A Laird for Christmas
    Nicholas did not lower his weapon as he stepped out of the shadows. “The better question is who are you?”
    She fumbled with her skirts as she stepped back outside. “I came to meet my brother, the woodcutter. He lives here. I saw the horses and worried he might be in trouble.”
    Nicholas kept his grip firm on his sword, still uncertain about the woman or her purpose in the woods. “Who is your brother?” Nicholas asked, watching her response.
    The girl paled. “I told you. He is the woodcutter here.”
    “His name.” Nicholas stepped toward the intruder. “If he was your brother, then what was his name?”
    “P-Peter,” she said with a hint of triumph in her voice.
    “And your name?”
    “Clara-Clarisa. Clarisa.”
    Nicholas’s instincts warned him that all was not right with this girl. But he honestly could not tell if the girl had a simple nature, or if she were having a difficult time recalling her brother and her own name. She appeared harmless enough.
    “Where is my brother?” she asked again.
    “He is not here.” Nicholas eased his grip on his sword.
    Her eyes narrowed. “Then what are you doing here?”
    Nicholas studied the woman. Was she the one who had attacked Jane that morning? A thin serving girl? She appeared too slight and inexperienced to launch the weapon that had taken down Jane’s horse. “We needed to rest before we returned to the castle.”
    Nicholas sheathed his sword, but his senses remained on alert. He moved back toward Jane as his protective instincts heightened. Never would he take chances with Jane’s life. If the girl were involved in Jane’s accident, she had to be working with someone else.
    The girl scowled. “You’re from the castle? I have never seen you before.”
    Jane stepped around him. “Perhaps not, but I am from Bellhaven.”
    At the sight of Jane, the young woman’s eyes widened. She dropped into a curtsey, bowing her head, or blocking her face from full view. Nicholas was not certain which. “Milady, I had no idea ’twas you.”
    By the inflection in her voice, the girl sounded genuinely surprised at Jane’s presence. As the young girl straightened, Nicholas turned his attention to Jane. Her face was calm, but a slight crease settled across her forehead as she studied the young, flaxen-haired woman. Neither woman spoke as they sized up each other. Finally, Jane turned back to him. “We all need to return to the castle. At least there we are safe.”
    Jane’s last word trailed off and Nicholas knew she was thinking about the times at the castle when someone had threatened her life. She was not safe, neither in nor out of the castle. Was she even safe in the presence of her suitors? The thought made Nicholas uneasy, for he knew he could not have exclusive rights to Jane. Not while this ridiculous competition was underway. Something inside him twisted at the thought, but he forced it away. He needed to remind Jane of what they once shared and let the memories bring her back to him.
    Wasting precious moments in the cottage would not serve him there. He gently took Jane’s hand in his. “Come, let us return to the castle.”
    Jane started at the touch of his hand, almost as though the feel of his roughness against her softness were a foreign kindness. She tightened her fingers around his and scorched him all the way to his heart. He swallowed, then stiffened as he led Jane outside.
    Nicholas made certain at all times that the flaxen-haired girl was in front of them. He watched her mount the horse she had taken from Bellhaven before he set Jane upon his horse. They would once again share an animal since Jane’s horse was no longer in sight. Presumably instinct had sent the injured animal back to the castle. He would make certain to find the beast when they returned and treat any possible wounds.
    “After you,” Nicholas said to the girl, waving her in front of them. He had no intention of giving her access to Jane or a chance to run away.

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