Authors: Gerri Russell
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #Romance, #Historical, #Scottish, #Historical Romance, #Holidays
© 2011 BARBARA ROSER/ROSER PHOTOGRAPHY
After a long career in journalism, Gerri Russell left to pursue her passion for historical romance. Since 2006, she has published 7 titles, winning two Romance Writers of America Golden Heart Awards and an RT Book Reviews American Title II Award. An expert and enthusiast of Medieval and Renaissance history, when she’s not reading and writing she’s a living history reenactor with the Shrewsbury Renaissance Faire. She lives with her husband and children in Bellevue, Washington.
ules MacIntyre, through no fault of his own and much to his dismay, was now the fourth Earl of Kildare. The father he never knew had a heart had died when it stopped one week ago, and his brother had drowned himself in whiskey two days later. They both lay dead in the family crypt, alongside the woman who had sent him to gaol for sixteen months and twenty-seven days.
He had been blamed for her death. A death Jules had always suspected was self-inflicted in order to make him suffer. But at the moment he did not care about his stepmother’s machinations. He was free, and he had more pressing issues to contend with today.
Jules leaned back in his late father’s wooden desk chair and contemplated the fanned display of swords that took up the far wall of the study. If a sword was the answer to his problem, he had many to choose from.
Jules frowned at the multitude of unpolished steel. A sword was what had started all his problems. It would never be the solution. He was not as weak as his brother, or quite as desperate. Yet.
With a flick of attention toward three stacks of letters on the corner of the desk, Jules stood and paced the room. The larger stack contained duns from creditors. His father and brother had lived extravagantly for the past several years, well beyond their means. And now the estate was in ruin and the creditors had already threatened him with debtor’s prison. For a second, the memory of his dark, dank cell came flooding back. He could feel the heavy manacles at his wrists and ankles. He shuddered, forcing the memory away. Never would he go back to gaol. He would rather impale himself on one of those swords than allow himself to be cast back into that hell again.
With a sharp breath of the musty air that enveloped Kildare Manor, Jules turned to gaze at the second stack of letters on the desk. They were from Jane and Nicholas, checking on his welfare, begging him to find a wife, annoying him with their constant prattle about how happy they were and only wanting the same for him.
The problem was that he still had feelings for Jane. He loved her, despite the fact she had married another man. Jules had tried to put her out of his mind for the last seven months, but to no avail. His thoughts returned to her time and again, even though he knew she was happy, that her new husband, Nicholas Kincaid, was a decent sort of man, and that she had married for love.
With a groan of disgust, Jules paced about the chamber, contemplating the faded walls where paintings once hung. Even if he ignored his own emotions, he still had a problem with Jane and Nicholas’s appeal to seek out happiness with a bride.
Did Nicholas and Jane not understand that what they had was special? Most people did not find that kind of love.
Jules continued his pacing and stopped before the massive display of weaponry. He reached up and fingered the dull tip of one of the swords. The metal was cool to his touch, echoing the emptiness of his soul. Happiness was a rare commodity. And wanting something more than what life had offered him so far was only setting him up for more disappointment and pain.
Which was why he had created her.
Jules smiled as his gaze moved to the third letter on the desk. A letter from Claire. His newly
wife. She was the perfect woman. She never complained, did not mind his late nights out, or his discrete dalliances. She never spent money. And best of all, she always kept her opinions to herself.
She was the perfect creation.
Claire was the perfect invention, and his only salvation. She would keep Jane and Nicholas from interfering in his life. She would allow him the time he needed to deal with the mess his father and brother had left behind. If he were lucky, she would also keep the creditors at bay. Who wasn’t sympathetic to a newlywed couple in their first weeks of life together?
A sound at the doorway brought Jules’s gaze around. His father’s servant… his servant, John Finnie, stepped into the room carrying a tea tray that Jules had not requested.
“I brought ye somethin’ tae ease yer pain.” Fin said, setting the tea upon the dusty desk.
It would take something stronger than tea to accomplish that. But Jules was not his father or his brother. Whiskey at ten in the morning was not for this MacIntyre. He would not repeat his brother’s foolishness.
“Thank you, Fin,” Jules replied, meaning the words. He was grateful for the refreshment and just as pleased not to be utterly alone. Jules studied his companion. The aging retainer was dressed in the same threadbare jacket and breeches he had worn for as long as Jules had been alive.
“Beg pardon, mi-,” the old retainer said, coughing before he could finish his words. Fin cleared his throat and tried again. “Beg pardon, milord. A messenger brought these fer ye.” He shuffled forward, holding three letters.
Jules frowned at the messages. He recognized the tight and neat handwriting on the top letter as that of his solicitor. The other two were most likely duns or more pleas from Nicholas and Jane for him to pursue happiness and love. His frown deepened at the lack of a silver salver or even a wooden platter to deliver the messages upon. The silver had long since been sold, along with most of the paintings, furnishings, and anything else that could fetch a price and perhaps keep the creditors at bay for a few days more.
Jules reached for the first letter. As expected, it was from Grayson, but the contents were not what he had expected at all. His fingers tightened on the paper. He could only focus on a sampling of the words.
Your father… no money… unknown benefactor
. Jules closed his eyes and concentrated on his breathing. Then, very slowly, he opened his eyes and read the letter in its entirety.
It was then that the truth crept over him. His father had had nothing to do with his release. And Grayson had been unable to discover who had secured his freedom.
A chill worked its way across Jules’s neck. If not Jane or his father, then who had released him? The knowledge that he was indebted to some unknown benefactor shook him to his core. He would be beholden to no one, whoever that someone might be.
Jules drew another slow, deep breath at the blatant proof that his father had abandoned him. He stared up at the ceiling, feeling empty inside. God, it hurt to know that the man he once loved had never loved him in return.
But with his next heartbeat, he forced that pain and isolation away. He might have been denied a loving and decent family, but something good had come about regardless. Whoever had released him had given him a second chance. His life had come down to this moment, when he was broken and alone. Yet the opportunity to change everything was only a heartbeat away.
This was his moment and his crossroad. He could go down with his family, or fight for the life he wanted, despite it all.
Jules’s throat tightened and his palms grew damp.
“Milord,” Fin said, bringing him back to the present. When he failed to retrieve the other letters, Fin stepped closer, jiggling the folded paper in an attempt to gain his master’s attention.
Fin’s worn boot caught on the carpet and he pitched forward. The letters fell to the carpet in one direction as Fin fell the other.
Jules caught the old retainer before he went down, then guided him to the chair behind the desk. “Sit here, Fin. Catch your breath.”
“But the letters—”
“Are probably more debtor notices,” Jules said, flexing his right arm as he stepped back, grateful he had regained his strength over the last seven months. His time in gaol had stripped him of more than his soul.
“Nay,” Fin protested. “Lady Jane wrote one, but the other letter is in an unfamiliar hand.”
Jules’s curiosity won out. He bent to retrieve the letters. He paused for a moment as his fingers brushed the thick, intricately designed floor covering. It seemed odd that when everything else had been sold to pay the estate’s debts, the carpets still remained. He frowned and scooped up the letters. As Fin had stated, one letter was in an unfamiliar hand. The other was from Lady Jane Kincaid.
He broke the seal on Jane’s letter after tossing the other on the desk.
When I first heard from the lady herself that you had married, I must admit that I was hurt. I had so hoped to be included in your celebration. However, after meeting the glorious creature you now call wife I can understand your haste. She is, in every way, your perfect match. I forgive you and congratulate you on a job well done. I look forward to seeing you in two days when you can introduce all of us to your new bride properly.
Your friend always, Jane
It took the words a few moments to sink in. But when they did he dropped the letter on the desk. Jane had met Claire? How was it possible to meet someone who was merely a figment of his imagination?
“Milord?” Fin’s voice broke in.
He looked across the desk at his servant, trying to find the words, but all he had was a stark sudden fear. “This cannot be.”
“Beg pardon?” Fin’s eyes narrowed with concern.
Jules reached for the next letter and broke the seal. A feminine hand stared back at him.
Jules, my love,
I have been to see your friends, Lord and Lady Kincaid, as well as Lord and Lady Galloway, and invited them to visit us at Kildare Manor. Sir David Buchannan has agreed to escort me northward in two days’ time. Please have the house readied for our guests. Until then,
Yours truly, Claire
Jules swallowed hard, thinking. What madness was this? This letter was not written in the hand of his solicitor—the person he had hired to falsify his new bride. Claire did not exist. Would never exist.
Yet she was meeting his friends, and coming to him in two days’ time.
“Milord, yer scarin’ me. Ye got that look yer brother had right before he sliced himself through with a sword.” Fin’s voice brought Jules’s gaze around.
He shook his head in an effort to clear his thoughts. The motion did nothing as questions raced through his mind. For his servant’s sake, Jules pasted on a smile. “You need not worry, Fin. I am not so weak a man as that. I have endured much worse than this.” At least he hoped he had.
Jules continued. “It looks as though Kildare Manor will have no time for grief. We will be having visitors on Saturday. I will arrange for a few maids to come up from town to help with the preparations.”
Fin’s brow furrowed. “I mean ye no dishonor, milord, but we’ve no funds fer food, let alone cleanin’ women.”
Jules nodded as he dug his booted toe into the thick carpet beneath his soles. “I have a notion of where I can gather a few funds, at least enough to hold off the creditors for a while longer while I figure things out.”
Fin stood. “Very well, milord. You’d best enjoy yer tea before it grows cold. That was the last of the tea leaves. If ye need somethin’ stronger, there’s lots of whiskey still.”
Jules nodded as the servant shuffled out of the chamber, leaving him in silence. Whiskey seemed like a better option, Jules thought as he reached for the tea and poured himself a cup. Perhaps, in time, it would be his only option, just as it had been for his brother. But for now, he had work to do and a wife to meet.
In front of his friends, he would have no choice but to accept her, whoever she was. But once they were alone, he would discover what was behind this imposter’s game. In the meanwhile, for better or worse, definitely poorer than richer, a living, breathing Claire MacIntyre, Lady Kildare, would soon enter his life.