"MacCarrick, it's been too long," Lysette said, closing the door behind them.
"Do you have information about Grey, or no'?" Hugh's voice was still rough from the pleasure of kissing Jane, his mind still in turmoil.
When Jane had been pleading before, Hugh had looked into her eyes and seen something he'd never expected. She hadn't been pleading with him...tostop . She'd wanted him to take her, had beenasking him to.
Never. Never was it supposed to be a variable that Jane might desire me back.
He strode to the whiskey decanter and helped himself, then stared down into the liquid. He'd counted on the fact that even if he lost control, Jane would remind him with a stiff-wristed slap that she would not welcome his attentions. Without that check, he was doomed.
"No pleasantries?" Lysette said. When he turned an unbending look on her, she asked blithely, "Why would I have information about Grey?"
Women and their games.Hugh was sick of them. "Because you slept with him for years. And I know you've been keeping tabs on him since he left you."
Her look turned calculating. "If you want to know anything about Grey, then tell me whoshe is."
"You owe this to Weyland regardless." Weyland arranged loans for people like her - information gatherers - to open shops and taverns and inns at crossroads all over Europe, like nets. Lysette was good at her job - she was observant and intuitive - and in exchange for information, she made a good living.
"Doesn't Weyland have a daughter named Jane? One who is reportedly lovely."
He swigged, knowing he wouldn't drink more than a glass. "One and the same."
"Now it all makes sense. Everyone expects Grey to strike out at Weyland, and you show up here married to his daughter, taking her out of London. You'd do just about anything for the old man. Apparently, you'll brook a marriage in name only."
"So sure it's a marriage of convenience?"
"Yes, when I find you here inmy room - away from your new bride." When he only drank again, Lysette said, "Grey told me once that you were in love with her."
Whohadn't Grey told? How many people pitied him his feelings for Jane Weyland? Christ, JaneMacCarrick . Hell, he pitied himself for how much he liked the sound of that. "Grey said a lot of things that were no' true. You of all people should know that."
"It's obvious she's playing with you. That one cares nothing for you."
"And why would you say that?" he asked, striving for an uninterested tone.
"When I was flirting with you earlier, she looked at me as if she was amused. The last thing women regard me with is amusement, especially when I'm draped over their husbands."
"Perhaps she's confident."
"You reach too high with that one."
"Lysette, you are the third person today to express that exact sentiment. It's ingrained." Ethan, Bidworth, Lysette. Hell, even Jane's servants recognized the divide between him and Jane.
Lysette approached him, running her finger down his chest. It left him cold, and he drew her hand away with an expression of distaste, but her other hand was busy easing his shirttail from his trousers. "You should be riding a woman tonight. Even if the arrogant English chit would let you, she still wouldn't be woman enough for a man like you."
Lysette had no idea. He'd had a glimpse of Jane's unfettered passion just moments ago, and it had staggered him.
Hugh exhaled and took her wrist, removing her hand. "Doona speak badly of her in front of me. We were friends long before this. Besides, I took a vow." Until their marriage was annulled, he'd keep it.
She pouted. "You'd deny yourself for a marriage of convenience? When I've been attempting to seduce you for years?"
Hugh had noticed her flirtations. Might even have taken her up on it. She had all the qualifications - in other words, she looked nothing like Jane. But she'd been sharing his friend's bed, and Hugh had never needed it badly enough to lose his head as some did.
"Let me give you what she won't. Or can't." Her voice went low. "I can do things to your body that will make you wonder how you've lived without me for so long."
Here he had a willing, attractive, and, apparently, wicked bed partner who'd gladly accept a night with him. And the only desire he had was that Jane would give a damn if he did it. Lysette ran the tip of her tongue over her bottom lip, gaze locked on him.
Knowing what he'd just come from, he felt vaguely insulted at Lysette's interest. He still had Jane's taste on his lips and could almost still feel her warm, soft flesh against his tongue. Hugh had learned long ago that it was of little use trying to find a substitute for her.
He set the glass down. "If you're no' going to give me information on Grey, then I've no other reason to be back here."
"Where are you going?"
"Back to my arrogant English chit. Who could teach you a thing or two about seduction."
"You're still in love with her," she said stiffly. "You're different. Already." She gave a humorless laugh. "You're satisfied with the mereidea that she is yours." When Lysette cast him a pitying look - yet another to add to the count today - Hugh wanted to roar that Jane had wanted him, too.
He turned to the door.
"Oh, Hugh. You stupid man! People like her don't want people like us. I know this. Your Jane Weyland might flirt, she might even desire you. But you'llnever have her heart."
He bit out over his shoulder, "JaneMacCarrick ." For however long.
"And what happens when she finds out you're a cold-blooded killer?"
"What will she think of you then?"
He couldn't imagine. Killing as a soldier was a celebrated thing. Even the mercenary she thought him sounded better than an assassin. Assassins hid and struck from the shadows. That's what people believed. Generally that was true, but Hugh had also had to fight for his life more times than he wanted to remember.
He feared that even if she could get past all the killing he'd done, fierce Jane still might find his means...cowardly.
"Even if she wanted you, you can't go back to a life like the one she lives."
Lysette was right. The odds were against Hugh ever settling back into society, finding those day-to-day rhythms. They called itreverting - when battle-weary soldiers or assassins too long in the field went back to civilian life and somehow made a go of it. It was extremely rare, especially for someone like Hugh, who had always been adrift in social situations anyway.
Just as he'd made it out of the doorway, stabbing his shirttail into his pants, she said, "Hugh, wait!" She hurried over to him, putting her hand on his chest to stay him. "Grey reached France this week."
He shut the door behind them once more. "How do you know?"
"Because the woman I solicited help from to keep tabs on him showed up dead there."
"Does no' mean - "
"Her throat was slashed so violently, her head nearly came off."
Grey. No doubt of it. "He's out of his mind."
"Even so, he's still lethal. And he hates you and Ethan for what you did to him."
"You were right in league with us," Hugh was quick to remind her.
"But something else happened that night. What did you do to him?"
"I've no sodding idea," he lied, finding it easy with her.
"If he's coming after Jane, it's just a matter of time before he finds you two."
"He'll seek you out as well, Lysette. You canna reason with him, and he's beyond saving. I hope you're prepared."
"I will be." Her expression resigned, she said, "Aren't we a pair? A coquette about to be taken down by an assassin, and an assassin about to be taken down by a coquette."
When Hugh returned to their room, Jane lay curled up in bed with nearly all the lamps out, though he could tell by the tenseness of her form that she was still awake.
He sat and watched her for more than an hour, and eventually she fell asleep, but it wasn't long before she grew as restless as she was during waking hours, tossing and turning. Her eyes moved rapidly behind her lids. He wondered what it would be like to see her utterly relaxed.
A real husband could join her and pull her to his chest, pet her, soothe away whatever dream gripped her. He wouldn't fear that she might want him to make love to her for comfort, or that he'd need to for the same reason.
Hugh wasn't a real husband. No matter how badly he wanted to be.
He reached for his bag and drew out theLeabhar . Ethan was right. Reading it would strengthen his resolve. It would remind him of the consequences of his actions and keep him from musing about what it would have been like to take Jane right on this table.
Walk with death or walk alone.What more did Hugh need to see?
The three brothers all walked with death, just as had been predicted. Court was a mercenary, and somehow Hugh and Ethan had met the one man in England who could guide them into their current occupations - Ethan, a jack of all lethal trades who was called in to deal withunpleasantries , and Hugh, an assassin.
Hugh had been fortunate. He'd only been dispatched to kill grown men, and on each mark, he'd agreed that they'd needed to be taken out. Still, the faces began to accumulate. The grueling hours of preparation and the innate loneliness of the job took their toll.
Always, in the back of his mind, he imagined the look on Jane's face if she found out.
On his first kill, he'd hesitated, knowing that if he pulled the trigger, he would cross a line and could never go back. But he had done it. He'd killed in cold blood, purposefully, determinedly. How dare he think to entwine his life with hers in any way?
The idea flashed through his mind that there was still time to summon Ethan to come take her away - from himself. He dismissed the idea. Hugh wanted Jane protected - not terrified.
Lost in thought, he barely heard her soft moan. She still slept, but she'd turned onto her back. One arm slowly fell over her head, stretching her gown taut, outlining her breasts in cool silk.
Another soft murmur and a very sensual shiver accompanied her quickened breaths.
This was not happening. She couldn't be dreaming of something erotic, but her body and her movements told him otherwise. Could she possibly be dreaming of him? Of the way he'd kissed her earlier? No! He couldn't let himself think like that.
No good can come of this.
Yet, as he looked from the book back to her, he realized his resolve was already faltering.She would need an outlet for all that passion. Like handling a firebrand....
She raised her other hand and her ring glittered in the lamplight as her fingers brushed the side of her breast. He swallowed hard. He could give her an outlet, provide her release. His hands were fists as he fought not to touch her. If he were truly married to her, he could wake her by sliding his shaft into her. He'd find her already wet, already close, and he would slowly rock her to orgasm. But she wasn't his to reach for in the night. All he could do was spy on her from the shadows.
She turned her face into her auburn hair spread over the pillow, nuzzling the curls as if she desired to feel them against her skin as much as he did. A lock tangled around her pale neck, and he rose, reaching down to tug the thick strand free.
Unable to help himself, he carefully lay beside her. As ever, he had to gnash his teeth against the pain that stabbed at him whenever he finally let his body be at rest. Everyone believed rising in the morning was hell on old injuries, but relaxing for sleep was just as bad, especially after what he'd put himself through over the last few days.
At length, once the pain had subsided to bearable, he levered himself up on an elbow to gaze down at her. Surrendering to the need to touch her, he brushed the backs of his fingers over her cheek. She stilled, but didn't wake, her breaths growing deep and even.
I could take care of you, he thought.In all ways. Some part of him had always believed that if he worked hard enough, he could give her whatever she needed. If things were different, he could try to win her, to prove that he was the man for her.
He marveled at the sweep of her dark lashes, the gentle parting of her lips. Even after all this time, he was still fascinated with her, still filled with affection for her.
Nothing would ever change that.
Hugh had known she was the only one for him since that night all those years ago when he'd returned to the lake and had seen her after more than a year away. Her eyes had sparkled as though from some secret amusement, and her hands held the doorway behind her as she rocked her hips up and back. Playful, bright, smiling. Everything a man like him would crave like air.
"Why, Hugh MacCarrick, do my eyes deceive me?" she'd asked.
"Jane?" he'd bit out incredulously.
"Of course it's me, darling." She'd sauntered up to him and touched her pale, soft hand to his face.
With her touch something passed over him, shocking him, calling him.
"Jane?" he'd repeated in a strangled tone as he tried to assimilate all the changes in her. Her voice had grown sultry, would forever be that way. Her breasts were lush. She'd become a woman, the most beautiful one he'd ever seen. His heart had thundered in his chest.
"It looks like you're leaving," she murmured. "That's a shame, Hugh, because I've missed you so."
"No' goin'anywhere ," he'd growled, and his life had never been the same.
Jane had heard him return to the room last night and wondered if that was how their situation would work. All done? Passion spent with Lysette? Go back to protecting Jane?
When she'd seen him leaving Lysette's room, tucking in his shirt - only to be coaxed back inside once more - Jane had lurched back to her room. Berating herself as a fool, she'd clutched the basin, close to being sick.
This morning in the carriage, which now seemed far too small, Jane kept her eyes averted so he couldn't see how much his betrayal had hurt her.
But what had he betrayed? The vows of a sham marriage - a marriage he'd made clear he couldn't wait to discard.
So why did it hurt so badly?
Even knowing what he'd done, she'd dreamed of him last night. She'd dreamed he'd done exactly as he threatened - taken her, sinking into her body.
Though she was still a virgin, she could imagine how he would feel thrusting inside her, how his big body would flex and move over hers as she wrapped her legs around him. In her fevered dreams, he'd fondled her breasts in his hot palms and sucked her nipples.
Instead, he'd probably been doing those things earlier to Lysette. She turned away and put her knuckles to her mouth.
What a bewildering position to be in - and she wasn't particularly steady and clear-thinking in the best of situations! She knew her own weaknesses. She was impulsive, often saying and doing things without thought. She had emotions that swung from one extreme to another like a pendulum, and she felt things too strongly.
Worse, all her faults seemed to be exacerbated when he was around. Her emotions ran high, and actions and words that seemed undeniable at the time made no sense in retrospect.
She'd always been like that to a degree, but she'd endeavored to better herself. She'd learned that whenever she got into a temper, or whenever she was inundated with what her cousins labeled Bad Ideas, she needed to step back from the situation, perhaps leave the room to compose herself - to give herself a chance to see things rationally, reasonably.
Stepping away had always helped her; now here she was, trapped in a coach.
She let out a weary breath. Shewished she were a reasonable person, wished that inexplicable urges and impulses didn't goad her.
Why was it that everyone could see these faults in her, but no one bothered to suppose that she didn'twant to be so flawed?
Jane could imagine what it would feel like to be reasonable. She imagined she could do something as simple as donning spectacles to see the world more clearly. She would peer at her relationship with Hugh, and see a very simple equation.
Hugh equaled pain.
By the second day after they'd left the inn, Hugh had decided he would welcome Jane's games.
She'd ignored him with an ease that would bruise any man's sense of worth. As their coach rolled through another sleepy town, he glanced over at her by the open window, watching as the sun and the breeze streamed in, toying with her loosened hair.
Over the past day, she'd silently readA Gentlewoman's Apprentice - or whatever book was behind the false cover. He hoped it wasn't a novel in the same vein as the one he'd skimmed in her room in London. Especially since her eyes had been riveted to it as she ate an apple, or nibbled on a piece of hay she'd plucked when they stopped for food at midday.
He should be glad that she'd left him alone. So why did he hate it when she ignored him, if the alternative was enduring her teasing?
How many more days - and nights - can I take?
For the tenth time that day, he silently willed his brother to work fast. Ethan had an uncanny way of finding people, and the best case scenario would be for Ethan to locate Grey and stop him before he even reached England. The worst case was that Grey could evade him for months....
Hugh thought back over his and Ethan's last conversation. He should have pressed him about what had happened with the Van Rowen girl. He should have given Ethan the benefit of the doubt and asked if his brother might be searching for something more. Hugh had, Court had - why had Hugh never considered his older brother would have the same needs?
When Hugh saw him again, they would split a bottle of scotch and discuss this situation like men. If Ethan truly wanted the lass - even after discovering who she was - Hugh could share strategies for putting her from his mind.
Strategies to share?Smug once more, MacCarrick? When he could think of little but Jane?
Eyes wide, she gasped and flipped to the next page.
At least she was in better spirits now than yesterday. Then she'd appeared deadened - not sullen, just lacking her usual animation. Jane generally exuded energy, but she had stared out the coach window, seeming to see nothing.
He'd feared he had startled her with his attentions. Or that she even felt guilt for allowing his kiss because of her relationship with Bidworth. Perhaps she'd been appalled with herself for...enjoying it.
As much as he couldn't comprehend it, shehad enjoyed his lips on her. He kept recalling how she'd appeared - breathless, pupils dilated, her skin flushed. But if she'd been like a firebrand that night, the next morning, she'd been like ice....
Jane was clearly unhappy - a condition Hugh had never been able to handle well. "S¨¬ne, I want to speak with you about the other night."
She didn't glance up from her book. "So speak."
"Lass, I am fallible," he said quietly. "And I'd asked you no' to taunt me like that."
She raised her face to him in a flash, eyes glittering with fury. "So what you did at the inn ismy fault?"
Taken aback by how strongly she felt about this, he said, "No, I should have been able to govern myself. It will no' happen again." Of course she felt strongly. She'd thought she could play without repercussion. She'd never expected him to kiss her like that.
"Why do you care how I feel about your...your behavior?" she asked. Had her accent ever sounded so proper?
He hesitated, then admitted, "Your opinion of me is important."
"Is that why you won't talk about your profession?"
He said simply, "Aye."
"Silly, Hugh." Her slow, unexpected smile in the sunlight was spellbinding. "I can't think less of you than I do right now."
"Lysette," Grey whispered at her ear, stroking her blonde hair from her forehead. "Wake up."
She did in an instant, shooting up in bed. Her jerky scream into his hand turned to a whimper when he placed his knife against her pale throat. The polished blade reflected the light from a nearby lamp, glinting when she began to tremble. "You've got so many men watching the place, I'd started to think you were expecting me," he murmured. "Don't tell me you've missed me." He eased the pressure of his grip on her mouth, but increased the pressure of his knife. "I don't have to remind you how short your scream would be, do I?"
When she cautiously shook her head, he grinned in the face of her fear, of the tears beginning to fall, before finally removing his hand. "Yes, you must have suspected I'd visit, since you have your inn guarded like a fortress. But you of all people should know I can get past anyone you've brought in."
"What do you want from me?" she whispered, easing the bed covers up to just below her neck.
"Hugh and Jane stayed here on their journey north. I want their destination."
"You know he wouldn't trust me with that information."
Grey raised his brows. "And you discovered nothing in all of your customary prying while they were here?"
"Hugh's cautious, and I don't believe the girl knows."
"I have a good idea anyway," he said honestly. "I merely was hoping to confirm. So it seems this might have been a wasted trip." He removed the blade. Just when her big blue eyes began to fill with hope, he said, "Of course, since I'm already here, I plan to make you pay for selling me out to Hugh and Ethan."
Her shoulders slumped. "They wanted to help you."
"Helpme?" He remembered Hugh in a terrible rage, his bone-crushing blows raining down so quickly that Grey hadn't had a chance in hell of defending himself. Then the two brothers had forced Grey into a murky basement where his muscles had curled and tightened, until he'd screamed with pain. For day after day, he'd suffered hallucinations in the dark, interrupted only by his vomiting.
Even now, shadows passed before him as he remembered how those haunting faces with their glassy, sightless eyes had descended on him. He hadn't been able to escape them. Because of her duplicity.
"I only told them because I wanted you back with me," she cried. "I wanted you to get well."
"You wanted me to get well, or you wanted to ingratiate yourself into the bed of a strapping young Highlander?"
She looked away. "What are you going to do to him?"
Grey spotted a bottle of scotch - fitting, he thought - beside her bed. He helped himself to a glass. "Take away what's most precious to him."
"The girl is innocent in all this."
He nodded. "Which is lamentable, but, in the end, incidental."
"Hugh will die before he lets you hurt his woman."
Grey sipped, savoring. "So I'll likely kill him within minutes of Jane."
"His brothers would hunt you to the ends of the earth."
He shrugged. "Ethan's already on my trail. With all the subtlety of a charging bull." That was how Ethan had always operated. No sneakiness, just annihilating his enemies with relentless pursuit. He would wear them down until they got sloppy - or grew too wearied of looking over their shoulders expecting to find his gruesome, scarred visage in the night.
Ethan was incredibly effective in his occupation, a legend of sorts. Not famed like Grey, of course. "He nearly found me three nights ago. Apparently, he somehow knew about my London loft," he said in a chiding tone. That was his Lysette, selling out to the highest bidder. Not a drop of loyalty.
Luckily, Grey knew all of Ethan's hideaways and properties as well.
"I didn't tell anyone about it" - she shook her head, her blonde tresses dancing about her pale shoulders - "I swear it."
Deciding that she was actually being truthful, he said, "Don't worry, I believe you. I can admit that Ethan's good." If information was as valuable as coin, then Ethan had amassed a fortune from others like them who secretly worked in service to the Crown - outside the law. "And I realize now that he must have been keeping tabs on me ever since he deigned to free me from his basement." Grey's fist tightened on his knife handle.
Lysette saw it and flinched.
"I'll take care of Ethan, though his life's so bloody miserable, it's almost not sporting to relieve him of it." Which would be more cruel, to make him live or to kill him? Didn't he himself have an affinity with Ethan? Ethan was a man who had nothing left to lose. Wasn't there power in that?
"And Courtland?" Lysette asked softly. "Do you think he won't seek retribution for the rest of his life, if it takes that long?"
"Lysette, I'd be more worried about your own survival right now." He gave her his most affable grin. "Or you can just relax and accept what's inevitable." He would finally sever her from his life...slowly.
That got a fine Gallic rise out of his little Lysette. Her tears stopped, and her eyes narrowed. "Hugh's going to win. And I just wish I could be around to see it."
Grey threw his glass to the floor and lunged across the bed. "I try to avoid allowing last words." He grabbed her chin, skimming the knife up her body. "And I don't normally tolerate last-minute confessions, but I'll make an exception for you."
Hatred burned in her expression. "My last words? You'll lose - because Hugh hasalways been better than you. Faster, stronger. Even before your affliction you were a pathetic shot - "
The knife flashed and blood sprayed over him.
"You clever girl," Grey said wonderingly with a cluck of his tongue. "You got me to do it quick."