Chapter Forty

"I will," Hugh vowed, returning his fingers to her. "I want tae show you this. And that means readying you." He began to tease and stroke her flesh again, making her melt for him, until she was on the verge of release. Mercilessly, he kept her just on the edge as he delved and rubbed, over and over.

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She moaned with need, ready to beg. "Hugh, I'm ready!" she cried. "I ache so much inside...please..."

He was so gorgeous in the moonlight - his eyes were burning with intent, with possession. She swept her palms over his damp chest, reveling in the way the muscles in his torso flexed under her hands.

At last, he took his shaft and positioned it, clenching his jaw when the head met her entrance."So hot...so wet." His lips were parted, his breaths ragged. "It's everything I can do no' to come right now." When he began working the head inside her, she felt it stretching her - no matter how much he'd prepared her, the fit was still tight. "Tell me," he rasped, feeding his length into her, "tell me what you meant this afternoon, S¨¬ne."

By the time he met the barrier, she was trembling, clutching his shoulders, and he was sweating with the obvious effort to go slow. He gazed down at her, dark eyes questioning.

"I'm yours," she whispered. "To take." She'd never been more certain of anything in her life.

He groaned, thrusting deep. She felt the tearing, hissing in a breath just as he groaned, "Sotight ." He shuddered, but remained still inside her as he gently smoothed her hair back from her forehead. "I dinna want to cause you pain."

"No, I knew there'd be" - she tried to conceal a wince - "a bit of hurting."

Even with this discomfort, the feeling of closeness awed her. This was worth the wait a thousand times over. She could feel him throbbing inside her, could see his anguished expression, but somehow he didn't move, wanting to spare her pain, wanting to please her.

She gazed up at him and couldn't hold back the words: "I...love you."

"What did you say?" he bit out, battling the frantic need to shove his hips at her.

"I always have."

Her words made him wonder if he was dreaming this entire scenario - this was exactly as he would imagine. Now, when he was buried so deeply inside her, the need arose to say the words that would bind her to him - a vow of self, spoken in the old language. Yet he couldn't. He didn't have that right.

Instead, he bent down and kissed her, with everything he felt for her, until she was panting. Her hands went from holding on to his shoulders, as though for dear life, to exploring touches over his body. When she tentatively rolled her hips, he withdrew, then eased back inside her, determined to make this good for her.Concentrate. Slowly in...easing out. Again.

He had to stop wondering why she had chosen to give this gift tohim  - tolove him. He drew back to study her face. "Does it still hurt, S¨¬ne?" he asked, rocking against her.

Her eyes fluttered open with a look of wonder. "N-no, not anymore," she murmured. "That feels so perfect...." She leaned up to press her wet little kisses on his chest, driving him mad. "Does it for you?"

In answer, he shuddered again and couldn't help stirring himself in her, savoring all her wetness around him. When he thrust again, her nipples were hard points goading his chest. He bent to lick them, and she began meeting every thrust.

As soon as he slipped his thumb down between them and rubbed, she cried, "I'm about to...You're making me...Oh, God,promise you'll do this again to me. Tonight." She took his face in both of her hands. "Promise,Hugh ." His name became a cry as she climaxed.

Though he fought it, had even stopped thrusting, her hungry body demanded, her sex squeezing him, tight as a fist. He couldn't hold his seed. Defeated, he bucked between her thighs with all his strength, yelling to the sky. He came with a violent force, shuddering with each fierce pumping inside her.

As he leaned against her, heart thundering against hers, he said hoarsely, "You love me?"

Back in his bed, she curled against him, her breaths light on his chest, her body warm and soft with sleep. But Hugh was wide awake, turning thoughts over and over in his mind.

Tonight, he had dared to put his rough hands on her delicate body - his hands, which had killed so many times before. He'd dared to take her virginity - had been about to do it in a crazed moment of anger. He'd almost hurt her without measure.

Yet hehadn't .

The only dire thing he'd done was to give in when she'd wanted him four more times. If he was destined to bring her pain, then why had she told him that what they'd done hadawed her?

He wondered where the guilt was. He'd expected to be disgusted with his weakness; instead he felt alive, energized, optimistic. His body was relaxed, his muscles at ease. Throughout the night, she'd made him feel like the lad he'd been when he'd seen her last. He wanted more of that feeling.

Tonight, he'd made her his, and it had felt like it was hisright to do so.

Because she wants me, too.She'dalways wanted him. Before she'd slept, she confided to him about her feelings, and how long she'd struggled with them. The more she revealed, the more astounded he'd become.

She'd told him she compared all men to him - and found them all lacking. Compared tohim . He pulled her closer with the crook of his arm. He could scarcely credit it, but knew she told the truth.

What if I just tell her about the curse?he thought again. She was intelligent. He respected her ideas and admired the way her mind worked. Maybe between the two of them, they could figure out a way.

Tomorrow, then. It would be done.

The next morning, Jane stretched with a grin on her face, feeling sore and well-loved. She was also morein love than she'd ever been. Last night had been everything she'd always dreamed it would be - better than.

Her only regret was that they hadn't been spending the last ten years of their lives like this. But as long as they spent the rest of them this way, she was mollified.

Her eyes slid open, and she found Hugh was dressed in pants, seated on the edge of the bed. She took one look at his face and knew.

"Oh, dear God," she murmured. "I'm a regret."

"It's no' like that, Jane - "

"Then tell me you don't regret making love to me."

He raked his fingers through his tousled hair. "It's more complicated than that."

She gave a bitter laugh. "It's very simple. The man I gave my virginity to, wishes he hadn't taken it."

He flinched.

"You win, Hugh." She stood, wrapping the sheet around her. "I'm going to say three words I've never uttered to anyone in my entire life: I - give - up." She stormed out, striding into her room. After slamming her door, she locked it behind her.

Seconds later, her door was rocked from its hinges. With a gasp, she glanced up from donning her shift.

He was huge, filling the doorway. She was even more aware of his strength and the power in his body because she'd spent the night learning every inch of it, rubbing, cupping, and licking it.

"Stop doing that to my doors!" she cried.

"Then doona ever keep a locked door between us."

"I'm done talking to you!" she snapped, and darted past him, heading for the broken door.

He grabbed her elbow, swinging her around. "Will you no' just listen to me?"

They were toe to toe, both breathing heavily. His brows drew together as if he was confounded, then his hand shot out to clutch her nape, yanking her against his unyielding chest. His voice a broken rasp, he said,"My God, I'll never get enough of you."

His lips crashed into hers, slanting into a scorching, possessive kiss, making her ache anew. But she somehow shoved against him. "No! I'm not doing this! Not again. Not until you tell me what happened between last night and this morning."

After a hesitation, he took a deep, seemingly calming breath, then nodded. "Verra well. Dress yourself. Then we'll discuss some things," he said, looking for all the world like a man sentenced to the gallows.

Chapter Forty-one

Half an hour later, once Jane had washed and dressed, preparing for whatever he had to confess, she sat patiently waiting on the side of his bed.

Hugh hadn't spoken, just paced the room like a caged beast, appearing as if he were...nervous.

"Just say what's on your mind," she said as he passed. "Whatever it is, it can't hurt to tell me."

He slowed. "And how would you know that?"

"Is it a secret that someone would kill me for? That Grey would torture me for?"

"No."

"Does it embarrass you?"

"No, but - "

"Hugh, they're just words. Trust me with your secret, and you won't regret it." When he still resisted, she tried to make light. "Do you worry that I won't find you as attractive if you're not the brooding Highlander with his devilish secrets? Tell me."

"Hell, you won't believe me anyway," he muttered.

"This is going to sound mad. I ken it's going to." He ran a hand over the back of his neck. "But my family was...cursed. I believe that I will bring you nothing but misery if I stay wed to you."

Cursed? What the devil is he talking about?Though her thoughts were wild, her tone was inscrutable when she said, "Go on, I'm listening."

"Ten generations ago, a clan seer foretold the futures of the Carrick line and recorded them in a book called theLeabhar nan S¨´il-radharc , theBook of Fates ." He pointed to the old book he always had on the table. "My brothers and I are fated to be solitary, living our lives alone, and will bring pain to those we care for if we think to do otherwise. We will be the last of our line and can never have children. For five hundred years, the foretellings have all come true - every single one of them."

"I-I don't understand..." She inhaled and began again, "Do you care for me enough to stay with me otherwise?" she asked.

"Aye, Christ, yes."

"Then you're telling me that nothing stands in the way of us staying married except for a...curse?"

When he didn't deny it, Jane barely stifled the scream welling in her throat.This just isn't happening to me! How could she be rational in the face of this? Reasonable was impossible.

It was as if one of the foundations of her adult life had just suffered a fracture. Now everything built on it had gone askew. The quiet, steady Hugh she'd known for half her life was gone, and in his place was a superstitious madman.

"Hugh, people simply...people like us simply don't think like this anymore. Not with science and medicine. M¨°rag is superstitious because she doesn't know any better. You've traveled the world, and you're educated. Beliefs like this belong in the past."

"And I wish I could put them there. But this has shadowed me for my entire life."

"You know me well enough to know I can't accept things like this."

"Aye, I ken that." He exhaled a long breath. "And I know that you scorn those who do."

"Naturally!" she snapped, then struggled for calm. "Are you telling me this now because you're willing to forget this, forget these beliefs?"

His expression looked hopeless - and resigned. "If I could have figured out a way to get around it, I never would have had to tell you."

When she realized that he wasn't revealing this to explain his past behavior, but to explain why he couldn't stay married to her, her lips parted. "You're really saying this? That aScottish curse - and, my goodness, aren't those always the worst kind? - keeps us from remaining wed?"

All of the worry, the careful strategizing, the effort to win him - all of it was for nothing.

Because of a curse.

Frustration threatened to choke her.No, Father, actually I can'tcajole him into staying with me. She'd never had a chance from the outset.

"Everything in the book comes to pass," Hugh said.

"Everything. I ken it's hard to believe."

"I should have kept a tally of your excuses! You're not the marrying kind, you can't have children, and, oh yes, you are cursed. Anything else you want to declare to scare me away? I know! Youused to be a eunuch? You've only two months to live?" Then, in a breathy voice, she said, "You're aghost , aren't you?"

He clenched and unclenched his jaw, visibly grappling for control. "Do you think I'm lying about this?"

"Hugh, I sincerelyhope you're lying - " She broke off as a thought arose. "Oh, dear God." A trembling hand flew to her forehead. "Does this mean that a five-hundred-year-old curse is the only thing you were trusting to keep me from conceiving?"

"I told you I canna get you with bairn." His eyes narrowed. "But you said it dinna matter either way."

"I said it didn't matter, so long as we were married! Right now, all I know is that you're still leaving. And, yes, you told me you can't have children, but I'm having trouble with the source of your information."

He strode to the table, flipping to the end of the book. "Just read the words, and let me explain."

She shook her head. "I can't listen to this. I would no more listen to this than I would hear an argument that the sun is blue."

"You've wanted to know, and now I'm telling you - the first person I've ever told - but you doona want to hear it?" he demanded. "Read the words."

She yanked the book out of his hands. "This is the root of thecurse ?" At his nod, she tossed it back to the table and flipped through, not bothering to be careful with the pages, though she could tell it was very old. Some of the text was written in Gaelic, some in English. Her brows drew together as she flipped toward the end. Now it all seemed to be written in English.

"Why're you frowning? Did you feel something - "

"Yes!" she cried, swinging a wide-eyed gaze at him. "I'm feeling an overwhelming urge to toss this into the lake."

Ignoring her comment, he moved beside her and turned to the last page. "This was written to my father."

She perused the passage.Not to marry, know love, or bind, their fate; Your line to die for never seed shall take. Death and torment to those caught in their wake... "You said all of this has come true?"

"Aye. My father died the day after we read this the first time, the verra next morning, though he was no' much older than I am now. And years ago, Ethan's intended died the night before his wedding."

"How?"

He hesitated, then said, "She either fell. Or jumped."

"Is this blood?" Jane scratched her nail against the copper stain at the bottom. At his nod, she asked, "What's under the stain?"

"We doona know. It's never been lifted."

She peered up at him. "What if it says, 'Disregard the above'?" At his scowl, she said, "Hugh, I don't think this is a curse - I think this islife . Bad things happen, and if I made myself a template of future woes, I could pick and choose from everything that might have happened to match it. Now, I admit, your father's death was strange. But there are physicians in London who posit that the mind can make the body do anything - even shut down. Belinda told me about it. If your father believed strongly enough, he could have effected this."

"And Ethan? The death of his fianc¨¦e directly before his wedding?"

"Was either an accident or his intended wasn't well and couldn't take the idea of marriage to someone she didn't love."

Again and again, she brought up points, calling on everything she'd ever learned about science or just plain human nature.

Finally, he undermined all her efforts by saying simply, "I believe it. Ifeel it."

"Because you were raised to, and you grew into this curse, grew to fit it. You are the epitome of a self-fulfilling prophecy. You believed that you would walk with death, that you weren't supposed to have joy in life." She reached out and tentatively touched his arm. "But Hugh, I'm not expecting you to simply turn this off. It's been with you for thirty-two years - it will take time to let go. I'm willing to work at it if you are." His silence actually made her more optimistic. "In time, we'll get you to start believing that youwill have happiness - that you deserve it." She cupped his face. "Tell me you'll at least try. For me? I'm ready to fight for us if you are."

The moment stretched interminably. Her whole future hung in the balance - but surely he would make the right choice. She couldn't be this in love with someone who would throw away what they had.

When his gaze left her face to flicker uneasily to the book, she realized she'd lost.

Jane didn't lose well.

Releasing him, she snatched the book, then stormed out of the room and down the stairs.

"What're you doing?" He was right behind her as she marched out of the house into the thick morning fog. "Tell me what you're aiming to do."

She hurried through dew-wetted grass toward the loch. "To get rid of the problem."

"The book is no' the problem. Just a reminder of it."

She had the lake in sight and didn't take her eyes from it when she said, "Then I'm ridding you of the reminder." She drew the book to her chest with both arms around it. She suddenly felt a sheen of cold sweat over her body, and inwardly shook herself.

"No, lass, it's no' that simple. Pitching it into the water will no'do anything."

"It might make me feel better." She turned to go to the first rocky rise, farther up the water's edge. It was deeper there, and she wanted this tome to sink to the bottom, never to touch another life again.

"It will no' matter if you cast it in the loch. It always finds its way back."

"Are you mad?" she snapped over her shoulder without slowing. "Listen to yourself!" When she reached the spot she wanted, she changed her grip on the book, readying to lob it, but hesitated.

"What are you waiting for? Do it, lass. I've done it enough."

She raised her eyebrows in challenge. "You think I'm jesting? I'll do it!"

He waved her on, and she flung it with all her might. They both stood silently watching it sink, the pages fluttering until it disappeared.

"Odd. I don't feel any different." She faced him. When he evinced the same grim, resolved expression, she didn't bother to hide her bitter disappointment in him. "You were right - it didn'tdo anything. You're still going to throw away what's between us. We muststill be cursed."

"If I risked only my life, this would be done," he grated. "I would no' think twice. But if I were to cause you any kind of hurt, I could never forgive myself."

Tears began spilling from her eyes. "Any kind of hurt?" She threw her hands up. "Thishurts right now, Hugh. It hurts worse than anything I've ever known." She futilely wiped her eyes with the backs of her hands. "Of course, you'll just see that as proof that the curse is in effect, right?"

"I would no' have had you feeling even this." He looked as if watching her crying was torture. He seemed to want to touch her but only clenched and opened his fist. "I would no' have come back if no' for Grey and would never have seen you again. I managed it for years - "

"You...youpurposely sought not to see me?" He'd been avoiding her? When she'd been begging her cousins to ride with her past his London home, praying for a mere glimpse of him? "This just gets better. Well, understand that the last ten years have been unbearable without you. So by staying away, you hurt me. By abandoning me, you devastated me."

"Abandoned? I never made you any promises."

"I thought we were getting married!" Her tears streamed without check. "I thought you were just waiting until I was eighteen. I didn't describe my wedding ring to someone Ididn't believe would be my husband."

His lips parted, but then he shook his head. "Even if none of this had happened, even without the curse, I still would no' have offered for you. I dinna have anything to offer you. I hadnothing ."

"I wouldn't have cared as long as I was with you."

"That's bullshite!" he roared, finally reaching the limits of his control. "You liked wealth and made no secret of it. And every time you made that clear, you dinna see me tensing at yet another reminder that I was no' good enough for you. You described that ring for a reason, Jane - because you expected it!"

"The only thing I expected wasnot to be abandoned without a word. And I'll tell you right now that it's so much worse to be left behind than to do the leaving."

"You have no bloody idea," he bit out, his tone seething. "You want to know my secrets, Jane? Know that at twenty-two, I went out in the world and did a cold-blooded thing. And I did it foryou . Because I knew if I did such a heinous act, I would never dream of entangling my life with yours. So doona tell me it's easier to walk away - it's no'. No' if you can possibly go back."

"But you're still going to do it again. When Grey's caught."

"Aye. I know that I will," he said, staring down at her. "Even if I doona know how."