Chapter Twenty-one

Jane slammed the door on Hugh hard enough to make him grit his teeth just before the impact. The pictures on the walls were still rattling when she locked it behind her.

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After two days trapped at Ros Creag, the MacCarricks' depressing lakeside manor, with Hugh's curt surliness as company, she was ready to march up to Grey and say, "Do your worst. I defy you."

The only reason she hadn't hied herself off to a cousin's estate was that members of her family were due to arrive at Vinelands any day now. Not that Hugh knew that. "At this season, there will no' be many around," he'd said, defending his decision to take her here. But her family sought out the quiet fall season when there weren'tmany around , since it was the only time they could be themselves....

"Jane, I've warned you about locking the door," Hugh grated outside her room. "Open it, or this time I'll break the goddamned thing down."

"As you said yesterday - "

The door burst open.

She gaped, as much from the wildly swinging door and splintered doorframe as from Hugh's lethally calm demeanor - he wasn't even out of breath.

"I'll be damned if I can figure out why you've been angry," he said. "But I've about had enough of this."

"As have I!"

"You know, I always wondered what it'd be like to live with y - with a woman."

"And?"

"It's a wee bit like hell, with your carrying on."

"What do you construe as carrying on?" she asked, indignant. "When I avoid you because you've cut me off at every attempt I've made to start a conversation? Why would Iwant to be around you when talking to you is like pulling teeth?"

"And how's that?"

"I asked you why your brothers haven't married, and you snapped, 'Drop the subject.' I asked you why none of you have any children, and you said, 'Enough of this.' I asked you if you've ever considered adding a trellis and a rose arbor,anything to soften the grimness of this place, and you just walked out of the room! I've never met a surlier man."

"If I am, it's because you've ignored everything I've asked of you."

"Like what?"

"I asked you to avoid the windows, yet I continue to catch you in the window seat in the upstairs parlor, staring out at Vinelands. I've asked you to pick up things in your room, and you tell me it's your 'horizontal system' and that if I canna discern it then I must be stupid."

Everybody who knew Jane knew she was untidy - her lady's maid played solitaire and read gothic novels all day because Jane wouldn't let her straighten much - but untidy worked for Jane. Without her system, how would she ever find anything?

"And you refuse to let the maid clean up here," Hugh finished.

"I don't wish to cause any extra work for anyone, and the servants are only here for a few hours a day. If it bothers you so terribly - and, really, Hugh, when did you get to be so exacting? - you can keep the door closed."

"You know I canna do that."

She sighed and trudged across the plush rugs to peer out the window. Ros Creag, which meant "stony promontory," was as forbidding and no-nonsense as its name, just as it had been in the past. But then, the appearance did exactly what it was meant to - it kept people away. Had this place been welcoming, the MacCarrick brothers would have been overrun with Weylands borrowing fishing gear and foodstuffs, dropping off pies....

Everywhere she looked outside, the gardens were freakishly orderly, as though a gardener had laid out the shrubs and flowers to the inch with a ruler, then ruthlessly checked any undue exuberance. The manor was stately but imposing, its bricks made of dark rock, like the craggy, lakeside cliff it clung to.

Though separated from Vinelands by just that small cove, this place was a world away from it. Whereas Ros Creag was stern and solitary upon a cliff, Vinelands occupied an expanse of lawn rolling down to the water and a swimming beach, and looked like a quaint country cottage, though it had eight bedrooms. Arbors and follies dotted the property, and a small dock crawled lazily from the shore into the water.

And Hugh wondered why she'd always preferred her own home to his.

"So you truly doona like it here." His words came from just behind her, but she hadn't heard him approach. She frowned, recalling that he'd done that in London, too. He used to stride loudly, his boots booming across the floor. Now he was all sneaky silence.

With a shrug, she turned and headed for the door. One good thing about Ros Creag? It was big enough that they need never see each other.

Damn, she'd been nettled since the night he'd kissed her. Apparently, Jane agreed with everyone else that Hugh reached too high in wedding her.

As he watched her walking away, he told himself yet again that it didn't matter. Once Grey had been killed and she was completely out of danger, Hugh would leave her just as he had before.

And go where? Do what? If the list went public, he would have no profession. He'd thought about joining up with Court's crew of Highland mercenaries, but had dismissed the idea. Hugh was a loner, always working solo. Always on the periphery.

Except with Jane. She was the only person on this earth he'd ever been able to be around constantly. Hell, he'd never beenable to spend enough time with her, had always yearned for more.

Now that he'd gotten his wish, he wanted to take it back.

No, he could tolerate this. The situation was only temporary.

Yet it wasn't only the clutter or even her continued pique that bothered him. It had finally hit him that he would beliving with her, under the same roof, appearing as man and wife. She was so mysteriously feminine, and never having lived with a woman, he found himself a shade overwhelmed.

With a grated sound of frustration, he strode after her, picking his way around piles of clothing. Hugh was uncomfortable with disarray, having come to crave order and structure in everything. Without order, came randomness; Hugh hated random. He felt he'd been chosen at random for his fate, and he resented the lack of control.

Weren't women supposed to be fastidious, organized creatures? More unfortunate for him, much of Jane's disarray came in the form of her fascinating undergarments. There were garters he hadn't seen in her room in London, and even stockings with designs in them.

"Wait, Jane." He caught her elbow just as she reached the hallway. "Tell me why you doona like it here."

"I'm used to being around family and friends, everyone talking and laughing, and you take me away from all that to stay in thisdepressing  - there, I've said it - manor. And even then I could tolerate it, if you were fit company."

"What is so bad about this place?" he asked, glancing around with an incredulous expression. "You never liked coming here in the past, either. Why?"

"Why?I would have to leave my house - where there was whistling, and my uncles chasing their giggling wives, and happy children running about like wild creatures - to come here, where the curtains were drawn, and it was as dark and silent as a tomb."

"I was just as uneasy at your home."

"Why on earth?"

He doubted he could ever convince her that her family's behavior might make outsiders uncomfortable, much less someone as solitary as Hugh. But her locking the door on him rankled on so many levels, and he was just irritated enough to say, "Your aunts ran about with their skirts hiked up, fishing, smoking, passing a bottle of wine between them. And sometimes when your unclescaught your aunts and swooped them upstairs, they weren't as quiet as they could have been with what they were doing."

"And how would you even know that, from the collective fifteen minutes you spent with them over five years?" When he said nothing, she asked, "Do you deny assiduously avoiding everyone but my father?"

He couldn't deny it - he'd never wanted Jane to see how awkward he was around groups of people. "You ken I've usually preferred my own company."

"At least my family was kind to you. Unlike your brothers' treatment of me."

"My brothers were no' unkind to you."

"Are you jesting? One entire summer, Ethan crept about like a frightful ghost in his lair with the entire side of his face bandaged from some mysterious injury - which you would never talk about. And if anyone happened to glance at his face, he'd roar with fury and run them off."

Ethan had been a harrowing sight that summer. And every summer after. "And Court?"

She gave him an incredulous look. "My God, I think he's the angriest man I've ever encountered, always simmering. You never knew when he was going to go off. Being around him was like sidling around a bear trap. And it wasn't a secret that he wasted no love on me."

No, Court had never liked Jane. Hugh supposed Court had resented the girl who tagged along with them everywhere and was frustrated that Hugh didn't mind at all. That last summer, Court had despised her teasing treatment of his brother, never considering that Hugh woke every morning impatient to return for it, day after day.

But Hugh hadn't known Jane felt as strongly about Court, and about Ethan, as well. "I dinna realize it was so bad."

"You never seemed to notice these things because you were so used to them." She adjusted a vase on a shining end table, as if she couldn't stand its perfect placement. Seeming to calm herself, she said, "Hugh, rehashing all this will help nothing. When I ask you questions, you don't have to answer them, and you can be as dismissive as you please. That's your prerogative. My prerogative is that I don't have to be around you when it's avoidable."

"The subjects you brought up are difficult ones."

She raised her eyebrows, waiting for more.

"If I answer one question, you'll ask a dozen more about my answer, no matter if I doona want to talk about it. You're no' happy until everything's laid bare."

"I do apologize for wanting to know more about a man I used to be friends with, who disappeared for years without a word, who has now returned to be my husband in an odd marriage of convenience."

"Damn it, I told your father to tell you good-bye."

She glared at that. "Don't you think I deserved it from you? It's becoming clear to me that wedidn't have the friendship I'd imagined. I must have been like a gnat in your ear, a silly little girl who followed you around when you only wanted to hunt or fish with your brothers."

"Wewere friends - "

"A friend would have told me good-bye when he knew he was leaving and had no intention of returning for years."

Couldshe have thought of him? Could she havemissed him? "Are you angry about that?"

"I'm puzzled. I would have told you good-bye."

"I dinna believe you would even think of me much after I'd gone. I dinna think you would care overmuch one way or the other."

She didn't deny it or confirm it, just continued, "But now you've come back and we're in this confusing situation, and I'm trying to reason it all out, but I don't have enough information. Papa told me this might take months. Are we to be like this the entire time, with you cutting me off or getting angry when I ask questions?"

"I doona want to be that way. I just...I just doona know how to handle this as well as I should."

"What do you mean by 'this'?"

He pinched the bridge of his nose. "Jane, sometimes you throw me. And I'm unused to being married - even if it's only temporary."

"Very well, Hugh. Let's start with an easy question." When she raised her eyebrows, he nodded grimly. "Why would my father ever find occasion to associate with someone as deranged and violent as Grey?"

That's an easy question?"Grey was no' always like this. He came from a wealthy and well-respected family. He had strong connections."

"And he was your good friend?"

"Aye."

"Did you try to help him with his affliction?"

Hugh chose every word carefully, knowing he owed her more of the truth, but unable to divulge his own dealings without revealing everyone's. "I attempted to reason with him, bully him, bargain with him. Nothing worked."

After that, Hugh and Ethan had decided to take matters into their own hands to wean him from opium. They'd captured Grey and carted him back to one of Ethan's estates.

Grey had been furious, frothing at the mouth, spouting insults. Either he had always been a sick bastard - and opium, like liquor, magnified his faults - or his entire personality had been altered.

He'd vowed that if Hugh couldn't "muster the ballocks to finally go fuck Jane Weyland as she so clearly needs," then he'd make short work of her. Hugh barely remembered lunging for Grey's throat and raining blows on his face. Ethan had scarcely been able to haul Hugh off. Afterward, all three of them had seemed shocked by Hugh's utter loss of control.

But after two weeks in a basement, Grey had emerged, seemingly cured. For a year, Hugh had believed he'd maintained an even keel. Ethan, however, suspected Grey only waited for a chance to strike out, and he'd been right.

"I thought for a while that he'd gotten better. But the last time I saw him, his pupils were like pinpricks even in the night...."

Seeing Hugh's disappointment, Grey had self-consciously smoothed his soiled jacket and given him a half grin, and with it a glimpse of his old self. His accent had been clipped and proper, even as he looked away and said softly, "I didn't want to be like this, you know."

"Then why?" Hugh had asked.

"Not quite the way I'd planned things, as it were," he'd continued lightly, but when Hugh said nothing, Grey finally cast Hugh a look that was raw, unguarded. "I woke up one morning, and I was nothing but that number." He averted his face again as if embarrassed. "Good-bye, Scot." Then he'd walked away....

Hugh shook off the memory. "He was lost for good."

"Do you miss your friendship with him?"

After a long hesitation, Hugh nodded. He did, even as he now burned for Grey to die - and even as Hugh knew his brother was out in the world, seeking to kill him.

Chapter Twenty-two

"Hugh! It's me."

He blinked his eyes open. He was clutching Jane's wrist as she leaned over him, her expressive face full of worry. He released her and fell back onto the bed. "Jane?" He ran his hand over his brow, finding it damp with sweat.

"What're you doing in here?"

"I heard something. I thought you were having a nightmare."

"Aye." He was often plagued with nightmares, murky scenes of targets who refused to die. He had always strived to make clean shots, to make it quick. But sometimes at great distances, in inclement weather, he'd failed to do so. When the shot was off the mark, they often writhed; some screamed shrilly. "Did I say anything?"

She shook her head. "What was the nightmare about?"

"No' important." It was then that he noticed her nightdress. Clinging, sheer white silk. His gaze dropped to her breasts - and she noticed, nibbling her lip.

At once, he sat up and snatched a bundle of the cover over his sudden erection. "Damn it, you canna come in dressed like that." His voice was hoarse.

"I rushed in when I heard you. I didn't stop for a robe."

"When will you learn, Jane? I've told you, I've a man's needs. And when I see you like this..." - he shook his head hard - "it affects me. I doona want to do something we'd both regret."

She quirked an eyebrow. "You're saying the sight of me in a nightgown is so irresistible it might make you, a man of the world, lose control?"

"Aye," he said simply, then added, "I've been long without a woman, Jane, and you are verra beautiful - "

"What do you mean,long ?" She angrily crossed her arms. "As in four days?"

He frowned. "What're you speaking of?"

"I saw you go into Lysette's room. And come out with your shirt untucked."

His eyes narrowed. "You would no' have seen that if you had stayed locked in the room."

Her voice was cutting. "That is of no matter."

"She tried to seduce me."

"Tried to, or succeeded?"

"Are you jealous?" He didn't dare hope she could be. Didn't dare hope she felt the blistering envy that clawed at him when he thought of her with another.

She put her chin up and sniffed, "You spent our wedding night in the arms of another woman. I hardly felt complimented by it."

"So it's your vanity that's been injured." Disappointment settled over him. In a deadened tone, he said, "I dinna sleep with her."

"Youdidn't ?" Her arms fell to her sides as if they'd gone boneless.

"Why do you sound so disbelieving?"

"It was clear she wanted you."

"I took a vow to you, and until that vow is annulled, I'll keep it. Now, go back to your room."

Her hand fluttered to her forehead. "I see." Strangely, her face had paled. After a moment, she nodded. "I'll try to straighten my room. And don't worry about me 'carrying on' anymore."

"And what's brought about this change?" Hugh demanded, about to bellow with frustration. "Because now your vanity's intact and you lost no competition with Lysette? So you can go back to being decent to me?"

She seemed to flinch at that. "It wasn't competitiveness or vanity. And I'm sorry for how I've behaved." She looked as though she genuinely meant it.

His ire eased somewhat, and he softened his tone. "Then what, Jane?

Twining her hands, she said nothing.

"You're making me crazed, lass. I know you're unhappy, and I doona know how to change that." He rubbed his forehead, and exhaled. "Tell me how to change that."

At length, she whispered, "I was unhappy because I was jealous."

Jane left him with his lips parted and brows drawn, and withdrew to her room, easing the door nearly closed.

She stood trembling against the wall with her hands flat against the rich wainscoting. Though she'd wanted to stay in his room, she'dstepped back . She was proud of herself and felt mature for her decision, especially since she'd been flooded with compelling impulses - along with many Bad Ideas on how to handle them. She was a mix of roiling emotions.

It was possible that Jane could have been more awful to Hugh over the past few days, but she couldn't conceive of how. "I know you're unhappy, and I doona know how to change that," he'd said, sounding so weary. Immediately, Jane had remembered her father's words - Hugh tries....

She squeezed her eyes tight, embarrassed at her cutting behavior, even as she was sopleased with him, so relieved that Hugh hadn't touched that woman. Of course, a major deterrent to her feelings for him had just been eliminated. Which brought abouther revelation.

Was she right back where she'd been at the inn as she sat on the table? When she'd feared letting him out of her sight?

Yes -

Jane's eyes shot open when Hugh's hand wrapped around the back of her neck. He'd pulled on his pants and entered her room silently, giving her little warning before he dragged her to his naked chest. Leaning down, he slanted his lips over hers, groaning at the contact. He broke away only to ask, "You were truly jealous?" then set back in.

Telling him the truth could open her up to hurt, could accelerate the rate at which she dropped off that cliff. And still, between their licking, seeking kisses, she whispered, "I didn't want you kissing her. Because you should've still been kissing me."

At her admission, he tensed, hesitating for only a heartbeat before he lifted her in his arms, striding with her back to his bedroom.

"Hugh?" she murmured in a daze. "What are you doing?"

"I've something on my mind," he said, setting her on the bed, following her down. As he leaned above her, his dark hungry gaze flickered over her, and his voice broke low. "Something I need tae see."

He rubbed an unsteady hand over his mouth, looking like a man in agony. His body seemed to thrum with tension. Frowning, she brought her palms up to cup his face, but he shuddered, even at that slight touch. What was happening here?

For all the books she'd read, for all that she'd heard from her cousins and learned in London, she'dnever imagined a man behaving like this - as though he were about to die from desire. The erotic books she'd read never had accounts of men's bodiesshuddering with lust, pained with a need so great they could scarcely speak and could barely stand to be touched.

He reached forward to brush her nightdress straps down her shoulders, then dipped a kiss to her collarbone. Just as she felt cool air on her breasts and belly, he hissed something in Gaelic, and sank back on his haunches to stare. She felt his gaze on her bared skin like a touch and arched her back for him.

Leaning forward once more, he rasped, "Mercy."

She thought she would scream in pleasure with the first wet flick of his tongue to her aching nipple. He cradled her breast with his whole hand, holding her in place as he sucked her between his lips.

"Hugh," she moaned, threading her fingers through his thick hair. "It feels so good when you do that."

His other hand was easing upward between her legs, his fingers caressing as they slowly ascended. "Tell me tae stop this," he said against her breast.

She shook her head, body quivering when he kneaded her inner thigh, coaxing her to spread her legs wider. The rough texture of his hand abraded her tender skin, but she loved it.

"Tell me now." His palm rubbed upward. She shook her head again and whimpered, afraid she was about to climax. She didn't want this ever to end.

"Ah, God, I canna stop." His fingers passed the thatch between her legs. "I need tae stroke you here."

She cried out when he slipped the pad of his thumb against her clitoris, rubbing it sensuously. Another finger delved to her slick sex. "So wet." He lowered his head, and against her damp nipple, he said, "You'd be ready for me, would you no'?"

When he spread the moisture and continued his slow, agonizing strokes, she writhed helplessly to his touch. "Please, Hugh," she said, panting. "Don't stop."

He raised his head, studying her face. "I will no'." His voice sounded hoarse, lost. "I want tae make you...make you come for me." He stroked more firmly. "Taesee you - "

She gave a strangled moan - she was already there.