Authors: Gerri Russell
Border Lord's Bride
Gerri Russell on Kindle
Copyright © Gerri Russell
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.
The Borderlands, Scotland, 1332
A bitter chill having little to do with the winter weather ripped through Lucius Carr's soul. He reined his horse to a stop atop the hill just above his home. The manor house of the earls of Carrick sat at the bottom of the hill, flanked at each side by a tangle of rosebushes long since gone to their winter slumber. Yet in the summer their splendor would once again erupt into the joyous jumble his mother had so loved. Her home. Her flowers. Her children. She had nurtured them all.
'Twas probably a blessing then that she no longer lived to see what had become of her beloved family. Her sons had suffered terribly, and her girls might yet, if Lucius didn't keep heading toward the manor and accept the earldom.
Except that he didn't deserve the earldom, or any joy that might come from it all. His brother Marcus's words on the day he'd left Midwick Manor came back to him the way they always did in the darkness of the night.
You're running away from your family, your responsibility, and yourself, Lucius. You need to stay and fight for what it is you want in this life. If you don't, then you don't deserve anything good to come your way.
He had run that day, away from Marcus, away from his responsibility, as far and as fast as he could toward a dark and dangerous road with the Scottish Templars. But he hadn't traveled alone. His younger brother Peter had insisted on joining him. A familiar twist of guilt centered in Lucius's gut. Peter had followed him and had been burned at the stake by a madman as a result. All the Carr men had died, leaving only him.
A stinging regret mixed with a deep sense of grief, for all he'd run away from. His father had died weeks after his own departure. Marcus was dead these last two months, after a border raid by the English. And that wasn't all he'd lost.
His gaze drifted to another manor house in the distance, nestled in the woodlands as though content to disappear into the trees. At times he'd wished it had, along with those who resided there. His temper flared for a heartbeat before he squashed the sensation. He would no longer be molded by her whims. Nay, Elizabeth Huntingdon had no place in his life. She might be his neighbor, but that was all she'd ever be to him.
The only people who had any importance in his life were his sisters. They were the reason he was here, the reason he'd stopped running. Ruthlessly he shoved away his sense of loss and spurred his horse into a gallop, skimming the grassy field separating him from his home.
As dusk fell over the land, light spilled from three pairs of tall, narrow, leaded windows on the upper levels of Midwick Manor. The windows below were shuttered tightly against the cold of the late afternoon. Smoke from two chimneys wafted up toward skies that appeared ready to open any moment and release their burden of snow.
He made his way across the bridge dividing the manor house from the loch on the eastern side of their…his property. As his horse's hooves clipped across the wooden slats, Lucius's irritation sparked yet again. No one—neither a guard nor a retainer—challenged his approach.
Lucius didn't sense danger, but that didn't mean it wasn't there. He gripped his still-sheathed sword's hilt with white-knuckled force. He'd returned to what remained of his family. He'd promised to spare them from penury and keep them safe. He would educate them to the dangers lurking in the shadows, set a guard, and build up Midwick Manor's defenses. And with luck, it would be enough.
When he reached the stables, he startled the youth sweeping the floor. "Might I help ye, sir?" The lad's eyes widened as Lucius swung down from his horse. He bowed deeply and dropped his gaze to his feet. "Forgive me, milord! I dinna recognize ye."
"Give my horse a good rubdown and a bucket of oats." Lucius softened his tone as he handed the reins to the lad, then slipped a coin into his hand at the same time. "I've been gone a while, that much is true. But I'm back to stay."
The lad's eyes fixed on the coin. "Welcome home, milord."
"Where are the guards?"
" 'Tis only me, milord."
Lucius's hand tightened on his sword. He made his way down the finely laid brick pathway winding toward the massive oak doors that would take him inside. He hardly noticed the heavy wooden arches that made up the ceiling of the entryway and paid no attention to the walls of the hallway lined with the portraits of past earls of Carrick. He strode silently toward the back of the house with one purpose only, to find his sisters. The sound of laughter came from the room his mother had termed the ladies' parlor.
He came to an abrupt halt at the entrance to the chamber and relaxed his grip on his weapon, taking in the sight of his five sisters. They were not little girls anymore, but pretty young women. Lucius studied their animated faces and let their chatter flow over him. Something raw sliced him inside, revealing wounds that had never healed during his absence these last five years. He clenched his hands, then flexed them, wishing desperately he could capture this moment on canvas, stop time and guilt and pain, by indulging himself in a way he'd abandoned since he'd left.
He wished now that he had taken the time to paint Peter and Marcus, even his father, before they died. But that wasn't to be. Lucius drew a sharp breath. Suddenly all eyes turned toward the door.
As the room erupted in squeals of delight, his pain and regrets faded. A heartbeat later he found himself enfolded in his sisters' embraces—all five of them at once. He pressed his cheek to Rose's head and drew in a breath of her sweet scent
. He'd forgotten they perfumed themselves to smell like the flowers they were named for. Rose, Camellia, Heather, Iris, and Lily.
"Lucius! You're home! We've missed you! You look different. Welcome back!" They were all talking at once and laughing.
And the memory of what he'd run away from flooded him. His throat went tight and his chest ached at the warmth of his sisters' love. He swallowed roughly as he tried to force the unfamiliar sensations away. It was too much. Much more than he deserved. He deserved only darkness and shadows and pain for what he'd put them through.
He wasn't sure when the girls' laughter changed to tears, but it did.
"We've been without a brother for two months now," Camellia cried.
"We didn't know what was to become of us," Rose whispered as the girls clung to him. "We would have lost everything if you hadn't come home."
Lucius simply held them in return and tried to fight a deep sense of guilt as tears burned the back of his own throat. "We are together now," he said over the girls' blonde heads. "Nothing and no one can tear us apart."
It seemed like forever until the weeping turned to sniffles and soft hitches of breath. Slowly, the girls peeled themselves away. Rose, the eldest, separated herself first. She stepped back toward the hearth and delicately swiped at the tears still lingering on her cheeks with the back of her hand.
Rose had matured into a beautiful young lady. He frowned at the realization that she must be close to eighteen now. Instead of socializing with other boys and girls her age, she'd been forced to take up much of the responsibility he had forsaken. Lucius offered her as brotherly a smile as he could muster. He'd make it up to her. Somehow he'd see that she reclaimed that part of her youth he'd denied her.
"Would you like some tea, brother?" Camellia asked as she, too, pulled out of his grasp. She twisted her long golden hair over her shoulder as she turned her attention to pouring out a cup of steaming beverage. Lucius did not miss how the cup trembled in her hands as she did. Camellia was the beauty of the family. At sixteen, she too deserved to be far more social than her current situation allowed.
Heather hiccupped loudly and ruffled her hand through her short, pale gold curls as she detached herself. "You cannot know how worried we were after Marcus died. Uncle Horatio kept coming to visit, and every time he came, more of the servants disappeared. We have only Hadwell and Marie to care for us now."
Heather sank into a chair next to a table holding several stitchery looms and a mass of tangled thread. The fourteen-year-old picked up one of the looms, bowed her head, and fixed her attention to the embroidery she'd abandoned upon his entrance. But even her sudden feigned absorption didn't hide the fear etched plainly on her thin face.
"Only Hadwell and Marie remain?" Lucius asked, dropping his gaze to the two sisters still in his arms. They'd had two score servants, at one time.
"Heather is exaggerating," Camellia said in her clear, melodic voice. "There are others, but not many."
Iris clung to his leg as though refusing to let go of him ever again. She had grown so much since he'd seen her last. She must be nearly eight years old now.
Lily had been an infant when he'd left. The youngest, at six, she pulled away from his other leg and nodded, sending her golden curls bobbing.
Lucius frowned. There had to be more to the story, something the girls weren't saying. "I'm here and willing to take my place as your guardian and as the Earl of Carrick. Uncle Horatio has no further claim to Midwick Manor now that I am home."
"Not unless you die," Iris said with a slight lisp, her lips turned down in a pout. She gripped his leg all the harder.
"Well, it's settled then, because I have no intention of dying." He gave Iris a squeeze and disentangled her from his leg with a cheerful smile, despite the sudden unease his sisters' words had sparked in him.
The room erupted into conversation once more as his sisters hurled one question after another at him.
"What was it like being a Templar?" Rose asked, edging closer to him, her face alight with interest.
"Did you have to kill anyone?" Iris asked with a frown.
"Were you lonely without us?" Camellia plopped into the chair opposite Heather and plucked at the embroidery threads on the table between them.
"Heaven above, what's with the chatter?" a familiar voice called from the hallway. Hadwell hastened through the doorway, his gaze passing over each sister until it came to rest on Lucius. The estate's steward startled for a moment before his face wreathed in a smile. "Praise the saints! Lord Carrick. From the message ye sent, we weren't expectin' ye to arrive 'til tomorrow. Marie'll be in a tither when she finds out. She was savin' the hindquarter for supper tomorrow." The middle-aged man, who'd spent forty of his fifty years in service at Midwick Manor, expelled a soft grunt as he bowed.
Lucius placed a hand on the retainer's shoulder, encouraging the man to rise. "We need not be so formal, Hadwell."
"Me old back thanks ye, lad." His eyes went wide. "Forgive me—milord."
Lucius turned back to the room. "Girls, excuse me. We can talk more over supper. Hadwell and I have things to discuss." Lucius turned to his steward. "Come," he said, setting off for the great hall, where they could talk more openly. He paused before the arched oak double doors. "I need to know everything that has happened here at Midwick Manor since I've been gone." He pushed the doors open and signaled Hadwell to enter.
The man hesitated, and wariness flickered in his eyes for an instant before the look vanished. He stepped inside the empty hall. "Ye and Peter, God rest his soul, have been gone, what, five years, followin' the Templars?"