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Authors: Patricia Potter

The heart queen

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THE HEART QUEENPatricia Potter

JOVE BOOKS, NEW YORK

 

Copyright Š 2001 by Patricia Potter.

ISBN: 0-515-13098-2

Dedicated to the memory of Ralph Cramer, a true hero both on and off the battlefield

Prologue

Scotland, 1738

Neil Forbes had never believed in broken hearts. He’d never believed in love, either.

Unfortunately, he’d been wrong on both counts.

He realized his error as he stood before the Marquis of Braemoor and knew he had the first, and could never have the second. He wasn’t good enough for Janet Leslie. He never would be.

He’d come into this room prepared to fight the marquis, to fight Janet’s father and even to fight dragons for her. But he couldn’t fight what he was or what he wasn’t. He focused on the man facing him ...

“Your mother was mad,” the marquis said. “The taint runs in your family. Do you want to pass it on? That you even thought you could make such a marriage proves you are already afflicted.”

Each word was like pounding nails into flesh. At twenty-four, Neil had never before considered the consequences of his mother’s illness. He’d been a child when his mother, Cierra, had died. He’d known he was a bastard, conceived with a married lord not her husband, a lord who was brother to the current Marquis of Braemoor and who was long dead without any other blood heirs. Other than his cousin Donald and Donald’s youngest brother, Rory, Neil was the only direct blood descendent in this branch of the Forbes family. That was the reason why he had been brought here, he knew, even though his bastardy made him an outsider. It was rumored that Rory was fathered by another man, that the marquis had been cuckolded by the wife he hated. Neil knew his role at the keep was to diminish Rory, a hammer over Rory’s head.

“The madness was not confined to your mother,” the marquis said. “Her mother also committed suicide, as did a brother. You say you love the gel. If you love her, you will give up this idea. You can never marry, Neil,” he continued, then added solemnly, “I promised your grandfather I would make you understand that.”

Neil felt cold. Very cold, despite the warmth in the hall. “You never—”

“I dinna tell you because I dinna think it necessary. You showed little interest in wedding.”

“I donna believe you,” he said. “I...”

“Your mother and her mother’s blood was cursed. ‘Twas the reason my brother would no take responsibility for you. You should be grateful that I did when your mother became so... ill.” the marquis said. “That I gave you the Forbes name.”

The words tattooed themselves on his soul. He remembered his mother sitting in a tower room, singing to herself, ignoring the child at her feet who was desperate for a response. But there had been no one inside that shell.

He realized now he couldn’t risk the same thing happening to those who might love him. What if he became that shell? And what of the children that might be born of a union with him?

Why hadn’t he considered it? Because he’d never been in love before. Because he had never questioned his young years when he had been shut away in a falling-down castle, hidden from other eyes. Because when he had joined the Braemoor household as a companion to the heir, he had known he had noble blood even if it was tainted by bastardy.

He had not expected to fall in love. He’d never wanted anything so desperately before. He’d never thought his soul would cease to exist without one particular woman.

And by some miracle, she’d felt the same. Janet Leslie last night had pledged him her heart.

Janet, who was like a summer sunset. Glowing with beauty, peace, tranquility. Donald had called her a mousy bluestocking. But that was because Donald liked full-buxomed lasses who didn’t have enough wit to argue with him.

Janet... well, Janet was slender with light brown hair that gleamed when the sun hit it just right. Her eyes were a dark blue that seemed depthless to him, and she had freckles on her nose that he always wanted to touch ... to kiss.

It had happened so fast. He’d been transfixed when she first entered the hall with her father. Even wearied from the journey, she had a grace and dignity that had held his gaze. She’d been there, he knew, to meet Donald, as a potential bride for the Braemoor heir. But Donald, though tall and handsome, had been drunk. Her eyes had been dismissive, and had turned to him ... and something had happened. Bells had started ringing, nerves tingled, senses jangled. He’d known it was happening to her, too. Her eyes had widened and her lips parted in a half smile.

He’d known she was meant for Donald. Both the fathers wanted it. But that didn’t matter. He was drawn to her as though she were a lodestone.

They’d managed to meet alone one peaceful afternoon. She’d slipped away from a hunting party, and he’d followed. They found themselves next to a bubbling stream, the water lit like diamonds by the rays of an afternoon sun....

She was still mounted. He’d eased down from his horse and went to her, holding out his hands. She slipped into his arms and made no effort to move away. His arms tightened around her. Magic. Enchantment. Sorcery. Neil didn’t know which applied, or mayhap they all did. He only knew he never wanted to let her go.

They met again. And again. They slipped up to the parapet at night, or met at a nearby loch, or explored caves that dotted the moss green hills that surrounded Braemoor. They talked. They kissed. They couldn’t stop touching each other. They wanted to do so much more.

But Neil remembered his mother who’d been ruined by having a bairn out of wedlock.

“We will wed,” he said. “My uncle wants an alliance with the Leslies. He will agree if you do not accept Donald.” He tried to convince himself of that. He was, after all, a Forbes in blood and carried the name.

She made a face. “My father has always said I would not ha‘ to marry against my will. He wants me to be happy, and Donald ... frightens me.” She paused, then, and her gaze met his. “Even if the families do not agree, I will go with you. Wherever we can. But,” she added, “Father will agree. I know he will.”

He’d kissed her then. The skies shook. Or was it the thunder roaring across the heavens?

They’d both been wrong.

Neil hadn’t known how wrong until a few moments ago. Bastard. Madness. Taint. He could overcome the first. He couldn’t overcome the latter two.

He should have known, should have never allowed his hopes—so powerful and unexpected—to defy reality. How many times had his uncle told him he was lucky to have been taken in, that he, Neil, owed a great debt to him? He’d trained in arms with a Forbes clansman, then was brought to Braemoor where he’d continued his training and had been tutored with his cousin, Donald. In turn, he’d been expected always to look after him.

And Neil had done as he was told. He’d tried to temper Donald’s cruelties, especially those toward Donald’s brother Rory. But any championing Neil did brought even more grief upon the younger Forbes. So he had stood aside, refusing to participate in the bullying but doing nothing to stop it.

He’d finally learned to keep his opinions to himself. He took lessons with Donald and was grateful for that. He taught himself about the estate because no one else seemed to care. He’d found that he loved the land, and he read about ways of improving the yield. The old marquis laughed at his efforts, calling them pretensions, but still he used Neil to keep the books. Donald had never been good at sums and Neil’s work saved him the cost of a servant.

Neil had, in fact, made himself so useful that he’d believed the marquis would not begrudge him this chance.

The marquis broke the silence. “And, of course, you know you will not inherit one farthing from me if you marry, if you risk continuing the madness. How would you support a wife? Particularly one with such a background.”

And now his hopes lay shattered around him like so much glass. He realized he would never be more than a servant here. Even worse, he knew he could never marry.

He’d known he’d been born a bastard. God knew Donald had called him that enough times. Just as Donald had called young Rory the same. Except Rory had a legal father, if not a blood one. The fact that Rory’s mother might have cozened her husband, the marquis, did not have the legal consequences of a child conceived out of wedlock.

But Neil had loyalty to the marquis who had taken him in. Blind loyalty, he knew now.

He’d learned in the past few moments that he was no more to the marquis than the least of the stable boys. His uncle had taken pleasure in the interview. Neil had sensed that. And he believed he knew why. In his foolishness, he had thought his uncle would welcome the marriage because the dowry would still come to Braemoor.

In his foolishness, he’d not considered the blow to his cousin’s pride. Nor to the marquis’s.

A penniless bastard with madness in his family had succeeded where the young lord had not.

After facing the sneer on the marquis’s face, he considered leaving Braemoor. Yet he realized he was all that stood between a brutal marquis and his tenants, between Donald and his younger brother.

“Don’t see the gel again,” his uncle warned. “Now get out of here.”

Neil left the room. How could he have been such a fool? He’d entered with such high hopes and expectations. And if it had not been for his mother, he would have asked Janet Leslie to be his wife regardless. He was good with the land, with animals. They could go somewhere else.

But could he really have asked her to give up everything and live in poverty?

More importantly, could he ask her to share the risk of madness?

He was supposed to meet her that very afternoon at the same place they’d met days earlier.

He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t tell her the reasons why he could not marry her. Even an indulgent father would not approve of madness. He didn’t want—couldn’t—ask her to defy her father. He remembered how she had touched his face, how she’d sworn to run away with him if her father, and his uncle—or either of them—forbade the marriage.

He simply could not do that to her. He could not ask her to make a decision like that. He had to tell her that he knew she would not receive the dowry, that his uncle would disinherit him. He would have to lie and tell her it mattered.

Otherwise, he feared, she would hope and wait and try to convince her father. Even if he told her about the madness, he wondered whether she would accept it.

No. He had to make it possible that she would find a love match with someone else. It would break his heart but might save hers....

He’d never had a noble thought. He’d survived by doing the will of others. He’d not been heroic. But for the first time he was doing something selfless.

Even if she hated him for it.

Chapter One

Scotland, 1747

No one should pray for another’s death.

Janet knew she would go to hell for doing it. She’d couldn’t even confess her sins since Catholicism had been banished. It wouldn’t have mattered, in any event. She couldn’t repent them in her heart.

How could she have ever deluded herself about Alasdair Campbell? How could she ever have wed him?

But as she sat in the nursery, her body still hurting from the beating he’d just inflicted and rocking the cradle that held her young son, she knew exactly why.

In the next room slept three little girls. She’d fallen in love with them, not their father.

Oh, Alasdair had played the charming and loving father who’d needed a mother for his children. It was the one argument that had won her consent. She’d hungered for children.

After Neil’s betrayal, she thought she would never again succumb to love’s seduction. And she hadn’t. She’d even thought her heart incapable of loving again.

She’d turned down every suitor paraded by her father. Two years passed, then four and finally six since she’d received the note from Neil, saying that he’d decided against marrying her, that her dowry would not bring what he had expected. He’d not even had the courtesy to tell her in person. Instead, he’d fled Braemoor, leaving only the cruel note behind.

She’d been shattered. Not only shattered, but she had lost her faith in her own judgment. She’d never regained what she had lost that day.

She’d known she would not—could not—love a man again. It was far too painful. But she loved children. Her heart no longer yearned for a husband because she no longer believed that men could love as she wanted to love, and be loved. But she’d also wanted children. She’d longed to hold a bairn in her arms, to watch a lass take her first steps and a lad mount his first pony.

And when Alasdair Campbell courted her, bringing his three young motherless daughters with him, she’d promptly fallen in love with them, not him.

And so she had agreed to marry him.

He was handsome and outwardly charming. His daughters had been too well mannered, too quiet for children, but she hadn’t put the two together until it was too late. Even then, though, she may have taken the chance.

She had been completely beguiled by the wee lassies. They’d been silent and shy. But then, they’d lost a mother. She wanted them to smile, laugh, play. And so she’d given her consent despite her father’s concern that the Campbells were Protestant and, in fact, loyal allies of King George, whereas the Leslies had favored the Jacobites.

Janet had become the new Countess of Lochaene, wife to the Earl of Lochaene. She’d soon found a household ripped by hatred, envy and greed. Her predecessor, Isabella, had died in childbirth when she bore Annabella. Or was it, Janet often wondered, simply an escape?

If so, it had been a disastrous one for her children. They lived in constant fear of their father; his mother, the dowager countess; and her husband’s younger brother. The latter had been particularly displeased at the birth of her own son, Colin, ten months earlier.

Colin and the wee lassies were the only good things to come from her marriage. She loved the earl’s daughters as if they were her own. She nurtured them, taught them, protected them—which accounted for her recent bruises.

Annabella, all of five years old, had failed to move fast enough when Alasdair had strode past her. In fact, she had been rooted to the floor in fear. Her older sister had stepped in and tried to push her out of the way, only to be struck by a crop.

She’d screamed and Janet had interfered, placing herself between Alasdair and the children. He’d gone red with rage.

“I’ll do as I wish with my children.”

“No,” she said. She’d held her tongue so many other times. She’d realized defiance only spurred his bouts of rage. But she would rather be the focus of his rage than a child who didn’t even know what she’d done wrong.

“No?” he’d replied, his voice friendly. But she knew what lay beneath it.

His hand clenched her arm painfully and he dragged her into his room. They didn’t share the same room, for which she thanked God. She had an adjoining room, and she was more than aware of the women he took to his chamber. She was grateful each time because that meant he wouldn’t enter hers.

She’d made an art of keeping out of his way, and more importantly keeping the children out of his sight. But this time they’d darted out the door, eager for a promised picnic. Janet had not realized Alasdair had returned from a hunting party.

He threw her on the bed. “You will never say no to me again,” he said, as he flicked the crop still in his hand. “You have never learned your place, Jacobite bitch.”

Her blood froze at the words. The last year had been a horror in the highlands. After the Battle of Culloden, every Jacobite family had been hunted and persecuted. Her brother had died fighting for Prince Charlie and her father’s lands and properties had been taken, but not before he’d died trying to protect them.

She’d had no one to protect her then, no one who really loved her. No one but three little girls, ages five, six, and seven.

And a memory. A memory of a lovely sun-kissed day.

She’d hung onto that as he’d torn clothes from her, as the crop fell over her shoulders, then across her breasts, and finally her back. Then he’d taken off his own clothes and dropped down on her, oblivious to the pain of her body. Oblivious and uncaring.

She tried to think of something else as he used her. She thought about leaving him, but where could she go with four children under the age of eight? How could she care for them? Feed them? Clothe them? She could leave on her own, but then what of the children? Alasdair would never let his son go. He’d comb the entire country before relinquishing his heir. The lasses meant nothing to him. They were lasses, worthless. But her son ... he was something to mold into his image.

Over her dead body.

Or his.

And he’d known it. His eyes had narrowed after he’d left the bed.

“You haven’t learned obedience to your lord yet, my dear. How many lessons do you require, stupid wench?”

She’d glared helplessly at him just as a knock came at the door.

Alasdair opened it to MacKnight, his valet. He had a bottle of brandy on a tray. His eyes widened as she frantically tried to cover up her body with torn clothes.

“A little lesson, MacKnight. One you need to remember if you are so foolish as to marry.”

Janet had learned two years earlier not to give Alasdair the satisfaction of tears. But as the door closed, she said, “Someone is going to kill you someday.”

“A threat, my dear?”

“Nay, a promise, if you hurt the children again.”

“I will do as I wish with my children. You will not interfere again. I will expect you at supper this evening. I have some guests.”

He left then, the door closing behind him with deceptive softness.

Janet lay still for a moment, her body aching from his abuse. She refused to cry. That would give him power. Even if he was not there to see it. After several moments, she rose, dressed painfully, then went to see the children.

The lasses were huddled in the corner, and her son was screaming. Fixing a smile on her face, she’d told them they would have a picnic the next day. She soothed her son, feathering his face with kisses. When he’d finally calmed, she put him down in his bed and helped the lasses into their nightclothes. She stayed to tell them a story and sing a lullaby. Finally, their eyes closed.

She sat next to her son, watching him sleep. Less than a year old and he already flinched at the sight of his father. She feared that one day Alasdair would lose his temper and seriously hurt one of the children. She’d seen him do that to a puppy that wandered in his way. She’d nursed it, found it a good home. She’d never allowed the children another pet.

She swallowed hard . .. and thought of Neil Forbes, of how different she’d once believed her life would be. But then she’d been nineteen, and believed love really existed. She’d believed in his gentleness, in his kisses, in his awkward but seemingly honest words, the sweet explosiveness between them. She’d been ready to give up everything for him. The disillusionment had been bitter and long lasting.

He’d had little then. And he had not been willing to settle for what little dowry she would bring. Now he was one of the wealthiest men in Scotland. He’d inherited the title of Marquis of Braemoor after the death of his cousin at the hands of the notorious Black Knave. His lands had expanded through his cousin’s marriage. He was said to have the ear of Butcher Cumberland.

He hadn’t needed her at all.

But he hadn’t married. She knew that. There had been talk of trying to interest him in her husband’s younger sister. Braemoor had rebuffed all overtures. He obviously was hoping for an even more advantageous marriage.

He could have anyone in Scotland now. Not only was he wealthy, but he also cut a fine figure. She remembered his height, his raven hair that had curled around her fingers, the dark eyes that were always cautious until they looked into hers.

She shook her head of the memories. He had not been what she had thought. He was probably no better than her husband.

Then why did he haunt her dreams so?

Loneliness sliced through Neil as sharply as the blade tore through the meat on the table at the wedding party.

He stood in a corner and watched the merriment as one of his tenants danced with his new bride. A fiddler played a lively tune and ale flowed like a river.

He would leave soon. He knew he was not an enlivening influence on the celebration. He knew he was respected though not particularly liked. He’d been alone too long, wary too many years to relax and enjoy the company of others.

It was one of his greatest regrets. Only recently had Neil discovered how deep his cousin’s friendships had run, what great loyalty he’d inspired. Neil had learned that all too late. He wished now he’d looked behind his cousin’s outer facade to the man beneath.

Rory, Neil knew, would have felt right at home here where he—well—felt like an intruder.

He’d felt an intruder all his life, even now that he was Marquis of Braemoor. It was a position that he’d always wanted and even thought should be his. He’d thought he cared more for the land and people than Rory had. In truth, Neil now knew it was he, Neil, who hadn’t had the slightest idea of honor or courage or commitment.

In the months since Rory’s supposed death, Neil had tried to rectify his own life, to make it mean something, but he didn’t know how to make a friend, or keep one. He didn’t know how to relax over a tankard of ale. When he tried, he’d beendiscomfited and knew everyone with him was, too.

And so he maintained his distance. He tried to do the right thing by his tenants, keeping them on the land rather than evicting them as so many other landlords were doing. The last vestiges of the clan system had been broken at Culloden Moor. Clearances were common. He had to pay heavy taxes to the crown to keep the land, which meant he had to produce revenue. Like others, he’d turned some land over to grazing, but he’d tried not to turn anyone out.

The tenants knew that. Still, he realized he was never going to be their friend.

He gazed around at the whirling figures. No bagpipes. They’d been outlawed by Cumberland, as had been plaids. Instead, the men wore rawhide brogans and cheap breeches.

The music stopped and the dancers huddled in small groups, none of them near him. He sighed, then forcing his lips into a smile went up to young Hiram Forbes and handed him a small purse. “For you and your bride,” he said.

The girl curtsied and Hiram looked surprised, then pleased. “Thank ye, my lord.”

“I wish you many bairns,” Neil said, even as he felt the emptiness in his own soul, in his life. He would never have bairns, nor a wife looking at him as the young lass looked at her new husband. ‘Twas obviously a love match, and he ached inside that he could never see that look again.

Once. He’d seen it once. He’d seen himself in eyes shining with love, and he’d felt ten feet tall. He’d never felt that way since.

He turned and walked away, well aware that no one asked him to linger. He mounted his waiting horse, Jack. Back to the tower house?

That was a lonely thought. Since Rory and his wife, Bethia, left, the life seemed drained from the stone structure. On a rare impulse, he headed Jack toward the loch up beyond the hill, the one where he’d met Janet years earlier. Nine years and three months earlier, to be exact. She was married now, to a Campbell. She had a son.

The thought brought a familiar ache to his heart. He’d kept up with the gossip about her. He’d heard that her brother had fallen at Culloden where he’d fought for Prince Charlie. He knew that her father had died shortly afterward and that all his estates had been forfeit. He also knew that Janet’s husband had not received the Leslie estates, probably because he had not joined Cumberland at Culloden. Instead, they’d reverted to the king who had awarded them to an Englishman whohadfought with him.

He’d remember how much she’d loved her father. Unfamiliar with prayer, he nonetheless had stopped in the small chapel next to the tower house and prayed for her and the man he’d once hoped would be his father-in-law. He doubted whether God had heeded his prayer; he’d not been practiced at such an undertaking. And he had his own doubts about the value of prayer and even the very existence of God. He’d seen too much cruelty, too much inequality, too much killing. If God permitted such injustices, then what use was He?

Still, for Janet’s sake, he’d tried.Little enough.

It was very late afternoon when he reached the loch. The sun was setting, spreading streaks of color across a cinnamon sky. The last rays colored the loch with a sprinkling of gold and the surrounding hills were dark with heather.

The quiet serenity of the Highlands usually quenched the ache inside him. Tonight, it sharpened the pain, deepened it until it overtook everything he was. It smothered him. He saw Janet Leslie, her brown hair framing a serious yet delicate face, her eyes banked with quiet fires of passion. He saw the shy smile, thought of the sweetness of her touch, remembered how it had turned sensuous, yet never lost its gentleness.

God, how he longed for her, for someone to touch, to talk to, to share the simple pleasure of a sunset.

“You and me, Jack,” he said to the horse. He’d named the beast as a reminder of Rory. The stallion was as duplicitous as his cousin—calm one moment, all rebellion the next. Wild and longing to be free.

Everything Neil wanted to be but couldn’t. He was grounded in responsibility, in practicality.

Rory’s disguises from his days as the Black Knave were still hidden in a cottage now abandoned. Neil knew he should destroy them, but he’d never quite been able to do so. They represented something to him, a reminder that never again should he judge another human being so heedlessly.

He watched the sunset fade into dusk. A mist rose over the lake, softly eclipsing it.

He turned Jack toward Braemoor and thought again of Rory. Would he ever be as courageous as his cousin? As bold? Even as honorable? Or was he just fated to plod along, waiting for the madness that had overtaken his mother?

He walked Jack down the treacherous path back to rolling land, then mounted. He urged the animal into a trot, then a canter and finally a gallop. He wanted to leave the ghosts behind.

But he knew they would always lurk deep inside.

Alasdair Campbell, the Earl of Lochaene, died in the wee hours of a Friday. He died in agonizing pain.

Janet had been summoned by a servant and hurried to his bedside. His mother and one of his brothers were at his side.

“The physician has been summoned,” Alasdair’s mother, the dowager countess, said.

The earl was no longer handsome. His face was pale and distorted, his hair lank, his body twisted with agony. He screamed with pain.

“Dear God,” Janet whispered. “What happened?”

The dowager countess, Marjorie, looked at her with suspicion in her eyes. “He was well earlier.”

As mistress of Lochaene, Janet had often attended sick and wounded members of the household. She’d done the same back at her own home.

She was alarmed at the white in her husband’s eyes, the obvious pain he felt. For all his faults, Alasdair was not one to moan. If he said he was sick, he was really sick. She recalled her thoughts three days earlier. She’d wanted him dead.

But now faced with just that, she knew she didn’t want it at all. She did not want to be responsible for another’s death, even that of one she despised.

She had no idea, though, what was wrong with him. His servant said he’d been sick since last evening with pain in his stomach, that he’d been vomiting.

Marjorie glared at her. “What did you do to him?”

A chill ran down Janet’s back. “Nothing. I have not seen him today, and he was fine yesterday.”

“Exactly,” the dowager countess said. “Nigel said you were in his room yesterday when he took up a tray.”

Janet nodded. Her husband had been drinking. He’d commanded her presence along with another bottle of brandy after a day of hunting with his brother, Reginald. She’d been forced to stand as he had steadily drunk its contents, as he’d recounted all her failures as mistress, wife and mother. He’d then ordered her to his bed, but thank God he’d passed out before he could do anything. She’d left, retreating to the safety of her own chamber after checking the children. Colin had been awake, staring solemnly up at her from the cradle she’d insisted on keeping in her room. She distrusted Molly, the woman her husband had employed to care for the children. The woman, Janet thought, had been employed more to keep her husband’s bed warm rather than to take care of the children.

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