Grey felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up just before the tavern went silent.
He shook his head, grinning into his cup. The unrelenting bastard had just entered the very lakeside tavern where Grey had reposed during the day - and the one he was departing from by ferry as soon as darkness fell.
Grey had already determined his means of a swift exit and slipped toward the side door, but he hesitated in the shadows to get a closer look at his pursuer.
Ethan MacCarrick.Ah, the fiend that fiends feared.
That made Grey want to chuckle.
Ethan's eyes were intent, surveying the scene for threats. His face was set in a scowl, his scar bone white. Grey had always hankered to know who'd dealt Ethan that blow, but Hugh wouldn't speak of the subject and resented being asked about it. Yet Grey knew that whoever had done the job had had skill - Ethan's scar whitened with any expression - and he had done it when Ethan was still a young man.
Backing to a wall, Ethan continued searching the crowd, no doubt for drunken patrons who looked like regulars. Grey knew that they were the gatekeepers - the ones with all the information - because drunks could be remarkably perceptive, and no one was guarded enough around them.
Under Ethan's watchful glare, a patron suddenly bolted toward the door. Within the space of a heartbeat, Ethan had the man by the hair, hauling him outside.
Grey skulked out the back, trailing as Ethan pulled the man into a foggy alley. From a distance, Grey watched him slowly strangling the man with one hand, then allowing him to gasp out words in violent intervals. Grey rolled his eyes. Ethan's style had always been blunt and dependent on power.
When the mark yelled a name that was actually a roundabout lead to him, Grey supposed Ethan had hadsome success with it. After knocking the man flat, Ethan returned to the tavern, inadvertently trapping Grey - the bloody ferryman wasinside , guzzling ale, waiting on Grey to give the word to depart.
Damn it!Although Grey was only a half-hour ferry ride away from Ros Creag, he felt he needed to move quickly. He suspected that Hugh wasn't planning to remain at the lake much longer. Hugh must know Grey would eventually discover his den.
If Ethan didn't withdraw from the tavern directly and ride from this small town, Grey would have to kill him tonight. Grey hadn't planned to - at present; he wanted to murder Jane. He'd always found it prudent to prioritize these things lest one overextend oneself, and yet already he'd deviated from his plan by pursuing Lysette.
In this matter, however, Grey might not have much choice.
But Ethan wasn't exactly an easy target. To strike without detection, getting close enough to the man to gut him, would take hours of work - hours Grey didn't have.
After a quarter of an hour passed and Ethan remained inside, Grey realized he was going to have toshoot Ethan....
Assessing the area for a serviceable vantage, he found a balcony that faced the tavern's front entrance with a view of the side alleyway as well. As he climbed up one of the balcony's iron filigree supports, each old bullet wound in his chest screamed in protest.
But once he'd set up his position, time crawled by as he waited for Ethan to emerge. He watched people strolling on the street, or entering and exiting the tavern's groaning front door. Was Ethan eating in there? Interrogating? Grey knew he wasn't likely buying a woman. Ethan took no pleasure in life, not even pleasure in women any longer.
After well over an hour, Ethan exited from the side door. Grey aimed his pistol, though his hand shook wildly. With his other hand, he slipped medicine between his lips to ease it.
Immediately, Grey knew something was different about Ethan. In the light of a flickering street lamp, Ethan looked distracted, off his game.
Grey knew of only one thing that could make the man look like that, because he'd seen a similar expression on Hugh's face many a time.
Ethan MacCarrick had a woman on his mind.
In the past, Ethan had put on a good show, seeming uncaring about his appearance. But now, when two boys stopped and stared at his face, his brows drew together, as if he were only just comprehending how people saw him. He glowered at them, but evinced no satisfaction when he made them flee. Instead, he ran the back of his hand roughly over the scar.
Grey wouldn't pity him, though. Not when he remembered sweating with pain while locked in that dank basement. A flare of rage began to burn inside him, until it overrode even the most assiduous chewing of his medicine.
When Ethan had finally released him, Grey had acted as though he were grateful and on his way to wellness. Hugh had appeared so bloody relieved - and so guilty for hitting Grey. "Ach, it's good to have you back," Hugh had said. But Ethan had given him a look that said, "I'll be watching you."
Now Grey watched him. Again, he took a bead with a tremulous hand, willing it to grow steady.
Though Ethan couldn't have heard the sound from his distance away, the instant Grey cocked his pistol, he froze. He either sensed Grey at last or realized how careless he'd been, walking into an alleyway with vantages all around, without so much as a cursory scan of the area.
Ethan gazed upward and spotted Grey. His expression was disbelieving; so was Grey's - he'd never thought he would take out the great Ethan MacCarrick so easily. Then Ethan's face became a mask of rage. He yanked his gun free and fired.
When the bullet merely whistled through a deceptive billow in his bagging clothing, Grey pulled the trigger.
Blood spurted straight into the air from Ethan's chest, then cascaded over his fallen body.
A pathetic shot? Not tonight. Grey had aimed true.
Hugh rode back to Ros Creag with Jane dozing in his arms. She'd fallen asleep tucked against his chest in front of the fire, with the girl still slumbering over her legs. Once Robert had scooped up Emily, Hugh had gently lifted Jane, then quietly refused offers to stay the night.
Now Hugh found himself almost grinning as he imagined the looks on his brothers' faces when he told them he'd endured an evening at the Weylands'. They'd never believe him.
Yet it hadn't been that bad. No, he admitted to himself, it was one of the most enjoyable times he'd had in years. And now he was holding Jane again, and the moon was out, and she was...nuzzling his chest? He drew back his head. "Jane, are you awake?"
"Only just," she murmured, sliding her hands up to clutch his shoulders.
He frowned down at her. "Then are you drunk, lass?"
"No, I feel very clear."
In a voice gone hoarse, he asked, "Why're you unbuttoning my shirt?" There was no way she could miss his instant reaction, seated as she was. Grabbing her upper arms, he shifted her until she wasn't directly on his stiffened shaft. "No, Jane, you ken we canna - " Sweet Christ, had she just touched her lips, her tongue, to his chest? He threw his head back and stared up at the moon. All of the vows he'd reiterated to himself today grew indistinct in his mind, and he shook his head hard. "You continue to treat this like it's a game."
She blinked open her eyes as if she'd just woken from a dream. "I don't treat it - "
"You knew better than to go anywhere without me."
"I had to talk to my cousins. I needed their advice. Badly," she said cryptically.
Though he knew she'd never answer, he asked, in a deadened tone, "About what?" Excellent. Yet another secret that would taunt him.
"About the fact that..." - she leaned up to press her lips tenderly to his - "I want you to make love to me."
He almost slid off the horse and took her with him.
Her light touches during the day had goaded him, stoking his need for her - which had only burgeoned after last night - to a fever pitch. And all day, he'd played the part of her husband. Despite himself, he'd begun to feel like one.
Tonight, he wanted to demand a husband's due.
"You want me tae take you?" His voice roughened at the thought.
When she nodded against his chest, he exhaled a breath he hadn't known he'd held. He found himself positioning her on his lap, turning her until she was astraddle him. Once her legs hung over his, he ruched up her skirt high in the front and back. As he kissed her neck, one of his hands clutched her nape, the other rubbing far down her back to dip inside her silk pantalettes.
Squeezing her bottom, he lifted her up against his erection, rocking her to it, making her whimper, and him curse in agony. When he set her back down, she sucked in a shocked breath, because he'd cupped her between her legs so her sex rested in his palm. Her flesh was warm and wet in his hold, and she moaned in delight at the contact. But her moan turned to an anguished cry when his finger eased inside her.
Her sheath was incredibly tight and gripped his finger hungrily, making his cock ache to replace it. "I will no' be able to stop myself," he grated. "It will no' be like last night."
His thumb and forefinger played, and her head lolled, but he retained his firm hold on the back of her neck to make her face him.
Eyes heavy-lidded, she nodded.
"Do you understand me?" He rubbed her sensuously, and she began to undulate against his fingers.
"Hugh, oh, God! Yes, I do."
As soon as she'd panted the words, realization hit him and his entire body stiffened. "I'm going tae be inside you tonight." After so long. "You want me tae be." Another thrust of his finger to punctuate his words.
"Oh, I do!" She was close. He could feel her body quivering, her thighs tightening and relaxing around his hips in seeking intervals until he thought he was going to explode.
Inevitable.He ached to possess her, and she wanted him to do the same. Why had he ever imagined that he could fight this? At her ear, he rasped, "Come for me first."
"Hugh, I will..." She kissed him fiercely when her orgasm began, giving a wild cry against his lips. Her nails dug into his shoulders, and her wet little sheath clenched around his finger, again and again. His cock grew slick at the tip in anticipation of that tight heat.
When she sagged against his shoulder, he moved his hands from her sex to cupping her bottom. Once they'd reached Ros Creag, he kept her in the same position with her legs locked around his waist, even as he dismounted and tossed the reins in the vicinity of the tethering post.
By the time he'd bolted the front door behind them, she'd gone from resting her forehead on his shoulder to kissing him, clutching his arms, her hand colliding with his as they grasped each other.
Desperate to bury himself inside her, he hastened toward his bed, bounding up the stairs two at a time, breathing hard against her damp neck. Inside his room, he laid her back on the bed, then shrugged from his jacket and pistol holster, tossing them both aside. After he'd yanked his shirt over his head, she reached her arms up to him.
He had one knee in the mattress to go to her. After wanting her for so long -
Outside, the gate to the terrace creaked on its hinges.
Hugh's head whipped up, his dark eyes flickering over her face. He bolted to his pistol.
"Hugh? What's happening?" She felt so dazed from her recent pleasure that she could barely form words.
"Stay there," he snapped, striding to the windows, yanking the heavy curtains closed. "Doona move, especially not in front of the windows."
"I-is Grey out there?"
"It could be nothing." Hugh cautiously peered out one side of the drawn curtains.
"I thought he hadn't reached England yet."
"I doona want to take any chances."
She was startled by the idea of Grey being just outside, but she wasn't afraid. She was too reassured by Hugh's presence. "Should I have my bow?"
"No, lass, you doona need your bow."
"How long will you stay there?"
"Till dawn," he answered.
"What? Why don't you come to bed? You bolted the doors - he can't get in."
"If he's out there, I might catch sight of him."
She asked slowly, "And what would you do if you found him?"
His voice was quiet, cold. "Kill him."
"But he was your friend," Jane said. "I always believed we were more or less absconding, not, er...executing."
"He's killed before."
"No, you're not serious...." She trailed off when he caught her gaze, his eyes locked on hers.
"Men. And women."
"Why? What's made him do that?"
"I've told you, his mind is damaged. His affliction is worse than it's ever been."
Her eyes went wide. "Is he like Burke and Hare, or Springheeled Jack?" she asked in a breathless voice. "One of those compulsion killers that I've read about in theTimes ?"
"I'm sure he has much in common with them."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"I didn't want to frighten you needlessly," he said, then added in a distracted tone, "And I never thought he would even get close to us."
"If you knew he was such a horrible killer, why did you agree to this? You could be risking your life."
He said nothing.
"Hugh, you wouldn't, um, risk your life for mine?"
"What kind of question is that?"
She made a sound of frustration. "Oh, just answer me, won't you?"
His body seemed to tense, and after an obvious struggle, he gritted through his teeth, "Aye."
"T-truly?" Her voice went higher.
"Just try to get some sleep."
As if that was going to happen. After a few long moments, she asked, "How does he kill them?"
"With a blade."
The blood drained from her face, leaving it cool. "Grey...stabsthem? Even women? Would he do that tome ?"
Hugh hesitated. "I doona know that telling you - "
"I have to know, Hugh," she interrupted sharply. "I need to know what he plans."
Hugh's gaze flickered over her face. Finally he said, "He slits their throats - "
A violent pounding on the door boomed through the silent home.
Jane jerked with fright, then whispered, "Who in the devil would be knocking?"
"Ethan." Hugh relaxed a fraction, stowing his gun in his pants waist.It has to be . "My brother is supposed to meet us here. Jane, lock the door behind me, and doona come out until I return."
When she followed him to the door, he strode from the room, pausing outside only long enough to hear the lock click into place.
His brother's timing was as impeccable as ever - just when Hugh had decided to take Jane, just when he hadn't had a doubt in his mind that he would...
Hugh hurried down the stairs, then crossed to a front window. When he glanced past the curtain, unease crept up his spine. It was one of Weyland's messengers - not his brother.
In that instant, he realized something had happened to Ethan. Hugh yanked open the door and snatched the missive from the grim man. "Do you know anything about my brother?" Hugh asked, though it was unlikely since most messengers weren't privy to important information.
The man shook his head, then turned away directly to set off and confirm that the missive had been received.
Locking the door again, Hugh ripped open the letter and read the one line. Disbelieving what it said, he crumpled the paper in his fist, then turned and charged up the stairs.
As soon as Jane opened the door to him, he shouted orders. "Pack your smallest bag with clothes, essentials only. You can take your bow but no' thirty bloody books. We leave in ten minutes."
"Grey's in England. Has been for days." If Grey could control the Network like this, deceiving and manipulating so many in the field, then his addiction wasn't impairing him mentally as they'd suspected. It seemed the man had lost nothing, and wasplaying with them. "He could have followed us directly here."
Hugh had been so intent on getting into Jane's skirts, he hadn't been concentrating on protecting her from a man whose entire life centered on killing.
Grey could attack in so many insidious ways. He could poison the well, or burn the house with a mixture of turpentine and alcohol, then pick off anyone who escaped. Toward the end, burning had become a particular favorite of his.
Swooping together piles of clothes, she said, "How do you know he's in England?" She must have sensed that he was about to hedge his answer, because she snapped, "This is no time to be secretive! I'm in the middle of this, too!"
Hugh ran his hand over his face. "He killed Lysette."
She gasped, dropping the bag she'd been filling. "If he could be near, then what about my family at Vinelands?"
"Grey has never gone out of his way to kill indiscriminately - only people he hates, or who fit his agenda. But to be safe, I'll leave a letter for Robert explaining that they should make haste to leave."
"Only people he hates? Then why would he kill Lysette?" She resumed packing. "You said they were lovers."
"They had been, but it ended badly. He thought she betrayed him."
"Hugh, if he's really out there right now, he could shoot us."
"He does no' like to shoot," Hugh assured her. "He was never verra good at it, even before he was afflicted with tremors."
"But why don't we stay here? Stay locked in - "
"He'll have no qualms about burning the house down around us." He strode up to her, grasping her shoulders. "Lass, I'm going to keep you safe, I vow it, but you need to trust that I know what I'm doing."
She gave him a shaky nod.
"Now, dress to ride in the forest. Something dark if you have it."
"We're leaving the coach?"
"The driver's off the property. Besides, Grey can track a coach, but he'll never follow our trail on horseback," he said as he scanned her suddenly empty floor.Was there a bloody system to her clothing that he couldn't discern?
"Remember that rocky trail up by the waterfall to the north?"
"Yes, you wouldn't let me ride it when I was younger."
"Well, we're going to ride it tonight, and until we're well away, we're going to do it really bloody fast."
Fifteen minutes later found them riding in the woods through fog so thick, it seemed to swirl like an unctuous current in the moonlight.
Hugh had her reins fisted in his hand, and Jane held on to her horse's mane as it charged up and over the harsh terrain. Branches snatched at her clothing and at her hair until it came free, streaming behind her.
At the first sign that her horse stumbled, Hugh brought her mount forward beside his own, and dragged Jane behind him. Making sure she was holding on tight, he took up a breakneck pace. His surefooted horse proved up to the task, her mount bustling along behind.
Nothing in London could compare with this thrill - her arms around the torso of a Highlander as he rode faster than she'd ever ridden a horse, much less at night.
Though it all felt dreamlike to her, Hugh was very purposeful and alert. All night, like a chess player anticipating his opponent's moves, Hugh guided them north. Oftentimes, he would ride in one direction, then slow, cock his head, and turn back around.
"How are you doing, lass?" he asked periodically, patting her leg.
Now that she realized the danger she was in, she was overwhelmed by how much Hugh was doing for her. The image of him at the moonlit window, body tense, eyes watchful, ready to do battle, was seared into her mind.
He'd admitted he would risk his life for hers. With that, she knew for certain that he couldn't have left her before out of callousness, or neglected to tell her good-bye out of indifference. No, Hugh was so much more than what she saw on the surface. And she planned to investigate all the layers.
She hugged him tighter, and all of a sudden she was seventeen again, riding behind him just as they'd always done when they'd explored new places.
"Do you need to stop?" he asked over his shoulder.
"No, I'm fine. I-I'm excited to go to the Highlands at last."
After a hesitation, he answered, "It's no' always like it is in English ballads."
"What do you - "
"Duck," he commanded. She did, just in time to skim under a limb. "There are brigands and reivers who are no' as heroic as you read about."
"Oh." Long ago, she'd looked up Carrickliffe on a map, and she remembered it was far to the north on the coast.
"Are we going to your clan?"
"No' that far. No' yet."
She stifled a sigh of relief. After all these years of yearning to go there, now she balked.
"We'll go to Court's."
"Where's his home?"
"Southern Highlands. If it seems all right, we'll stay there instead. I warn you, it's no' going to be luxurious, but I think it will be the safest place."
"Is Court going to be there?"Please say no.
"No, he's probably in London by now. Or he might have decided to stay on the Continent and go on a job to the east with his men." He muttered something that sounded like: "As long as he didn't go back for her."
"What's that?" she asked, clasping her hands on his hard torso, fighting the urge to rub her face against his back.
"Nothing, lass. Try to get some sleep if you can."
When he placed his big, rough hand over both of hers and warmed them, a realization hit her like a thunderbolt: she hadn't been pushed off a cliff. She'd dived, and the ground was approaching, hadalways been approaching.
She'd just had her eyes closed.