Authors: Gerri Russell
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #Romance, #Historical, #Scottish, #Historical Romance, #Holidays
“Some say it’s the ghost of her mother,” Marthe said in a whisper-soft voice.
“Her mother?” Jules asked with a frown.
Marthe shivered and crossed herself. “She’s been sighted on many occasions lately roamin’ the north hallway of the castle as well as the north tower.”
Nicholas met Jules’s frown with his own. Lady Angelina Moriah Lennox had come back as a ghost? “She has been dead for nineteen years. Why come back to haunt her home now?”
“Perhaps she’s come to take her daughter with her into the afterlife,” Marthe said as she crossed herself again.
Nicholas stood. “Nay. A mother who gave up her life at birth so her son could live would never hurt her daughter. I would venture to guess Lady Lennox’s reappearance has more to do with protection than harm.”
Jules stood as well. “Thank you for your healing tea and the savory meat. I feel stronger already.”
“You come back here tomorrow for another cup of my tea, you hear me? And give me the chance to put more meat on your bones as well.” Marthe gave them each a soft smile.
Nicholas stepped toward the cook and placed a swift kiss on her left cheek. Jules placed a kiss on her right.
Color flooded Marthe’s face as she brought her hands up to cover her cheeks. “Thank you, you scoundrels. Now get back out there and protect our girl.”
“With pleasure,” Nicholas said with a bow.
“Indeed,” Jules replied as he, too, offered the cook a bow. Together they left the kitchen, heading back toward the keep. “I want to thank you also, Nicholas. I feel stronger than I have in months.”
“Gaol could not have been easy,” Nicholas said as guilt assailed him. Why had he not tried harder to set his friend free?
“I am free now,” Jules said as though reading his thoughts. In silence they walked to the stairs leading to the great hall.
Nicholas stopped at the sight of the fresh wood that had been cut to rebuild the collapsed part of the stairs—second one from the top. He turned and looked back down the stairway.
“Jane fell quite a distance. It is a wonder she did not hurt herself.”
Jules inspected the stair, testing it with his foot. “That is three, possibly four attempts on her life if the carriage accident was truly meant for Jane.” He frowned. “Do you think Bryce is behind it all? He stands the most to gain from Jane’s death.”
“Perhaps,” Nicholas mused. “But the events started happening well before Lady Margaret announced the competition that brought Bryce back here.”
“Still, we had best keep a close eye on Jane’s cousin.”
Nicholas and Jules continued into the great hall. “We will keep a close eye on everyone. No one is above reproach at this point,” Nicholas said.
“Not even us?” Jules asked with a lift of his brow.
“You, I trust,” Nicholas replied. “Besides, you have been in gaol until two days ago. You cannot be in two places at once unless you are a spirit like the supposed ghost of Lady Lennox.”
“Do you truly think it is her ghost?”
“Nay, I do not believe in such things. There is a rational explanation for everything that is going on in this castle. And you and I are going to figure out exactly what that is.”
“No villain or specter will get the best of us,” Jules said as they moved to join the other suitors, who must have reconvened in the hall after their various searches for the villain.
“Where have you two been?” Bryce’s eyes narrowed suspiciously.
“We made certain no one could get in or out of the castle,” Jules said tersely. Jules and Bryce had known each other for years, from when Jules had served as Lord Lennox’s squire. They had been antagonistic as young men. It appeared nothing had changed between them.
“Just freed from gaol and protecting the lot of us, are you?” Bryce sniped.
Lord Galloway put a hand on Bryce’s shoulder. “Leave him be.”
Bryce shrugged off his hand and a spark of malice flared in his eyes.
Ignoring him, David nodded at Nicholas. “Glad you remembered to seal the gates. Now, what we need to determine together is how to proceed. Do we cancel the competition?”
“We continue with the challenges,” Jane said, returning to the chamber.
Nicholas’s heart skipped a beat as Jane approached with Colin on one side and Lady Margaret on the other. Jane’s face was marble-pale in the filtered light of the great hall—so different from her normal vivacious self. She needed to be outside in the fresh air, where the sunshine could touch her cheeks and bring them back to their natural rosy color.
“Nothing changes,” Jane continued. “Colin and I will have our courtship time, as planned.”
Colin offered Jane his arm, and she placed her fingers on it. “My lady,” he said with a smile. Jane smiled in return.
Nicholas balled his fists at his sides. He so desperately wanted it to be he who touched her, comforted her, but all he could do was remain where he was. It would do him no good to reveal his emotions. What mattered was keeping Jane safe.
“She could be in more danger outside,” Lord Galloway argued.
Colin gripped the hilt of his sword without removing the weapon from its sheath. “She will be safe in my care. I promise you.”
Nicholas clenched his hands all the harder. “She had better be.”
“She should be under constant surveillance,” David added. “At least until the villain is—”
“Quiet, all of you
,” Jane said with a touch of irritation. “I can take care of myself.” She reached beneath her skirt in the direction of her calf. “I have my own blade.” She withdrew a dagger and held it out to them, the point sharp. “I honed the blade this morning.”
fter grabbing cloaks to protect them from the weather and making certain Jane’s footwear was appropriate for the outdoors, Colin escorted her to what others had called the garden on the east side of the castle, tucked between the walls of the outer and inner bailey. He had seen the tranquil location as they had ridden through the bailey gates upon their arrival.
The snow in this area of the castle was still undisturbed. As they walked, they left a trail of impressions in the two-inch deep snow. Colin smiled. His breath curled in the chill air, floating toward the heavens. He loved the snow, and he could definitely become accustomed to the lovely Lady Jane Lennox at his side.
He had won the first competition with his spirited dance. Now he had to woo her with talk as he had for the past two hours in Lady Margaret’s presence. That first test had gone well, and had won him this time alone in the garden with Jane where they could talk in private. Colin swallowed roughly. Discussions with ladies were not his strong suit, especially ladies who looked like Jane. Her unbound, shining golden hair fell in a luxurious tumble over
her shoulders and back. Her tresses framed a face of striking beauty. Her finely molded cheekbones were high, her skin creamy and glowing, her lips generous and soft. But it was her eyes that drew his attention. Beneath delicately arched brows, long curly lashes fringed eyes that were a vivid, startling violet.
They walked in silence until they reached a half wall that separated the farmed part of the garden from the fruit trees. “May we walk among the trees?” he asked.
“I played there as a young girl. The gate is ahead,” she said, stopping her progress along the snowy path.
“We need not enter through the gate.” He dusted the snow off the top of the fence before he brought his hands to her waist and lifted her onto the ledge.
“Oh,” she breathed, startled, and her cheeks flushed.
“Remain there a moment.” In his eagerness to help her down, he vaulted over the divider as though it were nothing. She was taller than most women and voluptuously curved. He placed his hands on her waist once more and lifted her down. He did not set her on her feet right away, but gazed into her beautiful eyes as he slid her down his body, enjoying the feel of her softness against his hard chest. The friction between them was delicious, and he felt her knees wobble for a moment before she found her stance on the snow-covered ground.
“Now we will not be interrupted,” Colin said, then drew a deep breath of fresh, cold air before they started walking through the snow once more. “Might I ask you a question, Lady Jane? Why did you choose me for this first round? You already know so many of the others.”
“Honestly?” she asked, peering at him from beneath her lashes.
“Of course. I am a warrior. Nothing you say will hurt me.”
A hint of an apology lingered in her eyes. “It was easier to choose you, a stranger, than to pick one of them.”
He was wrong. That hurt, just a little. “I understand,” he said, feeling slightly deflated about his time alone with her before he caught himself. It did not matter how he had gained this time. It was up to him to use it well.
He took her hand in his. They walked along an open area Colin could only assume was a path beneath the snow. He helped her toward a swing that hung
from a stout branch of an apple tree. “If I’d had more time to prepare, I would have arranged a meal for us to eat beneath the boughs of this leafless tree.”
“A meal out in the snow?” Jane asked with a chuckle.
“At the moment, I would like nothing better,” he said with a smile.
Jane felt his smile all the way to her toes. Her pulse raced as she tried to ignore the tug of his eyes and voice. She had seen that momentary hurt in his eyes when she had told him the truth. The honest truth about the competition was she was not sure how she would choose any one among the others. Perhaps she should insist the next competition be the drawing of sticks. The suitor with the shortest stick would win her hand, sparing their feelings and her heart.
Colin stopped before the swing and released her hand. He gave the thick ropes a swift tug. “The ropes seem sound. Would you grant me the honor of pushing you on the swing?”
“In the snow?”
He brushed the snow from the wood with his bare hand. “Why not?”
“Very well,” she said, and sat on the base. In an instant the tension in his shoulders relaxed and a warm, intimate look settled in his keen silver-gray eyes. He moved behind her, lifted her, and sent her soaring into the air.
The wind rushed past her cheeks and tossed her hair wildly about her face. Another push and she picked up speed, feeling vibrant and alarmingly alive. She did not know this man at all, but in the first few minutes of being in his company she found herself relaxing. He pushed her into the air for several minutes until suddenly she wanted to know more about the man behind her. All she knew up to now was that he was gorgeous, a good dancer, seemingly kind, gentle, and polite.
She twisted backward. “Colin, may we talk?”
He pulled her to a stop. “Always.”
She shifted around, still feeling the rush of the wind where it had no doubt pinkened her cheeks.
He watched her with a gaze that was both personal and possessive. “What would you like to discuss?”
“Tell me something about yourself.”
“Anything in particular?” His eyes narrowed playfully as he flashed a devastating smile. He leaned against the trunk of the tree and watched her intently.
“Very well, let us begin with why you came here? You do not know me at all.”
“Are we sticking with the theme of honesty?” he asked.
“Please,” she replied, searching his face as a mixture of amusement and hope welled inside her. Her aunt had been right about including Colin among her suitors. He was a refreshing change from those with whom she had a history. He was a mystery for her to solve.
He held her gaze. “I came because marrying you would give me something I have sought for many years and never found.”
She frowned. “What is that?”
“A family,” Colin said.
“You have no family?” she asked sympathetically. “Have they all passed on?”
“No. I do not know,” he admitted with a shrug. “I was abandoned as a child with only a nurse to care for me. I only have hints as to who I am, but no solid proof.”
“That must be terribly hard for you.”
He shrugged again. “I have become accustomed to the fact that I might be someone’s illegitimate son and unwanted.”
She hopped off the swing and closed the short distance between them, placing her hand on his arm. “I am sure you were wanted. I for one am glad you are here.”
In a heartbeat his gaze turned warm and sensual. “My past, or lack thereof, has haunted me for years, Lady Jane,” he said with a slight brogue in his voice. “But in this moment it does not seem such a desperate thing. The future is what really matters. If you want the truth, I want a wife and a family.”
He closed his eyes briefly, as though gathering his thoughts, before opening them again. “I am not looking for a conventional woman. I long for a
woman who is curious about the world around her. A woman who wants children and would love them no matter what or who they are. My woman would have a fearless heart, a courageous soul, and endless compassion.”
Something inside Jane melted as he spoke from his heart, his voice deepening as he continued. “I want a companion who would talk with me about anything and everything into the small hours of the night. A woman who is my friend, my lover, my cherished wife.”