"Well, the good news is that I got my bath," Jane murmured in a drowsy tone. She lay on her side, her head resting comfortably in his lap as he sat back against the wall.
Where her fortitude sprang from, Hugh had no idea.
This afternoon, after they'd run for the manor in pounding rain, he'd settled their horses under a portico for the night, and then they'd investigated most of the interior.
Dodging streaming leaks from the ceilings, they had finally stumbled upon a tiny bedroom off the kitchen, likely a servant's quarters. It had only one window, and the panels, though cracked, were intact. The room was free of feathers, and no scrabbling sounded from its undersized fireplace. The chimney was only partially obstructed - the smoke from their small fire crept in flagging tendrils, but always up.
After eating a dinner of biscuits from a tin, tea steeped in heated rainwater, and apples liberated that morning from some farmer's orchard, they'd settled down for the night.
"Hugh, why did Court let this place get so run-down?" she asked.
"Now that I've seen it, I think it was probably neglected before Court even bought it." After that, his brother had had no time to improve it. Court had been on the Continent with his gang, working to pay off this place, which he'd bought for pennies on the pound.
Though the land was rich, and there was an astonishing amount of it, the manor was occupied by its own demolition crew. Hugh was amazed that Court had considered bringing Annal¨ªa, a rich and cultured lass, here to live. Annal¨ªa was a brave girl, but Hugh thought even she would have swooned at the state of Court's home.
Yet, hadn't Hugh done the same? He'd brought a rich and cultured woman here.
Lightning flashed outside, and when thunder rattled the structure, the creatures outside the room began to mew and tussle with renewed vigor. Hugh pinched the bridge of his nose, but Jane only chuckled.
"I'll take you to an inn tomorrow," he said quickly. "There's a village a few miles north of here, and they might have a place for us to stay. You can have a proper bath."
"Hugh, you're brooding so hard, I canhear my money piling up. And you already owe me five thousand pounds, at least." She sounded lazily comfortable and amused.
"Five thousand, is it?" He stroked her damp hair, and they settled into companionable silence. But as ever, worry for Ethan weighed on his thoughts. Hugh was cut off from communication with London and daren't leave Jane anywhere while he went to search for Ethan or hunted for Grey.
Hugh had to assume that Grey was still loose, which meant Hugh and Jane could be together indefinitely as they waited for the bastard to be captured or killed.
Indefinitely? Hugh gave himself ten days before he was in bed with her - and that would be drawing on every reserve of discipline he possessed...
"Hugh, tell me something about your life, something exciting you've done since I saw you last."
Anything exciting he'd done fell firmly into the category ofclassified . He finally answered, "I bought a home in Scotland."
She turned on her back, gazing up at him with interest. "Oh, do tell me about it."
He ran his free hand over the back of his neck. "I stumbled upon the estate on the coast in a place called Cape Waldegrave." She had to tap his hip to prompt him for more. "The waves are relentless and so lofty that you can see the sun set through them." He admitted, "I could no' rest until I owned it."
She sighed. "It sounds breathtaking. I think I'd like living in Scotland."
He berated himself for imagining the look in her eyes if she saw the cape. It was of no bloody consequence that she would love its wave-tossed cliffs, or that when he'd chosen the property, he'd specifically thought of her there, of wanting to impress her....
Since leaving Ros Creag, he'd tried his damnedest not to think about how close he'd come to having her after all these years. He recalled how inevitable it had felt to be with her, as if resisting the need to be inside her was senseless. Especially since she seemed to desire it just as much.
The idea that this stunning woman, who laid her head trustingly in his lap, had been willing - eager - to make love to him made him crazed. And the more time that passed, the less embarrassed he was about his actions those nights at Rose Creag - and the more aroused he became.
Ten days? Mayhap a week.
Doona look down...just doona look....
Hugh hissed in a breath when he did look, glimpsing her naked body as he helped her from the hot spring into the cool morning air. He threw the towel around her as though she were on fire, but the image of her standing wholly naked, with water sluicing down her smooth flesh, was seared into his mind.
A week without touching her? That had been an absurdly optimistic estimate.
"This was such a wonderful surprise!" She gazed up at him as though he was her hero, her eyes sparkling with pleasure. She showed no visible signs of fatigue from their demanding journey, or from last night's bleak accommodations in what was, in essence, a closet. Resilient lass.
In a breathless voice, she asked, "Hugh, how did you find the spring?"
"Yesterday, I thought I saw steam rising from this cove of the loch, but dinna want to get your hopes up until I explored it."
"I wondered where you'd gone this morning."
"I had no idea the water would be this clean." He frowned. "Or that you'd be willing to shuck off your clothes and dive in." After making sure the towel was firmly tucked in, he swooped her up into his arms for the five-minute walk back to the manor.
She laughed, throwing her arms around his neck and clinging to him so sweetly. "I woke thinking I'd find you beside me, but that ferret cat was there instead. When it hissed, I tossed my boot at it, which it appropriated. I want to stay here. Can you help me find my boot?"
"You've thrown me again, Jane."
"Well, I've been thinking, and I've concluded this place is not half bad." When he gave her a stern look, she said, "I'm not jesting, Hugh. If I'm to be in Scotland for an indeterminate time, away from all my family and friends without any town entertainments, I'll need something to do. This is actually the perfect opportunity. Since this tumbledown place needs work, we might as well see it done." He said nothing, so she continued, "Together, we'll compile a list of materials we'll need, and you can fix and I can clean."
"You? Doing the cleaning?"
She blinked up at him. "How hard can it be?"
He opened his mouth to explain, then closed it. Jane had decided that cleaning wouldn't be difficult; Jane would not be moved from this opinion until she'd tried it.
"Why would I want to do this?"
"It needs to be done. It's your brother's home. He can pay you back."
No, he couldn't. Court was taking in a much larger income now, but overhauling this manor would be costly. Still, Hugh was warming to this idea. For one thing, setting this place to rights - to order - had a definite appeal.
"And don't you think we'd be safe here, surrounded by all this land?" she asked.
Even safer than with the clan.If he could protect her here, provide her with something to occupy her, deaden his body with work, and be doing Court a favor, why not?
She gazed up at him. "Can't we stay here? Please, Hugh?"
And so it's settled.
So he wouldn't look like the easy mark he was with her, he waited until he'd deposited her back in their closet room before saying, "Aye, then. We'll do it. But only if you stay near the manor and do as I ask you - to keep you safe." He gently clasped her chin. "We canna let our guard down. Even here."
As he turned toward the door, he said, "Call for me when you're dressed, and I'll come help you reclaim your boot."
When she nodded happily, he strode outside. The morning fog had dissipated. As the sun rose higher, illuminating the front elevation of the house, he was better able to assess how much work would be required to make this place livable.
In the morning sun, refurbishing it lookedpossible .
Hugh believed he could do a lot of the work himself. Perhaps this wasn't such a daft idea. Yes, work like this could deaden a man's body and burn off a woman's energy. This place might just be his salvation -
Not a heartbeat later, Hugh was sprinting for her.
Jane hiked up her skirts and dashed out of the house, bent on nabbing the Peeping Tom she'd caught spying on her through a cracked windowpane.
She turned the corner and found Hugh steadying the peeper after he'd apparently run into him. The miscreant's hat flew off, revealing a spill of long black hair. A girl? Yes, dressed in a bulky hat and clothing. She was likely eighteen or so, short, with a strong build and incongruous freckles.
Jane pointed her finger. "She was watching me dress."
"I was no'," the girl lied.
"You most certainly were." Jane was furious. She'd seen the peep's jaw drop and they'd met eyes - Jane had clearly caught her red-handed - then she'd hied away. Jane had sensed a presence for some time, but had thoughtHugh was watching her.
The girl had seen a show indeed.
"Why would I be looking at ye dress? I'm a girl, can you no' see?"
Provincial, she mouthed to Hugh, but he scowled at her. After steadying and releasing the girl, he asked, "What are you doing here?"
"Been using the land, since no one else was." She hiked a thumb over her shoulder toward the dilapidated stables. "Those are my chicken coops beside the stable and my turnip patch in the back. My horse, too," she said. Jane spied a swaybacked pony, pulling weeds with very long teeth in a broken down corral.Corralled? As if it was going anywhere. "I'm yer neighbor of sorts, or as close as ye can get with this estate."
"What's your name?"
"M¨°rag MacLarty - stress on the Mac, if it pleases ye. Are ye kin to Master MacCarrick?"
"I'm his brother, Hugh MacCarrick. My wife and I are staying on for the fall. We plan to fix up the place."
She nodded slowly. "My brothers have the windows Master MacCarrick ordered last year stored in our barn. And they've got a fine share of lumber they'd likely be willing to sell before winter."
"That's good news."
"And ye could hire them to help around here. Six of them, all strong as oxen." The girl gave Jane a once-over, then said in a pert tone, "And ye'll be needing help with the housekeeping?"
That little peeping witch...
"Aye. Are you interested?"
M¨°rag nodded, and named her price for daily cleaning, cooking, and laundry. He countered, and they settled.
Without consulting her, he'd just hired a maid. Jane knew how to run a house, and knew that hiring servants was firmly in the woman's sphere of the home.
Hugh added, "But you'll need to ride over every day for at least two weeks. And I expect you to work as hard as we do."
She snorted at Jane. "Should no' be a problem."
"Why, you saucy little - "
"Jane, a word with you." As he grabbed Jane's elbow, he said, "M¨°rag, what are the odds that we'll have a hot meal tonight?"
"If ye can get the hearth flue cleared of the squirrels, ye can count on it."
He nodded, then dragged Jane across the weed-clotted yard. Jane glanced back, just in time to see M¨°rag stick her tongue out at her before turning toward the manor. "I don't want her, Hugh. She's impudent."
Hugh glared down at her. "Why have you taken such a dislike to her? For watching you dress? She's probably never seen anything like your Parisian silks and laces. Andbelieve me when I tell you that anyone would have stopped and stared. She would have to be curious."
Jane couldn't put a finger on why she bristled around the girl. Perhaps it was because M¨°rag - or whatever her name was - clearly didn't like her. "She stuck her tongue out at me," she said lamely.
"The last owner to live here was a verra foolishEnglishman who was hard on all those around here. Keep that in mind." When she remained unconvinced, he said, "Once we get the inside habitable, the outside is going to keep me busy from sunup to sundown. Do you truly want to haul water and pluck chickens? Surely, you canna cook?"
Haul, pluck, cook.Not her favorite verbs, and not ones traditionally associated with Jane. Her idea of turning the house around by herself suddenly seemed very daunting and not quite as adventurous as she'd hoped. At that moment, they heard banging in the kitchen. The girl had found the cookware! Jane rolled her eyes at Hugh.
Hugh pressed his advantage, saying, "She can buy us supplies in the village as well."
Jane put her chin up. "It might be nice to have someone around - but only to help me asI work." She marched toward the manor, with Hugh following her. Inside, Jane made her manner brisk. "What can I do?" she asked the girl.
"I'm thinkin' no' much, by the look of ye."
Jane gave Hugh a meaningful look, but he just squeezed her shoulder. "Is there a ladder anywhere around here?" he asked the girl.
"In the stable, just behind my saddle and gear."
Taking Jane aside, he said, "You stay right in here. I'll be back directly," then set off for the stables.
While Hugh was gone, Jane attempted to help the girl - who, she admitted, got thingsdone - but Jane was under the impression that she only got in the way of M¨°rag's cleaning. Her first clue was when M¨°rag snapped, "Git yer scrawny arse out o' my way, English."
The squirrels sensed something was afoot with their chimney community, and began chattering their fury.
When Hugh returned with firewood and a damp blanket, Jane frowned. "You're not going to start a fire directly under them? There could be baby squirrels or injured ones or older ones - "
"Squirrel stew ismighty tasty," M¨°rag interrupted.
Jane gave her a horrified look, then whipped her head around to Hugh. "Squirrel st-stew?"
He checked a grin. "Jane, I'm going to start a verrasmall fire, with damp wood that will smoke more than anything. Then I'll drape a wet blanket over the hearth opening down here. It'll give them enough time to run up to the roof."
When she still appeared unconvinced, M¨°rag said, "Enough with the bluidy squirrels, English. Now, which do ye want to do? Dress chickens or scour pots?"
When Jane merely bit her lip, M¨°rag said, "Pots it is." She nodded at an open closet full of them. "You can take all of them to the pump in the back and wash them. There's soaps and brushes in the shed off this kitchen."
Though Hugh wanted to help, Jane waved him away. "I can do it by myself," she said firmly.
"Doona go anywhere but to the pump and back. Agreed?"
"Hugh, really." At his unbending look, she muttered, "Agreed."
When she began hauling pots out to the pump, he moved to a window where he could see her. "We're going to need supplies," he told M¨°rag. "But I doona want anyone to know we're here, nor any visitors out here."
He'd thought about telling her something ridiculous, like they wanted to surprise his brother with the renovation, but the girl was smart and, he sensed, trustworthy. "There's an Englishman who might come looking for us. A dangerous sort of man, and one we'd rather avoid."
She eyed him, knowing he was being less than forthcoming. He didn't care, as long as they understood each other.
"The sundries storekeeper will know ye're here, and that means the whole village will know. But no one outside of it will."
He added another piece of wood to the small fire he'd started. "The villagers doona like strangers?"
"Nay, no' at all. Strangers are met with a tight lip and a surly expression anyway, and if an outsider asks any of the townsfolk about yer whereabouts, I'll hear word of it directly. And I'll make sure everyone knows ye're honeymooning and are no' keen on receiving any visitors just now."
Hugh raised his brows. They might as well have dropped off the face of the earth by coming here. Hugh and M¨°rag understood each other perfectly. He nodded, finished draping the blanket over the fireplace, then strode outside. He chanced his tottering ladder all the way to the second-story roof to clear debris from the top of the chimney.
From the higher vantage, he could keep an eye on Jane as she worked. When she disappeared inside, he took in the views, comprehending more and more what had possessed his brother to buy Beinn a'Chaorainn. A breeze rippled the loch, then stilled, and the water reflected sunlight in a perfect mirror. On a fine day like this, he could see twenty miles away to the rounded spine of mountains at the far edge of Court's property.
For the next half hour, Hugh dodged the exodus of fleeing squirrels and marked damaged spots on the roof to fix when M¨°rag's brothers could help with the major repairs. All the while, he checked on Jane, hard at work on her task.
The pots were heavy and unwieldy, but she seemed content to transport only two or three at a time to the pump. Back and forth she went, again and again, until she'd finally collected a mound of pots, handles sticking out in every direction.
At the pump, she rolled up her sleeves, then drew down on the lever -
Black sludge exploded out of the faucet, splattering over the front of her dress and her face like paint from a dropped tin.
"Oh, bloody, hell," Hugh muttered, hurrying to climb down, snapping two rungs on the descent.
Jane froze for long moments, then sputtered, wiping her face with her forearm.
The girl had done that on purpose, no doubt of it. M¨°rag could have told Jane to take the pots to the loch. Before Hugh reached her, Jane swung her gaze to him and raised one finger, her eyes murderous.
"I will handle this," she said between gritted teeth. "Don't you say a word to her."
"Jane, this will no' be tolerated - "
"Precisely why I'm about to take care of this. If she wants to toss down the gauntlet, then I'll pick it up." After carefully filling the largest pot with sludge, she lugged it toward the stables. The weight was so heavy it dragged her arm down, skewing her balance.
When Jane returned from the stables - where M¨°rag's saddle and bags were - the bucket was empty and swinging at her hip, jaunty as a berry basket.