Later that morning, when Hugh felt he had calmed enough from the morning's fight, he found her on the terrace shooting her bow. With her face cold and expressionless as marble, she drew back her bowstring and shot, drawing one arrow after another from the quiver at her back with incredible speed.
She'd long since shredded her target.
"Jane, can you stop for a moment?" he asked, falling in beside her when she retrieved her arrows.
Angrily yanking them out, she collected them in the quiver. "Can you not see I'm busy?" She didn't even glance at him, just returned to her line to nock another arrow. In one fluid movement, she raised her aim to the target, pulled and released the bowstring, hitting dead center.
"I need to speak with you," Hugh said.
"And I need some time alone."
Noting the drawn expression on her face and her arms beginning to shake, he said, "You've been at this for hours, lass."
"There's nothing to talk about, since I understand the situation perfectly. I've all butbegged you to remain married to me. I've confessed my unwavering feelings for you and offered to do whatever it takes to get us past this. But there's a rub. You can't, because you'recursed ."
At last, he'd revealed his weighty secret, and she'd brought up the strong arguments he'd anticipated from her. But what had he expected - that he could be talked from something that had pervaded every corner of his life? Hell, even if somehow he could come to disbelieve the curse, he'd had it hanging over him so long, shaping him, that he was suspicious of happiness, was uncomfortable with it.
He knew he shouldn't have told her, if he wasn't capable of even trying. "So what do we do about this marriage? We need to decide something."
"We can decide this very easily. You let go of this curse absurdity. If you swear never to mention it again, I'll vow to wipe this memory from my mind. Then we'll live happily ever after. Or, if you insist on this tripe, then we will end in one of two ways - divorce or separation."
"If I could let this go and stay married to you, I'd give my right arm for it."
At that, she hesitated in the middle of a shot, and hit just wide of the center.
"But you can't," she said softly.
He gave a weary exhalation. "No."
Making her manner brisk once more, she said, "Then we've made our decision."
"Jane..." When she wouldn't look at him again, he turned from her, but didn't know where to go, what to do.
Work.Work would take his mind off her, off scenes of the night before. Yet the only thing left to do on the property, after weeks of ceaseless labor, was to clear the trees from the drive. He crossed to the stables, entering the darkened building. His mood must be palpable - the horses seemed startled by him, though they never had been before.
Yes, getting lost in exertion would dull his desperate want of her. Who was he deluding?Nothing would dull it. It'd bloody gottenworse, now that he'd been foolish enough to think he could slake himself inside her -
Blinding pain exploded through his head. The side of his face slammed against the hard-packed ground; warmth seeped down the back of his neck.
Another blow connected with Hugh's temple. Two hits, placed just as Grey had been taught to do - if he wanted to keep a victim alive but immobilized. The booted kicks to Hugh's gut were solely for Grey's enjoyment.
Grey clucked his tongue. "Damn, Hugh, you could've made this a little more challenging."
Jane had watched Hugh amble down the hill toward the stables, looking as if he carried the weight of the world, and felt a pang, then grew more angered than before. He never allowed her to juststep back, to lick her wounds a bit. And if she'd ever needed to...
She felt as if she'd been slapped and was still reeling.
He didn't want to stay with her, even after they'd made love and she'd easily concluded that it was the most wondrous thing that had ever happened to her. It was bad enough that she'd given her virginity to someone who regretted taking it, when she'd waited so long, waited so impatiently. But rubbing salt in the wound was the fact that Hugh regretted taking it because of a soddingcurse .
This was so fantastical as not to be believed.
Give his right arm, he'd said. Though all signs pointed to his caring for her much more deeply and for much longer than she'd imagined, she actually prayed that wasn't true. If he'd felthalf of what she had for all these years and denied them a marriage because of this...
She thought she might begin to hate him.
If Hugh had been honest and forthcoming about his superstitions all those years ago, she would have gotten over him. She would have understood there was no chance for them, and she would have married someone else. But he hadn't been forthcoming, and she was done letting her feelings for Hugh "Tears and Years" MacCarrick eat away at her life.
It was time for Jane to be practical. She could never compete with a five-hundred-year-old curse. She was never going to have a life with Hugh, so what would she do after Grey was caught? Though she'd told Hugh they could divorce, the idea of it made her cringe. Perhaps she could still get an annulment.
Based on Hugh's insanity.
Or they could stay married but separated. She tilted her head. Yes, that was the better option. She would demand her dowry from Hugh - and her father had better be prompt to pay it, after he'd forced her into thisfarce of a marriage.
With that money and as a married woman, she could be independent. She could travel, sponsor the arts, finally found the Society for the Expression of Vice! She could write dirty books for Holywell Street, take lovers like there was no tomorrow and have ten children by them. Yes. This could work -
A thought made her heart sink and her blood boil. Hugh might believe in a curse as contraception, but Jane did not.
She could be pregnant from last night.
How could he do this to her? He expected her to accept this madness, and vowed to leave her, when she could very well be carrying his child!
Before she had any real idea what she was doing, she was marching down to the stables. This was probably a Bad Idea. She'd impulsively tossed that book, but throwing it away hadn't made her feel any better - well, notthat much better. It had gone differently in her mind and such.
But what did it matter how she behaved now? What else could be hurt by releasing the tirade bubbling inside her?
Because things couldn't possibly be worse than they already were.
Hugh cracked open his eyes, wincing with pain, and found himself staring into the barrel of a pistol.
He struggled to rise but almost lost consciousness. Though he knew he couldn't dissuade Grey from this course, he had to try - because he understood exactly why he'd been kept alive, and his gut roiled with dread.
"Doona do this," he bit out, laboring for breath against the stabbing pain in his ribs. "Kill me, make it slow, but she has no place in all this."
"Why waste your breath?" Grey asked. "I just don'tthink that way. In case you never noticed, I don't think like you at all. I'll kill her as easily as an insect."
"You were no' always like this."
"Precisely why I'm here, Scot. To redress wrongs."
"How did you find us?" Hugh grated, trying to stall.
"It was the oddest thing. I was stalking this young lass, not far from here, planning to remove her fingers, when she met up with a band of six riders. Big bastards on massive mounts. They set off onto a path into the woods, but left a trail so deep that a blind man could follow them, a trail straight here...."
Out of the corner of his eye, Hugh spied a flicker of white. Raising his gaze, he saw Jane poised at the stable entrance, face stoic as an angel's. An avenging angel's - she had an arrow nocked in her bow, pointed at Grey's back. The string was pulled so tight with her leather-tipped fingers, Hugh thought the bow would snap.
Hugh dropped his eyes, but Grey must have followed the direction of his gaze. He twisted around to fire at her, but she let her arrow sing without hesitation. She'd obviously aimed for his heart, but she'd caught him too quickly. Grey hadn't finished whirling around when her arrow struck. It only pierced his gun arm - through the forearm, pinning it to his chest. Hugh couldn't see Grey's face and reaction, but saw Jane's.
Her eyes were stark and wide, her lips parting in shock.
A monster. The man she'd known as Grey was gone and in his place was something she could scarcely comprehend. His face was drawn tight over his prominent cheekbones. A wide coal-black hat shaded his wasted face and darkened teeth.
Before she could nock another arrow, he lunged for her. Swinging his free arm out, he backhanded her, sending her spinning into the wall. She heard Hugh's roar of fury just before her head hit and snapped forward. She slumped, sinking inch by inch to the ground, as she fought to keep her eyes open.
Even though Hugh had been lying on the ground with blood coursing down his neck and temple, now he somehow lumbered to his knees, but Grey turned. With a yell, Grey reared back his leg and kicked him across the side of his head, making Hugh's body jerk in recoil before collapsing once more.
Jane bit back the hysterical scream clawing at her throat and crawled to her bow. She snatched it up just as Grey turned, setting those crazed eyes on her. Scrambling backward, she clumsily tore another arrow from her quiver.
The movement made her vision blurry...couldn't stop blinking...even while taking aim. On a prayer, eyes closing, she pulled back the bowstring and shot again. She heard a meaty thump.Hit him... In the shoulder.
Not a kill shot. Try again. Fight. Another arrow.
Grey closed in and ripped the arrow and bow from her with his free hand, tossing them both away. "Jane, I'm afraid you're just being tedious now," he said, his tone gently chiding and utterly out of place with the maniacal expression on his waxen face. "If you cooperate, I might make this a bit less agonizing."
Blood poured from his wounds; his right arm was still raised against his chest, the hand that clutched his pistol useless. When he attempted to remove the first arrow, he rocked on his feet. Finally he just broke the shanks of both arrows at the middle, then dropped his gun, catching it with his left hand.
"Grey, goddamn it, there must be something," Hugh bit out, laboring to speak, "something you want more than this."
"We aren't going to do this, are we?" Grey asked, as though exasperated. "Hash out old ills and slights, revealing things never revealed before in the hopes of a final understanding? If we did that every time you and I killed, we'd be wise men indeed. Besides, you know there's never been any reasoning or bargaining that has moved me - or you - to mercy."
What is he saying?
Grey stowed his pistol and unsheathed his blade, making her freeze with fear.Grey slits their throats , Hugh had told her.
When he turned to her with the knife, she tried to meet his chilling gaze. "W-why?" she whispered.
"Why?Because your father ordered my death, and he almost succeeded. Four bullets in the chest in return for nearly twenty years of murder for the old bastard. And because, once, when I was in a very bad way, your husband beat me to within an inch of my life - over you, incidentally - then left me to rot in a dark basement. I'm going to kill you to punish them for their slights. It's nothing personal, you see."
"Myfather ? What are you talking about?"
"You didn't know any of this?" He cast a glance at Hugh, and tsked. "That's not very forthcoming of you. And now that I think on it, it's arrogant. You never told her, because you didn't expect me to last long enough to be a threat. Take me out and she never has to know? But here I am." To Jane, he said, "Your father deals death for a living, and Hugh is his most prolific assassin. Your father, Hugh, Rolley, even Quin have all lied and hid their real faces from you. How much you must have trusted them all to protect you. I bet you feel more foolish than frightened right now."
She spat the words, "They knew well enough thatyou needed to die."
"Yes, Weyland sought to destroy what he'd made."
"He didn't make you like this - your addiction did - "
"Wrong! When your father was doling out jobs, he made sure I took the brunt of the bad, the ones that really twist a man.My sacrifice made your husband what he is. Know that Hugh could so easily have been like me."
"Never," she hissed.
"Why not? Hugh's a cold-blooded killer too, creeping about in the night and taking lives - just as I do." He drew his lips back from his dark teeth. "But he's not ruined, not yet. Because your father made sure he preserved Hugh foryou ."
She blinked in confusion.
"Did they tell younothing ?" He gave her a pitying smile. "Dear girl, Hugh has yearned for your heart so badly and for so long that I'm finally going to give it to him. Still warm from your chest."
As he gathered the last of his strength, Hugh was forced to do nothing but listen as Grey revealed what Hugh was. He saw Jane's face, stark with confusion, her gaze darting to him as if waiting for a denial.
But when Grey took the merest step closer to her, Hugh lunged forward, tackling Grey's legs. They plunged forward and struck the ground.
Hugh rolled away. Grey's body lay poised, propped at a grotesque angle by the remains of the arrows - until with a sickening rush, the tips pierced his back.
At once, Hugh struggled toward Jane. Over his harsh breaths, he barely heard the faint gurgling sound coming from Grey. When Hugh reached her, he drew her up in the crook of his arm, gently touching her face, but she couldn't seem to focus on him. "How badly are you hurt, S¨¬ne?"
"Hugh, you got...hit, kicked."
"He pulled the blows. Wanted me to see."
She gave a weak cry. "Oh, God, I feel his blood." It was seeping outward from Grey, soaking her skirts.
Hugh swooped her away, moving her into the sun.
"Is he d-dead? Make sure he's dead, please."
Hugh gently laid her back against the wall, then bit back pain as he closed the distance to Grey. When Hugh turned him over, the man's eyes were open. He lived still, but the arrow through his chest ensured it wouldn't be for long.
Leaning in so Jane couldn't hear, Hugh hissed, "Goddamn you, where's the list? Did you release it?"
Grey made a small movement as though he'd tried to shake his head. "Have it," he said with a gasp, blood bubbling up from his lips.
"Did you do something to Ethan? Tell me!"
Grey's face split into a gruesome grin. Just before he died, he rasped,"Ethan...was...my last number."
Through a haze, Jane felt Hugh lifting her in his arms, though he had been injured as well. She felt him shuddering as he clutched her, but she wanted to walk on her own, to take care of him. Yet every time she made a move to free herself, he squeezed her to him like a steel vise.
She frowned when her skirts dragged down, then remembered they were wet with Grey's blood. As Hugh walked, the material made sickening smacks against his legs. Nauseated, she fought to keep her heavy eyelids open, but it was impossible....
When she cracked open her eyes once more, she found herself in Hugh's bed, already stripped of her bloody clothes.
"You're awake." Hugh was gazing down at her with an agonized expression.
Well, of course she was. She only had a bump to her head and a bruised jaw.He was the one who was hurt, with dried blood tracking down his face and neck. When he began washing her off with a wet cloth, she said, "Hugh, stop this...let me get up to see to you." He continued on as if she hadn't spoken, and she couldn't summon the strength to rise.
Just when he'd finished and had slipped a new shift on her, M¨°rag entered the room, took one look at the pile of bloody clothing, and began firing questions.
"Go downstairs," he ordered, talking over her. "There will be a saddled horse somewhere near the main house. Secure it outside the stable." Then, seeming to rethink the matter, he said, "The Englishman who'd been aiming to hurt us is dead in the stable. Doona go in there."
"Well, if he's dead, he will no' need his horse!"
"Do it!" Hugh barked. "And doona read anything in his bags."
"I canna read," she called over her shoulder as she hurried from the room.
Jane reached a hand to his temple. "We have to see to your head."
"It's nothing." He knew from experience that he would be foggy and would sleep more for a couple days. His ribs would hurt like hell for weeks, but he'd recovered from far worse than this. "I'm a hard headed Scot, remember? But you..." He studied her jaw, touching the tender area, and she couldn't prevent a wince. "The bastard meant to break it." His voice thrummed with cold anger when he said, "And would have, if he'd been stronger."
"What did he say to you in the end?"
"He said he...killed my brother."
"Oh, Hugh, I'm so sorry."
M¨°rag bustled into the room again. Between breaths, she said, "I've secured his horse."
"Good." He rose unsteadily and told her, "Stay here till I return."
"Hugh?" Jane whispered, not ready for him to leave her sight. She was shaken to her bones, in pain, and still afraid, even though Grey was dead.
"I have to check on something," he answered, not looking any happier that he had to go. "I'll be right back." To M¨°rag, he said, "Stay with her."
The girl replied, "Fine horse o' his, with such high-class tack.My saddle was ruined by English with the sludge - "
"Take it," he barked. "Just doona dare leave this room, in case she needs anything."
M¨°rag nodded, and as soon as Hugh had left, she said, "What the hell is going on, English? Did you shoot that man full of quills?" She appeared almost admiring.
Jane nodded, feeling no regret for helping to kill a man, so she was surprised to find tears tracking down her cheeks. Her mind was a tangle of thoughts and questions.
How much of what Grey had said was true? He was either a madman speaking lies - or her life was not at all as she'd thought. Was she surrounded by deceivers, by killers? Did Hugh truly lurk around in the dark and kill unsuspecting people?
Could Hugh have wanted her to the desperate degree that she'd wanted him?
Grey had been as dangerous as they'd said, but now he was dead, and the threat was gone. Even after this, she sensed nothing had changed with Hugh - which meant soon she'd be going home.
To live among people she didn't even know anymore.
Hugh found the list in a sealed, waxed tube in Grey's saddlebag, and burned the paper, watching until nothing remained but the finest ash.
Jane was safe from Grey, and this other danger would never touch her or her father. They'd come through unscathed. But Ethan hadn't.
No. Hugh refused to believe it. He didn't think Grey would lie about this, but maybe the man had been mistaken. He might have hallucinated.
Wouldn't Hugh feel it if one of his brothers were dead?
Hugh would write and request information about Ethan. Yes, he'd get M¨°rag to ride to the telegraph office this morning. Grey's death needed to be reported, as did the recovery of the list.
He wished he had an idea of what he would be writing about Jane - other than the fact that Grey had told her so much that Hugh would now be forced to explain the rest.
When he returned with the message and sent M¨°rag off to post it, he found Jane was sleeping, her cheeks still wet. How could the events of the day - and of their long night before - not have left her exhausted?
He washed himself, gritting his teeth against the pain as he removed the dried blood from his beaten body. After he'd wedged a chair against the door, he crawled into bed beside her.
When he woke, he found her on her side, watching him. It was night, but the moon was firing light into the room.
"How is your head?" she asked sleepily.
"Doona worry about me, lass. I'm concerned only with your jaw."
She brushed her fingers over it. "It'll be sore. And it's already starting to bruise, but I'll be fine."
He touched it too, needing to make sure.
"Hugh, I want to understand what Grey was talking about. What did he mean about you, and about my father?"
She'd heard too much - she'd have to know the rest. And didn't he owe her the truth after what had happened with Grey? She'd tolerated so much, had coped with all that had been forced onto her. Hugh knew this, and yet, still he hesitated.
As many times as he'd imagined making love to her, he'd imagined the look on her face to learn of this. "Jane, I worked as..." He trailed off.
"Go on. Please."
"I was a gunman."
"What is that?"
He swallowed. "I...I killed people for the crown."
"I don't understand. I thought you worked with Courtland. And how could my father be involved in that?"
So Hugh explained that Weyland headed an organization that dealt withsituations - ones that couldn't be resolved diplomatically. He revealed what all of their roles were.
"Quin and Rolley, too? Why didn't I ever discover this?" she asked.
"Most family members don't. And your father never wanted this to touch you. That's always been his worst fear. Lying to you sat ill with him."
Her voice soft, she asked, "Did lying to me sit ill with you?"
"Never lied to you."
She bit her lip, frowning as she clearly thought back. Then she said, "My father did try to have Grey killed?" At Hugh's hesitant nod, she asked, "Was Grey right to say that you were favored over him?"
He ran a hand over his face. "I dinna believe so before. I thought Grey got the jobs he did because he was a bloody decade older than me and had years more experience. Now...I think unconsciously, Weyland might have."
Her eyelids were getting heavy though he knew she was burning to ask dozens more questions. "And what about Grey's comment about...you and me?"
After a lengthy hesitation, he grated, "True."
His answer seemed to hurt her more than anything. "How long, Hugh?"
"Since that summer. Same as you."
She met his eyes. "Do I know all your secrets now?"
"Aye, lass. Every single one of them." When she fell silent, he said, "Jane, will you no' tell me what you're thinking about all this...about me?"
She answered his question with one of her own: "Will what happened today change anything for us?"
He finally made himself shake his head.
"Then nothing will." She turned away from him, murmuring, "So it doesn't matter what I think."