Chapter Forty-five

Hugh shot up in bed, wracked by a nightmare worse than any he'd ever had. The piercing pain in his ribs and head was still unfamiliar, momentarily confusing him when he woke. He frowned at his surroundings, rubbing at his eyes. It was well into the afternoon. Had he slept through the entire night and morning?

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His body was still shaking; his sheets were soaked with sweat. He'd dreamed of Ethan's fianc¨¦e on the cold flagstones, head framed by her blood shining in the moonlight. But instead of seeing her glazed, sightless eyes, Hugh saw Jane, cold and still in death. He shuddered just remembering it -

Where the hell is she?

When he heard her in her room, getting dressed, he let out a relieved breath. After rising in stages, he staggered to the basin, wetted a cloth, then ran it over himself to wash the chill sweat from his body.

Her light footsteps sounded in the hall outside his room as she made her way downstairs. He dressed as quickly as his injuries would allow, then followed. When he eased down the steps and into the kitchen, he found her motionless, staring blankly.

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The first thing he noticed was that her bruise had darkened and spread since yesterday, and he flinched to see it. Then his gaze landed on the object of her rapt attention - theLeabhar .

He crossed to her side, silent. Even after all this time, the mysteries of the book still stunned even him. He wondered again how many of his forefathers had futilely tried to burn it or bury it in a locked chest, desperate to rid themselves of it. But theLeabhar was tied to his family like a disease passed down.

"It can't be the same," she said softly. "I threw it in the water."

"It is the same."

"S-someone must have dragged it up from the bottom. You got M¨°rag's brothers to retrieve it."

"It's dry, Jane."

"This is a jest. It has to be," she insisted. "There's more than one book."

He opened to the last page with the distinct blood stains.

She gaped at it in horrified wonder. "I don't understand."

"This is why I dinna care if you threw it in. TheLeabhar always finds its way back to a MacCarrick. Do you still think this is naught but superstition?"

She rubbed her forehead. "I...I don't..." She was saved from answering when the loud nicker of horses sounded down the drive.

When he strode to the window, she asked, "Who can that be?"

A coach pulled to a stop at the front entrance. Hugh spied a man stepping out, and panic rioted in his chest. "It's...Quin."

Hugh knew his telegraph would have arrived at Weyland's yesterday morning; Quin must have set out at once, taking the daily rail to Scotland, then crossing the distance from a station to here by coach.

Quin could only be here for one of two reasons. He'd come to collect Jane - though Hugh hadn't asked him to, not yet.

Or he'd come to deliver news of Ethan.

Hugh turned to her, but she was already ascending the stairs, her back ramrod straight, no doubt thinking Hugh had telegraphed her cousin to rush up here and collect her at the first opportunity.

Before Quin could make the front steps, Hugh threw open the door and met him. "Why're you here?" he demanded. "Have you heard anything about Ethan?"

Quin answered, "We were just receiving the latest dispatches in London when I got your message." His expression was guarded. "We haven't been able to find him. I do know that witnesses heard gun report and saw two men yanking Ethan's body into an alley."

"To rob him or aid him?"

"We don't know - only that he'd definitely been shot."

Definitely been shot.Hugh stepped back to keep himself from pitching forward. He'd blindly held on to the belief that Ethan lived.

"He could still be alive," Quin said. "We're combing the area, and Weyland will let you know if anything breaks."

Hugh didn't trust others to look for his brother - he needed to be out there searching. His brows drew together. "But why areyou here?"

Quin answered, "Weyland wants the list destroyed or delivered into his possession."

"It's destroyed. Then why're you in a coach?"

"To retrieve Jane."

"I dinna send for you to do that."

"No, but you also didn't tell us that she was staying with you, just that she was safe here and had heard a great deal from Grey. As Weyland observed, your message said more than was written. Was I wrong to come for her?"

In the fall morning air, Hugh had begun sweating again, reminding him of haunting scenes from the night....

When he didn't answer, Quin snapped, "Goddamn it, man, make a decision and quickly. You're affecting others' lives now. And I won't watch you toying with my cousin any longer."

"No' toying with her," Hugh said quietly.

"Maybe not on purpose, but the end is still the same - and it's been going on for years!" Quin was the only male in Jane's generation and was like an older brother to all the cousins, but especially to Jane who was an only child. Hugh understood Quin's anger and didn't begrudge him for it. "I'm sure she's been too proud to tell you this, but Jane's been in love with you since she was young."

"I ken that." Unbelievable as it seemed to Hugh.

Quin didn't hide his look of surprise. "Then what is it? Is it because you think she can do better? I hate to tell you this, MacCarrick, but she can. I know what you are and what you've done." He lowered his voice. "Now that the list is destroyed, you're going right back to work. Would you leave her behind each week as you sneak off to make a kill? What kind of life would that be for her?"

"She knows about me. And if I kept her as my wife, I would no'continue ," he said, as if he was arguing to keep her.

"So you'll stay at home with her? Try to be domestic?" he asked, his voice full of derision. "How will you fit in with her friends and family, when you simply don't know how? My God, you couldn't sit a gathering before you turned killer."

He was right. Hugh had been too long in the field, and was sodifferent from the people in her life anyway.

"If you can't make a decision," Quin said, his tone low and seething, "I'll bloody make it for you!"

The dream, the ominous reminder of the book, Quin's arrival - what more did Hugh need to see to realize he had to let her go...?

Apparently, Hugh needed to see Jane at the door with her bags packed, her mien stoic, and jaw battered. Hell, after the events of yesterday and the sight of the book this morning, she likely wouldn't have stayed with him anyway.

Quin sucked in a breath at the sight of her face. "My God, Jane. Are you all right?" When she nodded, Quin shot Hugh a black look.

Jane was dressed for travel, her bags at her feet. She was truly leaving. Today.

"You're goin' with him?" Hugh asked, his voice breaking a pitch lower.

"What else would I do?" She smoothed her skirts. "I'm glad you sent for him when the threat passed. Very forward-thinking."

"I dinna - "

"I thought so as well," Quin interrupted. "Doing the right thing for both of you. Jane, we need to get on the road if we intend to catch the train in Perth. Say good-bye and come along."

When she nodded absently, Quin collected her bags, then strode to the carriage - because they were leaving. Now.

Hugh had known he and Jane would part, but he'd thought he would have time to prepare himself. He turned back to Jane, staring down at her. "I was going to see you home."

"You don't think Quin can keep me safe?"

"Aye. Now. But I wanted to get you settled in, before - "

"Beforeyou leave again?" She shrugged, her face cold.

"We knew it would come to this. No reason to prolong it unnecessarily."

He exhaled, running a shaking hand over his face.

"We both have to get on with our lives," she continued. "This is what you want, isn't it?"

"I doona want you to go yet."

"Yet."

"What doyou bloody want?" Was he sweating more? He couldn't stop seeing that dream before him.

Her voice quavering with emotion, she said, "We're back to the simple choice. We put the curse behind us. Or you refuse, and once I leave here today, I will never want to see you again."

He couldn't promise her he would disregard or forget something that had molded him and he couldn't easily give her loss, which was all she would have with him. But he had to know..."You'd be willing to be with me, even after everything you learned?" he asked, wishing she would say no. To find the one woman who could accept him, and to find her inJane would be too much.

"I'd be willing totry , to see," she finally answered. "To maybe understand everything better."

"And after seeing the book?"

"That's something I don't think I willever understand." She shivered. "Yes, when I look at it, I fear it - but I also know we could be stronger than anything written there."

Jane was here for the taking, ready to face hell for Hugh - and it humbled him. But shouldn't he be ready to do the same for her?

"Jane, come along!" Quin called from the carriage. "We have to make a train."

She turned back to Hugh. "If I leave here today, it's over. Forever, Hugh. I must move on from this." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "If you don't choose me now, you never will. But the sad thing is that one day you'll realize what you threw away." When he was silent, her eyes watered. "And I promise you, it'll be too late to get it back." She turned toward the carriage. Just as she was about to climb in, Jane stopped and strode back to Hugh.

She'd seen reason - she would stay with Hugh for a week more, aday more.

The cracking slap to his face took him completely off guard. "That was for the last ten years." She slapped the other side of his face, even harder. "And that's for the next!"

Chapter Forty-six

"Inever thought I'd say this," her father began, as he nervously regarded Jane's face, "but perhaps you ought to just cry."

Quin had suggested the same thing repeatedly on their journey back to London, right up until he'd deposited her in her father's study. She'd been home for an hour - long enough for her father to finish explaining what he and Hugh and everyone else did.

"I'm fine."I'm numb . When had her voice begun to sound so tinny?

She took a sip of her iced Scotch, defying him to say anything about her drinking so early.

"I'm sure this has all been a blow to you."

"Are you competing for the most patent understatement?" She rolled her eyes. "I mean, really, Papa,imports ?"

He shrugged helplessly, and she sighed. He'd finally been totally forthcoming with her - she thought. She'd been markedly less so about Hugh's reasons for letting her go. "Who knows what he's thinking?" she'd said to him and to Quin. "He made comments like he thought he wasn't good enough for me...."

"Jane, you keep saying you're fine, but you don't look it."

No, she'd been on the verge of crying since she'd first comprehended that Quin was there to retrieve her. In fact, she'd been as close to it as she'd ever been, without actually spilling tears. As she'd absently packed her things, she'd somehow prevented herself because she'd known that with her first tear, she might start something she couldn't stop.

"You're right." She gingerly touched the chilled glass on her swollen jaw, but the pain made her wince, and her father flinch - again. "This has all been a lot for me to digest. I see you and Quin and even Rolley, and I feel like you're strangers." She'd tried to put on a strong front when facing each of them, but for right now, all she could seem to manage was a wary indifference. "And Hugh? I had an idea of him for half my life. Now that's...changed."

She wasn't angry about Hugh's role in deceiving her. He had a job to do, and after talking to her father, she better understood the seriousness and significance of what he did. One of his bullets could spare a million of them in some needless war, and yet his job was lonely and grueling and he would never receive credit - or support if he'd been captured. She'd forgiven Hugh - for this, at least - but her father? "As for you, well, perhaps you might have provided a bit more warning about all this, and a lot less pressuring me to marry an assassin. Just a thought."

Her father couldn't meet her eyes - and she'd noticed that for the last hour, he'd avoided looking at her mother's portrait as well. "I regret what I did. But I swear that I believed Hugh would come around and do the right thing. The man has been in love with you for so long, and he's always been honorable. But then, you understand that - you've always understood that. Jane, do you know how proud I was of you for choosing a man like Hugh? You saw things in him others couldn't. I thought the two of you were perfect for each other."

We almost were.

"Are you sure that you made it clear you were in love with him? And that you wanted to remain married?"

She made a sound of frustration. "You - have - no - idea."

He briefly raised his palms in the air. "Yes, yes, very well. I won't ask again."

"Well, what do you propose I do now?" She rotated the glass against her cheek to the cooler side and added, "With all the money from my dowry that you'll be giving me."

He quirked a brow, but wisely said nothing.

"I really have no idea what a woman in my situation does."

"Jane, I know I promised you I could smooth this over with Frederick, but" - he tugged on his collar - "he's not precisely available any longer."

"How's that?" she asked without interest.

"He's engaged to Candace Damferre. Her husband expired with no heir, leaving her everything. Bidworth's, uh, quite beside himself that they're both free."

What would Jane have done, weeks into marriage with Freddie, when his true love became free? Hugh might not have been able to give her a love-filled marriage, but he'd helped her father save her from a completely loveless one. "I'm happy for him."

"Are you truly?"

"Yes. I couldn't have gone back with him anyway."

"I know, but I promised you something I wasn't completely sure of because I was positive it would work out with you and Hugh."

She shrugged. "Don't feel guilty on that score, at least. You told me you could work all this out with Freddie," Jane began with a careless flick of her hand, "if the marriage to Hugh was unconsummated." She glanced up and frowned. "Your face is an interesting shade of red, Papa. Really remarkable."

His fists were clenched. "I'm going to kill him."

"Now, it seems" - she glanced both ways with exaggerated slyness and hushed her voice - "that I have to clarify if you mean literally."

For the last week, Hugh had combed the small lakeside village and all the surrounding areas for word of his brother. After days of doggedly chasing down every lead, Hugh was no closer to discovering anything to indicate whether Ethan was dead or alive.

As Quin had said, many had heard gunshots, and some shopkeepers saw two men dragging Ethan's lifeless body into an alley. One might have spied a very slim man loping down the street. The bottom line was that Ethan had disappeared, and Hugh had no more leads to follow.

Nor had he any idea where to go or what to do.

Without Jane, nothing held appeal.

In the past, his life had at least had some purpose, but he didn't know if he could go back to his occupation. Yes, the odds had been against Hugh reverting to a normal life - but, damn it, hehad changed. Jane had changed him, and he had to wonder if he could return to that same existence. Besides, if it was true that Weyland always knew everything, then he now knew that Hugh had compromised Jane - and then all but kicked her out. He feared Weyland had washed his hands of Hugh.

In his place, Hugh would have.

Hugh's official missives to Weyland were responded to promptly, but coolly.

If not having Jane in his life had been painful before, now it was agonizing. Hugh knew exactly what he was missing. Worse, he knew how badly he'd hurt her. The more he thought about that morning, the more he regretted letting her go. But what choice did he have?

Where to go?He hadn't been to Cape Waldegrave for almost a year. He should go check on his estate and see if any improvements needed to be made - then do them all himself. Beinn a'Chaorainn was on his way there. He could pay M¨°rag in advance to oversee the property. He could pick up the rest of his things and close down the house for good.

To go there and not hear Jane's laughter? Hell, who was he fooling? He just planned to go there to do eighty thousand pounds' worth of brooding.

Jane's cousins were hovering.

Claudia had basically moved in, and Belinda and Samantha visited as often as they could between time with their husbands and children. Today, Claudia and Belinda were flipping through fashion plates, smoking French cigarettes, and raiding Jane's clothing.

During the last two weeks, Jane hadn't had an hour to herself. Apparently, when Jane had returned home, she'd worried her entire family with her mottled jaw and insouciant demeanor. But now the bruise on Jane's face had healed, and her headaches had disappeared.

She often wondered if Hugh had completely recovered.

When she reflected over her time with him, she could think of only one thing she'd have done differently, even after all that had occurred between them. "Trust me with your secret and you won't regret it," she'd told him. She felt a flush of guilt, knowing he would have to regret it. She'd demonstrated no understanding or compassion, but then she'd never felt such fury, such strangling frustration.

Jane had comprehended that she was losing the only man she'd ever loved - and that all the fight she had in her wouldn't change that fact. Because she was losing him to something that didn't truly exist....

"Janey," Claudia began in a scolding tone, "are you thinking about Tears and Years again?" She shook her head slowly. "We don't think about him any longer, do we?"

For obvious reasons she hadn't told them what Hugh's profession was. For some unknown reason, she hadn't confided to them about the curse. Though telling them about it would actually have made Hugh more sympathetic to them, she knew Hugh wouldn't want them to know. As it was now, they suspected he let her go out of shortsighted stubbornness or, taken with his past behavior, inconstancy.

Shehad told them she'd made love to Hugh, and they'd all counted down the days together until she could determine whether she was carrying.

Jane had been relieved that she wasn't, of course. But she'd also felt a confusing pang....

"Jane, I don't believe I've reminded you today," Claudia said, flicking her mane of raven hair over her shoulder, "that you spent adecade of your life pining for him." She gave Jane a piercing look. "You can't get those years back. Gone. Spent."

The first time Claudia had made this observation, Belinda had chided her, saying, "Jane needs to look to the future, not dwell on the past." Now she said, "Claudia's right. It's been two weeks, Jane. You've got to at leastbegin to get over him."

Claudia made a sound of frustration. "My Lord, Jane, I think you'd take him back - "

"Don't you dare think that!" Jane snapped. "I'm not a complete idiot. Getting thrown over by the man I've loved - not once, buttwice , mind you - destroyed any hopes for a rekindling."

"Then what is it?"

"Things remind me of him. And every time I look at my father's guilty expression, it kills me inside."

With a firm nod, Claudia said, "Right, then. I think getting over him would be more easily done while traveling, perhaps to Italy, where gorgeous, virile men abound." When Jane raised her brows at the idea, Claudia continued, "Haven't you ever heard the old saying? The best way to get over a man is to get under an Italian."

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