As Jane bent down to the crystal-clear creek, cupping water to her mouth, a branch cracked behind her. She whirled around, but saw no one in the dying light of the day. She knew Hugh would have announced himself, and he wouldn't have been finished unpacking the horses for the night. It must be an animal - the forests they'd been traveling through were teeming with roe deer.
She sat on the bank, pulling her skirts up to dip her stockingless legs and a cloth into the chill stream. As she brought the cloth to her face, she reflected over the last four days, during which Hugh had taken them racing through thick woodlands and over craggy rock plains.
The scenery continued to grow more and more breathtaking as they passed ancient Celtic fortifications and sweeping vistas. The leaves were staggering in color - shot through with scarlet, gold, and ochre. Now that they were officially in the Highlands, everything seemed crisper, sharper. Even the air was sweeter. London was dingy by comparison.
Late each night, they'd stopped to camp beneath the trees. Each morning, she'd watched Hugh rise in stages, wincing in sympathy as he clenched his jaw against what must be marked pain. And still he'd set to work, quickly readying them so they could make their way - as he'd told her - toward his brother Courtland's property.
Over each mile, as she rode beside him, she'd watched him study the land, much as he had done when he'd taken her hunting years before. He used every amazing skill she'd ever seen him demonstrate as a hunter, and she'd realized she was as awed by him as she had been at thirteen.
And now he was herhusband .
His intense, focused expression drew her eyes again and again, reminding her of how he'd looked at her those last two nights at Ros Creag. Unfortunately, he'd made no move to touch her since then.
She knew he would deem their last encounter a close call and be thankful they'd dodged a bullet. She deemed it anif at first you don't succeed encounter.
As she brought her wet towel to her face, she contemplated her future, wondering, as ever, if it would include him. The facts: He found her attractive, and he'd wanted to make love to her. He would die for her. That first night he'd returned to London, he'd been so dirty because he'd ridden for days to reach her.
So why wouldn't he desire her for more -
Footsteps over crackling leaves sounded just behind her. Before she could whirl around, a hand covered her mouth; other hands seized her, dragging her away from the water and deeper into the shadowy woods.
She dug her heels into the ground, furiously biting at the hand over her mouth, clawing wildly. The man holding her grunted and cursed. Just as his hand moved, she twisted around to see her attacker; cold metal pressed against her throat and she stilled in terror -
"Get your hands off my wife," Hugh said with a steely calm.
The men froze. Jane frantically blew hair from her eyes and saw Hugh with a rifle, raised and steady, his eyes as cold as ash in the dying sun. He had it aimed at one of the two men who'd grabbed her, the one who had a hunting knife against her neck and a soiled bandanna hanging down around his own. The second man trained his pistol on Hugh. "Let her go, or I'll kill you."
Raw fury emanated from Hugh, but somehow he controlled it.
These two must be bandits, some of the very unheroic ones Hugh had mentioned. Why weren't they hiding their faces with the cloths they wore?
Because she and Hugh weren't only to be robbed.
Rattled by Hugh's killing look, the man holding her swallowed audibly, his bandanna rising with his Adam's apple, and pressed the blade harder to her skin. When she felt blood dripping down, she gasped.
Hugh's eyes narrowed, but he said nothing, just waited. Jane realized that she'd seen him go utterly still like this before - when he'd been hunting and had a target in sight.
Time seemed to slow. How many times had she seen this uncanny concentration just before his forefinger smoothly pressed the trigger? When she saw Hugh's thumb brushing his rifle, she realized these men were about to die.
The one clutching her began dragging her away. The knife wasn't so tight at her neck as they stumbled back. She should hit him...kick him...give Hugh his chance to shoot.
Jane felt the bandit's rank breath waft over her as he said to Hugh, "Yer bonnie wife's about to be my - "
The boom of the rifle made her jerk with fright, but the knife was gone. The man lay crumpled to the ground behind her, blood oozing from a hole between his sightless eyes.
She glanced back at Hugh.
Never taking his gaze from the second man's shaking pistol, Hugh emptied the cartridge from his rifle as if he had all the time in the world. "Pull the trigger, then," Hugh demanded,impatiently .
Jane screamed when the bandit shot; a bit of dark cloth flew up, but she couldn't tell where Hugh had been hit. When the man saw Hugh was still standing, he paled and hurled his gun at Hugh before spinning around to run.
Jane tottered on her feet.So close. But Hugh must have been unharmed, because he tossed his empty rifle to the ground and caught the man in three long strides, his movements contained, lethally silent.
Everything's as silent as he is. The woods hushed by the shot. Or is my hearing weakened from the report?Then she heard a whimper, and didn't know if it came from her or the wide-eyed man struggling to free himself. But his thrashing was useless - Hugh's grip was unyielding, his massive hands and forearms clamped around the man's head.
How can Hugh move so quietly? What an odd grip he's got on the bandit -
Jane flinched as Hugh's strong arms twisted in different directions. Suddenly, the thick pop of breaking bone was deafening. The man dropped to his knees, head lolling at an unnatural angle, before his body slumped to the ground.
After a heartbeat's hesitation, Hugh turned to face her.
Jane's slim body shook with ragged breaths. Her pupils were dilated and her lips were pale and parted in shock.
A trail of stark crimson crept from the slice at her neck, and alarm flared in him. "S¨¬ne, I need to look at you," he said as he cautiously eased closer, fully expecting her to run. He knew what he must look like, and he knew that what he'd done to those two would terrify her.
"Jane, I dinna do this lightly," he explained slowly, approaching her. "Those men would have killed you."Eventually.
Nothing. Her face was drawn, white with fear. When he stood before her, he prayed she wouldn't run.Doona flinch from me.... He couldn't take it if Jane feared him.
He eased a hand to the slash on her neck, brushing his fingertips to it, then nearly sagged in relief to find it was a mere graze. Before he could stop himself, he put his arms around her. As he clutched her to him and lowered his head to hers, he groaned at the feel of her, warm andsafe in his arms, but her body was quaking. "Shh, lass," he said against her hair. "You're safe now."
"Wh-what just happened?" she whispered. "I don't understand what just happened. Were they bandits?"
"Aye, of a sort."
"Are you hurt?" There was a burn mark and a small hole through the outside of his pants leg.
"No, no' at all. Do you think you can ride tonight?"
"But what are we going to do with the b-bodies?"
"Leave them. They will no' be found for some time, if ever." He drew back so he could look down into her eyes. Running his hands up and down her arms, he said, "We must leave this place immediately. Can you get dressed while I see to the camp?"
She nodded up at him, and he forced himself to release her, knowing he had work to do, and quickly. Keeping a close watch on her as she dressed and daubed a wet cloth to her neck, he packed up their gear and re-saddled their horses.
When Jane was ready, she said, "Can I...can I ride with you?" She glanced down as if embarrassed to ask.
Without hesitation, he lifted her into his saddle, then swung up behind her, wrapping an arm around her. He exhaled a long breath, pleased she still wanted to be near him.
"Try to rest - I'll ride through the night."
She gave him a shaky nod.
Eager to get her away from this area, he redoubled their already punishing pace. After an hour of hard riding, they reached a craggy, dry creek bed. When they had to slow to cross, she murmured, "Thank you. For what you did back there - for what you're doing."
"Say nothing of it."
"Apparently, you're more of an expert at this than I'd imagined." When he was silent, she continued, "Which makes me wonder, in light of this and Lysette's death, how much of an expert Grey is."
He ground his teeth.
"You're not a mercenary, and he's not a businessman."
"Care to explain?"
Finally, he answered, "I canna tell you, even if I wanted to."
"Do you want to?"
"I...doona know." Part of him did - to get her look of disgust over with.
After long moments passed, she asked, "Are you angry with me?"
"God, no, why would I be?"
"Because I got you into this situation."
"Lass, you are no' at fault here. I am. I should have been more aware - "
"No, I wasn't saying I thoughtI was at fault - neitherof us is. I was saying that I'm sorry you had to kill because of me. I fear you'll feel badly about it."
"Should I no'?"
He felt her shoulders stiffen. "I will truly have my feelings hurt if you regret doing something noble and necessary to save my life."
Noble?He felt a deep welling of pride, and discovered then that noble was exactly how he wanted to be around her - exactly how he hoped she might see him.
She'd watched him kill with his hands, but she understood he'd had no choice.Necessary. The thought came from nowhere:She could accept that I've killed. Without judging me.
But could she accept the way he'd done it?
In the papers and in literature, assassins were regarded as cowardly and were universally reviled - even those from one's own country. In the last three major Continental wars, every army that captured snipers executed them summarily - there were no prisoners, no exchanges. Not that there would have been bargaining for gunmen like Hugh anyway....
None of this mattered. Hugh couldn't tell her of his involvement without divulging others'.
"I could have let the second one run for his life."
"What if there were others in his gang? Or h-he might have wanted revenge for the death of the other. Or he could have caused a commotion, and then Grey would know we've been here."
Hugh might have considered these factors, but he hadn't. There'd been no thoughts in his head when he caught the second man - nothing but the need to kill him for daring to touch her.
"You don't feel guilty, do you?" Jane asked.
"It dinna exactly improve my mood."
She twisted around, wriggling over his leg and against his arm so she could face him. Irritation was clear in her expression. "You act as if you'd had to shoot orphans and kittens! You killedkillers ." She frowned, her voice growing soft. "Do you regret having to do that to save me?"
His arm tightened around her. "No, lass, never."I relished it. "I just would rather...I dinna want you to see that."
She blinked at him. "To see how brave you are? To see you just stand there while the man shot at you?"
"It was no' bravery. The odds were slim that he could have hit me in a place that would put me down before I could get to him. And I meant that I dinna want you to see blood and death. I doona want that memory to follow you. To hurt you."
"Ifit was a memory that could hurt me, I simply wouldn't allow it to pervade my life. I don't want you to think I'm glib, or cold." She seemed to be choosing her words very carefully. "But I believe when the load gets too heavy, we have to shuck some weight from our shoulders. And Hugh" - she gently laid her hands on his forearm locked across her middle - "it really seems that you need to lighten your load."
What if I did?What if he just refused to feel guilt over his deeds and stopped dwelling on all he'd done? The temptation to do so was great.
Another mile passed in silence. At length, she murmured, "Hugh, when you called me your wife like that..." She trailed off.
He briefly closed his eyes. "I know. It will no' happen again."
"Th-that's not what I was going to say." She was trembling against his chest, her wee hands tightening their grip on his arm.
Her next words made him sweat for the first time that day. "When you called me your wife, I found I really...like it."
If Jane had been curious about Hugh's life before the attack yesterday, now she was desperate to know more.
Though they'd finally slowed their pace to ascend a slippery embankment, she wouldn't question him now. She glanced over at him riding beside her in the morning sun, and her heart ached at how exhausted he appeared. He'd been ever wary, so vigilant to protect her - and they'd ridden hard.
The attack had demonstrated yet again how stalwart a guardian Hugh was. When she'd had the knife at her throat, she hadn't believed she was going to die - not then - but she had comprehended how her life would end if it came down to Grey.
Jane wouldn't take another minute with Hugh for granted.
"We're almost there, lass," he said then, with an encouraging nod. "I ken how hard this has been for you."
"For me? What about for you?" He and his horse looked much like they had that night in London.
He shrugged. "I'm accustomed to days like this."
"Of course," she said absently as she tilted her head to study him.
Hugh was a powerful protector, ready to unleash a chilling violence; yet, with her, he was tender and passionate. He had secrets, but she knew he'd be a faithful husband. He'd always desired her happiness above his own.
Just then, a breeze blew a lock of his thick black hair over one of his dark eyes....
She swallowed hard. Recognition took hold.
The Scotsman is...mine.As she gazed at him, she realized he was stillher Hugh. Jane wanted him, always had, but now she felt an abiding respect for him - a deeper, more mature...love. Oh, lord, she didn't love Hugh as much as she had before.
She loved him much, much more.
Yet she'd barely survived his leavingbefore - now what would happen to her if she lost him again?
She had decided he would be her first lover. Now she knew that this quiet, wonderful man had to be her last.How can I get him to stay wed to me? she thought, feeling panic rush through her at the thought of being forced to part from him.No! Calm down. Think!
"Jane, what's wrong?" he asked.
"N-nothing." She eked out a smile for him as a plan evolved in her mind.
No teasing. Only seduction. And only for keeps.
He frowned in return, and once they'd reach the rise, he increased their pace again. She was glad of the time to think.
Obviously, she needed him alone to prove that living with her wouldn't be a "wee bit like hell." So, she was pleased anew they weren't going to Carrickliffe.
Unfortunately, the only thing more undermining than a clan of strangers would beCourtland MacCarrick - who'd always hated her.
Hugh had said he didn't expect Court to be at his secluded home.Perfect. And barring Court's presence, nothing could keep them from staying there.
Abit of work, my arse.Hugh stifled another curse.
Upon reaching the border lands of Beinn a'Chaorainn, Court's property in the wilds of Scotland, Hugh had had his first sense of unease. The long, winding drive was overrun with fallen trees, strewn across it at irregular intervals. They were rotting, meaning no one had been here in ages, not even a caretaker with a work cart.
By the time the house came into view, rain clouds had gathered, casting the manor in an ominous light. At the sight of it, Jane seemed to wilt in her saddle. The estate where Hugh had planned to hide Jane for possibly the entire fall...left a lot to be desired.
With a sinking feeling, he surveyed the tangled, stunted gardens, the front door hanging askew from one rusted hinge, the windows either broken out or matted with dirt and dead ivy.
At that moment, something wide-eyed and furry careened out of the front doorway.
He glanced at Jane. Her lips were parted, her breaths little puffs in the cold air. Dark circles were stark against her pale face. Their pace had been furious, but Hugh had reasoned that they could rest and recuperate at Beinn a'Chaorainn. Yet even under the strain of their travels, she'd been trying to cheerhim up, keeping her mood buoyant for him, sweetly scolding him for brooding.
Now, Jane's expression was guarded as Hugh dismounted and helped her from her horse. Without a word, he strode inside with his shoulders back, as if taking her here hadn't been a colossal error. The next viable alternative was to go to the clan, and he'd wanted to avoid that at all costs.
Hugh crossed the threshold, took one good look around.And so the clan it will be.
Feathers and nests from grouse and pigeons littered the hall. It appeared that red squirrels, maybe badgers or even foxes denned here, and Hugh couldhear teeming in the chimney. As if standing in sentinel, a pine marten was poised upright in the entry hallway, front legs bowed aggressively.
"Look, Hugh!" Jane cried, showing genuine energy for the first time today. "It's a ferret. Or part cat? I can't tell." She eased past Hugh, cooing, "It's the most adorable wittle thing."
Hugh reached for her arm. "No, Jane, doona - "
It hissed at her and scuttled away - back inside. Jane looked crushed, mumbling something about never liking "ferret cats" anyway.
She followed him further inside, batting at the cobwebs that drifted in his wake, spitting frantically against one that brushed her lips. Freed of it, she gazed around the great room, her eyes wide with dawning horror.
His face flushing, his tone defensive, he said, "This is the last place anyone will look for us." He reckoned the manor had been broken into, and once the front door was lost, nature had moved in. Still, Beinn a'Chaorainn had never, by any stretch of the imagination, been habitable in recent memory.
There wasn't a stick of furniture to be seen, apart from three damp, pitted mattresses slumped against a wall. When Hugh's further exploration found the kitchen empty of pots and dishes, Jane said, "It appears that I'll be forgoing a bath." Her tone was strained.
He opened yet another cabinet - nothing. "I saw a loch out back." He might even have spotted steam from a hot spring, adjacent to the rocky banks - hot water ready for the taking. "If I could just find one sodding bucket, a pot to bring water up - "
He broke off when some unseen creature upstairs thundered into a run, crashed into a wall, then darted back the same way. Jane turned away, covering her face with her hands.
Crossing to her, he muttered, "Ach, Jane, I dinna know." He tentatively laid his hand on her shoulder, frowning as he pulled free a few feathers that had settled in her hair.
He'd done it - he'd finally pushed her past her limit. As they'd neared the property, he'd again warned her it would be far from luxurious. She'd replied that as long as there was a bath, she would be fine. In fact, she'd dreamed aloud about soaking for hours - and that was before they'd been covered with dust, feathers, and spiderwebs.
She was exhausted, she'd been attacked, and not only was there no bath, there was no bed and no fire, and the areas where there were precious stretches of intact windows seemed to be precisely where birds had nested.
Hugh couldn't believe he'd brought his lass to a place like this. How could she not cry?
She bent over, and when her shoulders began to shake, Hugh vowed silently that he was going to beat Courtland to within an inch of his life.
"Jane, I never would have brought you here if I'd known. And we will no' stay." He turned her toward him and gently drew her hands from her face.
"I'm sorry," she said, biting back a snicker, holding up her palm. "Our situation isnot funny." With an expression of concentration, she tapped her temple and said, "Dire, Jane, that's what it is. Not amusing."
She was likely delirious - Hugh's expression indicated that he certainly suspected so. He was peering at her as if she'd just been released from Bedlam and would be returning forthwith.But then the accommodations would be sublime compared to this. Many fewer grouse.
And she lost it again.
Of course, this was where Courtland MacCarrick lived. She didn't know which was worse: Court owning a place like this - or the fact that her determination to stay here was still unfaltering.
"Jane?" he said slowly. Poor Hugh. He'd been so discomfited when they'd entered - his broad shoulders had been jammed back - and now his worry was evident. "Lass, what're you laughing about?"
When another feather wafted down to stick jauntily out of Hugh's hair, she snickered some more. Wiping her eyes, she said, "It's just that this is so much better than what I'd expected Court's home to be like."
"And how's that?"
Hugh's eyes briefly widened, then he half-frowned, half-grinned.
Jane inhaled, forcing herself to continue in a dry tone, "And I had no idea Courtland was such an animal lover. Look at all these beloved pets."
"Aye," Hugh agreed, his tone as dry as hers, "since he was a lad - never could keep enough of the wee beasties. Names them, every one."
She gave a burst of laughter, surprised and delighted with Hugh, but reined it in to observe, "And Court's quite clever with his menagerie. I never would have conceived of utilizing the chimney and the mattresses as pens for them."
Hugh nodded solemnly. "Makes it easier to feed them their steady diet of dirt and cotton. Look how they thrive."
Wrestling with laughter, Jane observed, "And the d¨¦cor is quite fetching." She tapped her chin. "Early hovel, if I'm not mistaken. Only the most studious and dedicated neglect could achieve this."
"Aye, this level of hovel is rarely seen. He's been hard at it foryears ."
She did laugh then, having more fun bantering with Hugh in this awful place than she could remember. "Hugh, I think you're enjoying yourself with me."
He looked at the wall to her right as he said, "When you can refrain from teasing me, I like being around you." When he glanced back at her disbelieving expression, he added in a gruff voice, "Always enjoyed your company."
There was something in his expression, the smallest hint of vulnerability, as if he expected - or only wanted - her to make the same admission. "I enjoyed being with you as well," she murmured.
"And byenjoy , you mean that you liked having someone at your beck and call to retrieve anything you could no' reach and to bait hooks." Had the tight lines around his eyes relaxed somewhat? "Admit it - you never lifted a paddle to row around the lake when I was near."
"And you liked having me run my nails down your back, and filch for you whatever pie was cooling on the kitchen windowsill, and give you peeks of a transparent linen shift when we swam."
His eyes went half-lidded. "Christ, I did like you in nothing but wet linen."
Her toes curled in her boots, as much from his admission as from his sudden hungry expression. But then he seemed to grow bewildered by what he'd just said, and strode outside toward the lake. She was right behind him.
At the edge of the water, they turned back to face the manor. Sidling next to him, she butted his arm with her head until he grumbled but lifted his arm to put it around her shoulders.
"I truly dinna know, Jane," he said, his tone weary. "I welcome your humor, but it does no' erase the fault. This has added at least two days' riding to get to Carrickliffe."
Even if she weren't bent on staying here, the idea of more riding made her feel ill. "This was a fine property once," she offered, planting the seeds for a later request to stay here. If she came out and asked now, he would think she'd completely lost her mind. But, in truth, the place had probably been incredible at one time. Nicely situated on a hill overlooking the crystal-clear lake, the manor consisted of two wings. But the wings weren't connected at a right angle - they flared out so that all the rooms in each had a view of the lake and the glens unfolding behind it for miles.
"Just pulling down the dead vines covering the brick would make a big difference in the façade." A hovel it might currently be, but the manor house had been designed in the much-lauded baronial style. The massive stones at the foot and the ancient beams inside shouldering the ceilings in that great room were all the rage in England.
Most important, Jane could be alone with Hugh here. In her eyes, that meant it was perfect.
Except for one thing, she thought, running her hand over the back of her neck and gazing around. She'd just gotten the eerie feeling that they were being watched.
"Perhaps so," Hugh said. "But that does no' help us for tonight."
"Cheer up, Hugh," she said absently. "Things can't get worse - "
Rain thundered down, like a loosed bucket of freezing water.