“You had best look elsewhere unless you want me to continue,” he whispered.
Stunned into stillness, Jane shifted her gaze to his eyes—eyes that were warm and sensual and filled with raw need. He was still a mysterious stranger, but what they had shared had been volatile and passionate. He would definitely
challenge a wife physically as a husband. But in the end, would he be hers or someone else’s?
At the thought, she drew in a long, shaky breath. Her passion faded and fear took its place. Would she feel this way with all her suitors, except her cousin? A moment of anguished shame took hold. Jane knew she had a sensual nature. She experienced emotion, whether carnal or fearful, to her core, deeper than her own aunt ever did. She tried to repress her base instincts, had spent hours on her knees in the confessional trying to change and to make decisions with her head, not her heart. Yet time and again, her passions won out.
She returned her gaze to Colin. This competition would truly be a challenge for her if she found herself attracted to more than one man.
She straightened as her thoughts moved to the rumors that had been spread about her passionate nature. The rumors were unfounded—but unfortunately, they did have some foundation in the truth. She was a passionate person. Did that make her unsuitable as a bride? Should she end the competition now before emotions, hers and her suitors’, progressed any further?
Colin settled his hands gently on her shoulders. “Lady Jane, do not be afraid of your passion,” he said, as though reading her thoughts. “Any one of your suitors would see it as the greatest asset in a wife. I especially would.”
Jane drew back. A shiver of fear worked its way down her spine. “You have heard the rumors, then?”
At what must have been a horrified look on her face, he reached up again and smoothed his finger across her cheek. “I care nothing about what others say. I judge for myself. I can clearly see now that the rumors were untrue. You should not care so much about gossip.”
“That is easier for a man than a woman to accomplish.”
“You may be right, but it has been my experience that others will hold you back from achieving your dreams only if you let them.” He smiled. “Come, let me take you back to the castle.” He took her fingers in his and guided her back down the path of their footprints.
“Your fingers are cold,” she said, realizing how silly the words sounded in light of what had just passed between them.
He stopped and took both her hands in his. “My heart is warm and that is what matters. Thank you, Lady Jane, for these first moments alone with you. I am so honored that you chose me, no matter the reason.” A heartbeat later, his words faded and his features hardened.
“There are three sets of footprints,” he said softly. “There were no others besides ours when we first entered the garden.”
As a shiver of alarm raced down her spine, Jane allowed Colin to pull her close against his side.
His gaze narrowed on the nearby trees. “Come, we must hurry back inside where you will be less of a target.”
“Why did we not notice someone else in the garden?”
His face softened. “The kiss.”
Jane felt her cheeks warm.
He curled his arm around her waist and matched his steps to hers. “I should not have brought you out here.”
“The location does not seem to matter,” Jane said, trying to make him feel better.
He frowned. “What do you mean?”
“After the dagger in the great hall, I have come to realize that all the accidents over the last few weeks were not ‘accidents.’ ”
“You mean your aunt’s carriage wheel?”
“That and a falling stone and a collapsing stair.”
Colin drew her even closer against him, nearly carrying her along with his steps. When they reached the half wall, he had her up and over before she could even assist him. Finally, when they reached the keep, he drew away and his gaze met hers. “I will not let whoever it is hurt you.”
Before she could comment, her Aunt Margaret hurried toward her, followed by David, Nicholas, Jules, Lord Galloway, and Bryce, their faces a mixture of concern and anger.
“Back so soon?” David asked as his eyes narrowed with suspicion on Colin.
“Someone followed us to the garden,” Colin stated.
“Did you find the person?” Lord Galloway asked.
“Not yet. I thought it best to return Lady Jane to safety before I went in pursuit.”
Colin signaled two of his men forward. They hastened to his side. “Stand guard over Lady Jane.”
Jane stared at the two big warriors. Each carried a sword and looked quite capable of protecting her, but this was not what she wanted. For a brief moment her gaze shifted to Jules, then back to the warriors. “I will not be a prisoner in my own home.”
“Your safety is at stake.” Concern flared in David’s eyes.
“I will not walk around Bellhaven in fear,” Jane said, suddenly feeling dwarfed as her suitors gathered around her. She straightened. “Lord Galloway, you mentioned Sir David’s skill as a hunter before. Perhaps it is time to use his knowledge to aid us.”
“How?” Lord Galloway asked.
“By setting a trap, with me as the bait.”
“No.” Colin’s features darkened. “That is unnecessary.”
Jane ignored his and all the other dissenting comments the men tossed her way. “Tomorrow you shall compete in a fox hunt. We have until then to come up with a plan to draw out whoever is trying to harm me and Aunt Margaret.”
“Not outside of the castle. It is too dangerous,” Nicholas argued.
“A hunt inside the castle walls would be no test of your skill at all,” Jane countered with a smile.
The smile did not have the effect she had hoped for as David’s frown deepened. “I agree with Nicholas. You will be too exposed outside the castle gates.”
“What better way to force our villain to show himself,” Jane replied with a false sense of bravado. Inside, she shook. If she were honest, that dagger had unsettled her more than any of her other accidents. A fall, or a loose stone, even a loose carriage wheel she could rationalize away. A dagger thrown at her—that was a message even she could not avoid.
Her aunt worked her way to Jane’s side. “Allow me to dress in your clothing and cover my face with a veil.”
“No,” Jane said emphatically. “I will not put you or anyone else in danger.” She looked at each man gathered around her. Jules looked at her with sadness. David’s face was pensive. Lord Galloway shook his head in disagreement. Nicholas’s dark eyes smoldered as though pleading with her to change her mind. Bryce shrugged.
Colin’s features were hardened with concern. “I still do not like the fact that you will be in harm’s way, but such a ruse just might work.”
“Fear not. I have no intention of dying today or any day soon,” Jane said. “I have six worthy protectors. What could go wrong?”
p in her chamber later that evening, Jane sat in a chair near the hearth and mindlessly brushed out her hair. For her suitors she had dismissed tonight’s attempt on her life and the extra set of footsteps in the garden, but both events had rattled her to the core.
Even now, her hand shook as she brushed, for the hundredth time, her long, golden hair. It was dangerous to be anywhere near her at the moment. Could she willingly endanger the lives of the brave men who had responded to Margaret’s invitation for her own gain? Bellhaven was all she had left, but to allow anyone to be harmed in order for her to keep her home seemed so very wrong.
The door on the opposite side of the room opened softly and Margaret slipped inside the room. “I was wondering where you had gone,” she said approaching Jane. She held out her hand. “Here, let me do that for you.”
Margaret used to brush her hair every night after her mother died. It had helped to calm Jane enough so that she could sleep. Perhaps her efforts would have the same effect now.
“Are you truly recovered from the incident in the great hall?” Margaret asked, studying Jane’s face.
“These accidents are becoming a regular part of our lives. Are they not?” Jane replied with a forced laugh.
Margaret paled. “This is a serious matter, Jane. One of these times, whoever is behind the attempts will hit their mark.”
Jane reached for the small dagger she had set on the table before her. The weapon had once belonged to her mother. Jane had spent the last hour sharpening the blade to a lethal point. “I am prepared.”
Margaret frowned as she began to smooth Jane’s hair. “That dagger will only stop so much.”
“I know,” Jane replied, her voice tightening with emotion. She forced back sudden tears. She would not cry. There was no reason other than the fact that someone wanted her dead, her whole life was about to change, and she could do nothing about either.
Not noticing Jane’s emotional state, Margaret continued to brush Jane’s hair. “All of the men are rather handsome, would you not agree, Jane?” She did not wait for a reply. “Colin seems quite taken with you. He is rather handsome, in a rugged, debonair way. He would make you a fine husband.”
Margaret frowned for a moment, then continued without a response from Jane. “Then again, David has changed much since you have last seen him. He is more confident now. His manner seems more refined as well.”
Her aunt sighed. “Then there is Lord Galloway. That man is too handsome by far.”
Margaret continued to brush, but the brushing had no calming effect on Jane’s nerves this time.
“Jules is too thin, by far. Would it be wrong of me to ask Doctor Samuelson to come look him over?”
This time she waited for Jane’s response. “It depends. Do you want him examined because you think he is ill or because you wish to identify any impediment to his marrying me?”
Margaret forced a smile. “Both, I suppose. I merely do not want you to suffer as I…”
When she did not continue, Jane added the words Margaret did not say, “As you have suffered?”
She nodded. “I was married for three days, Jane. Three whole days before Thomas was gone.”
Jane did not know much about Margaret’s history with her husband; she had been only an infant when Thomas had died. “Did you love him so very much?”
Margaret stopped brushing. “Love him? I hardly knew him.”
Jane turned to face her aunt. “What?”
“Our marriage was arranged by the king. Sir Thomas Avery and Lady Margaret Lennox. Everyone thought it was a perfect match. That was until Thomas fell dead.”
Jane knew the man had died young, but she had never asked about the details. Did Margaret wish to talk about her husband now? “How did he die?” Jane asked gently.
Margaret blushed. “It was terrible, really.” Her blush deepened. “Since you are about to marry yourself I might as well tell you. We were coupling. It was that moment—and he just died.”
Jane had no idea what “that moment” meant, but she could imagine by the tone of Margaret’s voice that it was something special. “I am so sorry,” Jane said, meaning it, yet not knowing what else to say.
Margaret shook herself. “That is in the past. I do not regret a moment of what happened after that. Before the king could arrange yet another marriage for me, my good brother called me here to care for you and your brother. I was pleased by the outcome.”
Jane took Margaret’s hand in hers and squeezed it gently. “You were a blessing then as you are now.”
Margaret’s smile returned. “In order not to repeat the past, we need to find you a husband who has good health and stamina. And I am not certain Jules is that man.”
“Jules will be well.” He had to be. She would move heaven and earth to see he fully recovered. Yet Margaret had a point. Jules was not nearly as healthy as she had hoped he would be despite the coins she had slipped to the guard to make certain he was cared for. “It might be a good idea to send for Doctor Samuelson, but only if Jules agrees.”
Margaret nodded and continued her brushing. “What about Nicholas?”
Just hearing his name sent an odd combination of warmth and pain straight to her heart. She drew a sharp breath. “I cannot honestly say I have given him much thought,” she lied.