Authors: Gerri Russell
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2014 Gerri Russell All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Montlake Romance, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Montlake Romance are trademarks of
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Cover design by Visual Quill Cover photo by Jenn LeBlanc / Illustrated Romance Library of Congress Control Number: 2013921708
To my children, Adam, Justin, and Melissa, for your love, your patience, and the incredible happiness you’ve added to my life. And to the Montlake team, especially Maria Gomez, for the tremendous skill and enthusiasm you bring to everything you do. You have my devotion and my respect.
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 died when it stopped three weeks ago, and his troubled brother had drowned himself in whiskey two days later. They both lay dead in the family crypt, alongside the woman who had sent Jules to gaol for sixteen months and twenty-seven days.
He had been blamed for his stepmother’s 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, such as how he would restore the manor and farmland that had gone to ruin, how he would pay off the debts that threatened to drown him as they did his brother, and, now that he was laird, how he could avoid the burden of marriage. Lady Jane Lennox had been the only woman for him, and she had given her heart to another man.
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. His desire to learn how to use a sword was what had started all his problems, that and a madwoman who had invaded his father’s life. Now, the swords remained and all the other players were gone, and the house echoed with their ghosts.
He was alone in his life and in this house, with only an aged servant and a desk full of mail for company. With a flick of attention toward three stacks of letters on the corner of the desk, Jules stood and paced the room. The largest stack contained dun notices 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. The memory of his dark, dank cell came flooding back.
He drew a deep breath, trying to force the images away, but they were too overpowering. The smell of rotting flesh filled his senses. Heavy manacles tugged at his wrists and ankles. Darkness weighed heavy on him, stole his breath. It was cold, so very cold . . .
Jules shuddered, the motion snapping him back to the present. With an effort, he forced 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 his friends, 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.
He released a heavy sigh. The problem was 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.
If such a sentiment actually existed.
Disgusted by the thought, Jules paced the chamber, contemplating the faded walls where paintings had once hung. Even if he ignored his own emotions, he still had a problem with Jane and Nicholas’s appeal for him 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 happiness ever. And requited love? He didn’t believe such a thing could exist, not for him. Not ever.
Jules stopped pacing 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 cold emptiness of his soul. Happiness was a rare commodity. And wanting something more than what life had offered him so far would only lead the way to 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 discreet dalliances. She did not expect his adoration or his love. She never spent money. And best of all, she always kept her opinions to herself.
Claire was the perfect invention, and his only salvation.
He had created Claire to distance himself from Jane and Nicholas and keep them from interfering in his life. He did not want to be near their happiness, or be reminded of his own unrequited love. But Claire, even if simply on paper and an invention between himself and his solicitor, would help him far more than he had ever imagined at her inception. She would allow him the time he needed to untangle the mess his father and brother had left behind. If he was lucky, she would also keep the creditors at bay. Who wasn’t sympathetic to a newlywed couple in their first weeks of life together? It might give him time to find some way to save the estate.
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 Jules had not requested.
“I brought ye somethin’ tae ease yer pain.” Fin said, setting the tea upon the carpeted 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 and poison himself with whiskey.
“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 four letters.
Jules frowned at the messages. He recognized the tight and neat handwriting on the top letter as that of his solicitor. The other three were most likely duns or more pleas from Nicholas and Jane for him to pursue happiness and love.
Jules’s 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 all of the paintings, most of the furnishings, and anything else that could fetch a price and keep the creditors at bay for a few days more.
Jules reached for the first letter. As expected, it was from his solicitor, Grayson, but the contents were not what he had counted upon at all. Ever since Jules had created his wife, Grayson had stepped into the role of her scribe and had been sending him one letter each week for the past five weeks in the voice of Claire.
Jules’s fingers tightened on the letter. He could only focus on a few 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.
He had waited for this information for the past seven months, since his release from gaol. He supposed he could have come home and asked his father himself, but he had hired Grayson to do the investigation instead, wanting nothing more to do with the father who had closed his eyes to his own wife’s machinations.
Regardless of his father’s past sins, Jules had wanted to know the truth about his release. Grayson had discovered part of what Jules longed to know. His father and brother had not had the funds to pay his ransom and release him from gaol. But they also hadn’t come to visit or bring him a scrap of food, or even a blanket, some small comfort to ease his pain. And, to add more misery to his already overburdened soul, Grayson was no more able to discover who had secured Jules’s freedom than he had during his own investigation. It was why Jules had gone to Edinburgh after he had left Bellhaven Castle and Jane behind. He needed answers about who had offered him this unknown kindness.
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, no matter who that one might be.
Jules drew another slow, deep breath at the blatant proof his father had abandoned him. He stared up at the ceiling, feeling empty inside. God, it hurt to know the man he once loved had not cared enough to rescue him, and had never loved him in return.
But with his next breath, Jules 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 paid his ransom and released him from gaol 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 Jules 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 to the other.
Jules caught the old retainer as 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 female hand.”
Jules’s curiosity won out. He bent to retrieve the letters. He paused for a moment as his fingers brushed the thick, intricately woven tapestry on the table and floors. 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.
He broke the seal on Jane’s letter after tossing the others on the desk.
When I first heard from the lady herself that you had married, I must admit 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, Jules dropped the letter on the desk. How was it possible to meet a person 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 despite his confusion. “This cannot be.”
“Beg pardon?” Fin’s eyes narrowed with concern.
Jules reached for the next letter, which was from Claire, the one he knew to be written by Grayson. It was exactly as they had discussed—containing trivialities about her daily life. Isn’t that the sort of letter a wife would write to her husband?
He tossed that letter aside and reached for the other letter in the unfamiliar female hand, and broke the seal. Neat and fluid lettering filled the page.
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. The couples as well as Sir David Buchanan have agreed to escort me northward in two days’ time. Please have the house readied for our guests. Until then.
Yours truly, Claire
His vision blurred and the room faded from view as a sense of disorientation consumed him. Was this a scam of some sort? Had someone discovered his secret and now intended to take advantage? Who would do such a thing? And how in God’s name had they discovered his secret?
Jules swallowed hard, thinking. What madness was this? Was Grayson somehow involved? His solicitor was the only person who knew the truth, the one who had been paid to falsify his new bride. Claire did not exist. Would never exist.
Yet someone claiming to be his wife was meeting his friends, and coming to him in two days’ time.
He had known the moment he arrived at Kildare Manor that the immediate solution to his problem was to marry a rich bride, yet even now he preferred a fake spouse to one with funds, because a false bride would never see his faults and could never hurt him. Jules raked his hands through his hair. A wife? A real wife?