"This is not happening to me,"Jane muttered.
"Will he really harm Bidworth?" Belinda asked, eyes wide as Hugh stalked poor Freddie.
"Yes," Jane hissed desperately, casting her father an entreating look. He wasn't going to do anything! He only studied Hugh and her, back and forth, eyes watchful.
"Fine." Jane glared at her father over her shoulder as she hurried toward Hugh. "I'llhandle this." Once she'd reached Hugh, his hand shot out to clutch her elbow as if he feared she'd flee from him at any second. "If you'll come with me to Papa's study?" He hesitated, so obviously wanting to thrash Freddie. "Hugh, if you want to speak with me, I won't do it here." He finally allowed her to lead him from the room.
In the front hallway, Hugh slowed and grated, "Why in the hell is Bidworth here?" She saw him glance at her bare ring finger, and his tone went lower. "Have you...have you taken up with him again?"
"Not that it is any of your business, but he's here with his new intended," she answered calmly, letting him relax an instant before adding, "to wish me well on my travels."
"Yes, you just ruined the party my family threw for Claudia and me to see us off to Italy for the winter."
"When are you supposed to sail?"
"On the morning's tide - "
She rubbed her temples. "I clearly misheard you. For a moment, I thought you had just dared to insert yourself into my life once more. You gave up any right you had to do that."
"No, I dinna. I'm still your husband. We're married, and we're staying that way."
She blinked at him.
"You heard me, lass."
Perfect, Jane thought with a sigh.I can get this man to keep me, but first I have to wear away his will for weeks, and then he must be pistol-whipped, bludgeoned, and concussed. It's a formula.
"What brought about this change of heart?" she asked.
"There's been no change of heart."
Behind Hugh, she saw her father ordering her cousins away, barring them from coming to her rescue. He probably thought he was buying Hugh time to apologize - when that notion hadn't seemed to have occurred to Hugh at all.
There was no apology, no flowers, not even a preamble. In fact, he hadn't bothered to take the time toshave before he'd barged into her party, threatening servants and frightening guests - after she'd thrown herself at him for weeks. "How dare you show up here like this!"
She couldn't understand him. Something had changed in Hugh - yes, he wasn't known to assail genteel soir¨¦es like a crazed Highlander - but this change was beneath the surface, a drastic shift in his whole personality. She sensed it. She...feared it. Maybe his head injury had been worse than he'd let on. Maybe it had altered him.
"I dinna mean to embarrass you like this, God knows I dinna, but what I have to say canna wait."
"Yet you couldn't tell me during all the time we were together?"
More titillated guests peered around the corner, and Hugh looked over his shoulder, seeming to snarl at them.
She gave the group a pained smile, and said in a confiding tone, "He's just about to leave, you see - "
"No' a chance of it," Hugh interrupted, telling her softly, "No' without you."
Under her breath she said, "What could you possibly have to say to me now?"
He opened his mouth to speak, but saw her glance past him once more at the gathering crowd.
Hugh's brows drew together. "This will no' work."
Her gaze snapped back to his face. "That's whatI'm saying."
"You're coming with me."
"When hell freezes - Oh!"
Before she had any idea what he intended, he'd picked her up and easily lofted her over his shoulder. Her cousins gasped.
"Hugh!" She kicked futilely. "What in the devil are you thinking?" Jane felt her face flushing from humiliation - and probably from being upside down. She didn't deserve this treatment, and she didn't have to tolerate it. She was a woman who had bloody steamer trunks by her door!
Her father strode forward, and to him she snapped, "How many times are you going to let Hugh act this way with me?"
"I swear to you, this will be the last," he said, his tone steely. "Is that correct, MacCarrick?"
"Aye, it is."
"That's good to hear, son. My carriage is outside - you can take her to Grosvenor Square in it."
Hugh nodded, then strode straight out the front door. More guests were arriving as he descended the stairs with her. She closed her eyes tightly in mortification.
When Hugh placed her in the carriage, she was breathless, speechless, and dizzy. As soon as they were rolling forward, Hugh dragged her across his lap, his hands flying to her face, cradling her cheeks as he pressed his lips to hers.
She froze, stunned.
"S¨¬ne," he rasped. "Ah, God, lass, kiss me back." He brought his mouth down over hers, kissing her in that desperate way, as if it was the last he'd ever take from her. And like a fool, she felt herself responding to his need, to the urgency of it. He groaned, deepening the kiss as he clenched her in his arms.
She was so close to getting swept up, missing him so badly, all but forgetting the pain he'd caused.No, no, no! She forced herself to break away, pushing at him. "You said you wanted totalk to me. And I didn't even agree to that. You haven't given me any explanation."
After several moments, he released her, just as the carriage eased to a stop. When a footman opened her door, she hurried out, but paused when faced with the grand façade of the MacCarrick town house.
Her anger and hurt came back redoubled; a light mist began to fall, making her blink as she stared.
All those times she'd ridden by, praying to see him - and he'd been avoiding her all along. Had he seen her from the window and closed the drapes? She felt her bottom lip trembling to remember how badly she'd ached, how terribly she'd yearned to see him.
And that had only been the first time she'd lost him.
"Jane?" he bit out in a strangled tone to see her eyes watering. His one chance to win her back...And all I've done is make her cry. Of all the reactions he'd anticipated, her crying was not one of them. He clasped her hand in his, pulling her inside out of the damp night. He could tell she wanted to resist, but she didn't seem to have the energy.
He took her directly up into his room and sat her on his bed, curling his finger under her chin. She'd closed her eyes, but the tears were spilling out. He felt as if a knife was being plunged repeatedly into his chest with each tear. "My God, lass, did I hurt you? Was I too rough with you in the carriage?" His breath left his lungs in a rush. "Christ, I was." He remembered little of that mind-boggling kiss - he'd probably squeezed her with all the strength in his body. "I've wanted this for so long, and to be so close...I could no' control myself."
When she said nothing, just continued to cry, he murmured, "This played out badly, I ken that, and I am sorry for it. Ach, Jane, this is killing me."
"Then take - me - back," she said, biting out the words.
"You doona want to go back like this with all those people there."
She pummeled his chest. "Then take me to Claudia's!"
"I canna do that either, lass."
How could he have bungled this so badly? He hadn't been thinking clearly after everything that had happened and the mad journey here. But then to see her like a vision in the candlelight? The realization that this stunning, brave woman washis wife had hit him like a punch. Hewas the lucky bastard who got to dine with her each night and wake up beside her each morning. All he had to do was win her.
Then he'd seen Bidworth. And assumed the worst.
"I've much to tell you and could no' wait any longer. I wanted to stay married to you. But you know why I believed I could no'."
"Because of thecurse ." Her eyes glittered, and her tone was cold. "I would bevery careful bringing that up to me."
"Aye, but since then I found out my brother's to be a da." How odd to say that. Hugh liked saying that. "He's married, happy - "
"So are you saying that the curse has been lifted?" She put her chin up. "Perhaps a magical charm was used to combat it? Will I be expected to wear a MacCarrick talisman around my neck?"
"I'm saying we misinterpreted the words. I knew when I saw Annal¨ªa was pregnant - "
"Listen to yourself! There's this curse that's prevented you from accepting me as your wife, but since some woman that I don't even know named Annal¨ªa conceived, nowwe can be together. Do I have it right?"
"It sounds mad. But today, for the first time, I realized I could have a future with you - without fear for you."
"Not good enough, Hugh. What if something else happens to make you think you'll hurt me again? You didn't believe in us before - why should I now? What if you find out what the book says under the blood, and it's even more devastating?"
"Court and Annal¨ªa think the last two lines qualify the ones that came before - that they're about each son finding the one woman he's supposed to be with. I believe that."
"And I'm the one woman for you?" Her tears were easing.
He drew his head back. "I havenever doubted it."
"So you think you can get me with child now?"
"Aye." His voice gruff, he said, "I dinna, did I?"
"No, you didn't." At his relieved expression, she said, "Is the idea of children with me such a dread prospect?"
"No, but the thought of you in labor, in pain, at risk..." He stifled a shudder. "I dreadthat . And lass, I would no' share you well, no' even with my own bairns."
She tilted her head at his admission, her eyes seeming to soften as she gazed at him. "But you didn't get me pregnant. Will that change your mind?"
"No, nothing will."
"You said over and over that it wasn't just about the curse. You gave me reason after reason why we wouldn't suit."
"No, they were just excuses - "
"Are you saying you lied to me, then?"
"No, I've never lied to you. And I made those excuses to myself as much as to you." At her raised eyebrows, he said,
"The reasons were true, but they doona matter anymore - because I will be whatever you need me to be." He brushed away the last of her tears with his thumb, and she sniffled, but let him.
"You can't change that you're a loner. I'm not, and I won't live a solitary existence. Would you keep me from my family?"
"No, never. If that's the only thing standing between us, I'll bloody move in with a houseful of them."
Her eyes went a shade wider. "Really?" she said slowly.Raaaally. "You would do that?"
"Lass, none of what I've found out will matter if I canna have you. My future's with you, or I might as well not have one."
"But I'm...afraid, Hugh. Something else could change your beliefs, and then I'd lose you a third time." She briefly looked away when she admitted, "I couldn't do it a third time."
"Do you know how badly I wanted to seize onany of your arguments at Beinn a'Chaorainn for why we could be together? But I could no'. And even then I struggled no' to let you go. It was selfish of me, but I never sent for Quin to come for you."
He shook his head, gently laying his hands on her shoulders to rub up to her neck and back. "I've always been searching for a way I could have you, and now I've got one. If you accept me now, you will no' be able to get rid of me."
"So you came for me tonight because you want to be completely married?" Jane said, nibbling her lip. "To live together?"
"Aye, S¨¬ne, if you'll have me." He swallowed, then enfolded her in his arms, but she was stiff, silent. Moments passed....
When she at last wrapped her arms around him, too, he exhaled, realizing he'd been holding his breath.
He drew back and cupped her face, gazing down at her. "Jane, I've told you before that I'm no' a good man - "
"But won't you be good tome ?"
"Oh, Christ, yes. Always."
"Will you love me?"
His brows drew together, and his voice went hoarse. "Till my dying breath," he said, the words sounding like a vow. "And you? Can you love me, even knowing what I've done?"
"Hugh, I understand more about your profession now. I know that you saved soldiers' lives, but you never got any recognition. You might not get credit for your grueling job anywhere else, but I, for one, am so proud of you."
"Proud?" he choked out the word. "Do you know how often I dreaded ever having to tell you about this?"
"I always have been proud of you, and that hasn't changed." Then she eyed him. "Though I do want you to understand that if I'd been a son, I would have had your job."
"I doona doubt it," he said, his lips tugging into a grin, but then he grew serious once more. "You ken what this will mean? So think on this, because I swear to you, lass, I'll never let you go again."
Gazing up at him, she said, "Never let me go? I like the sound of that."
He blinked as if he didn't really believe this was happening. She understood the feeling. But she sensed they'd crossed a threshold - finally.
The antsy feeling was...gone. Because she was right where she was supposed to be.
"I have money for you now," he said, like he was trying toconvince her to be with him. "I can spoil you. And we have that estate by the sea in Scotland."
"I get to live with you in your seashore home?"
"Ourhome. And you should, especially since I bought it with you in mind - "
"Youdid ?" she asked, both surprised and delighted. When he'd told her of it weeks ago, she'd dreamed about being there with him, never knowing he'd done the same about her.
"Aye, I think you would be proud to call it yours. I'll take you there straightway, if you like. We can leave tonight."
She bit her lip and murmured, "Or we could stay here for tonight...and finish what we started in the carriage."
"My vote's for that," he said in a rush, making her laugh, but it turned to a delicious gasp when he pressed his lips to her neck. His tongue flicked out with wicked kisses until she was shivering and clutching his shoulders. Against her damp neck, he said, "I need to take you again so badly...dreamed of it..."
"Me, too." She moaned softly as he laid her back across the bed, pressing her skirts to her waist.
"After so long," he began, his voice a husky rasp, "finally I'm free to claim you for my own." He tugged her lacy undergarments from her, baring her to his gaze. Her knees fell open with his first hot touch between her thighs, and she watched in fascination as his eyes slid shut with pleasure. "I'm warning you now," he said, biting out the words. "I'm going to be so damned greedy for you, lass."
She eased her arms up to him, reaching out in welcome. "I'm yours for the taking."
At that, his expression turned fierce, his eyes burning with feeling as he stared down at her. "After tonight, love, you will no' ever doubt it."
"Are you ready to see our home, S¨¬ne?" Hugh asked, as they stood near the end of a hedge-lined walk at Waldegrave.
She nodded, breathless. "I'mbeyond ready." There were only so many minutes left until dusk, and they'd just arrived. "I've been dying to see it for the last week!" It had taken them that long in London to resolve certain concerns. If Jane hadn't been utterly in love with him already, then she would have been when he'd asked for help to fulfill his promise of toys to his new nieces and nephews.
He'd gruffly explained, "It's simply good strategy to get on with your family. I'll bribe the youngest generation directly before the holidays and ensure their cooperation."
Biting back a grin, she'd answered, "Toys: you're positively Machiavellian."
Jane had also taken the time to make up to Claudia for canceling their trip, and to thank her father repeatedly for, as he called it, "his brilliant marriage coup." Hugh had spoken with Dr. Robert, returning home from his meeting with a red face and a box of various...supplies. She and Hugh had decided they would reevaluate the question of children in a year or so. After all, she was greedy to have Hugh all to herself, too.
Now he clasped her chin and brushed her bottom lip. "If you doona like it here, you've only to tell me."
"I'm positive I'm going to love it," she assured him. Then she narrowed her eyes. He didn't look nervous whatsoever. She sensed he knew she would love it as he did - and that meant he was only increasing her suspense. She lightly cuffed his chest. "If I can eversee it. I promise I'll love it, even if it looks like Ros Creag."
"It's a wee bit grimmer. But I ken how you like that." He grinned, reminding her of how heartbreakingly handsome he was when he smiled. She'd be seeking out his smiles as if they were her target.
Though he'd offered to take her anywhere in the world for their honeymoon, she'd wanted only to come here. Undoubtedly, they would travel in the future, but they needed to be within a day's train ride of England because they were confident Hugh's runners would soon pick up a lead on Ethan. Jane also wanted them to be near Beinn a'Chaorainn for the birth of Hugh's niece or nephew in the spring - even if Courtland was going to be there. If Hugh could make the effort with her family, she'd do the same for him....
"And we can change things here, too," Hugh said with deliberate slowness. "The color or - "
"Please, Hugh, I can't stand it anymore!" she said with a choked laugh. "I want to see our seashore home."
"You know I canna deny you." He took her hand and led her past the end of the walk and out into the open.
She gasped at the sight, feeling light-headed. When her eyes watered, he squeezed her hand. "Say something, lass."
"It's like...a dream." The manor was stunning both in beauty - and in size. Built of dark cream-colored brick, it had classic black shutters and marble balconies fronting the sea side. The grounds were picturesque, rolling down to majestic cliffs.And the waves... When she caught her breath, she whispered, "You really can see the sun set through the water."
At her words, he looked so proud, as though he felt ten feet tall. "I'm glad you like it," he said simply. "Ready to see the inside?"
"Can we just watch the rest of the sunset?" she asked.
"Of course." He drew her back to his front, wrapping his arms around her and resting his chin on her head.
As they gazed out together, she said, "But, itis a shame that it obviously won't need any improvements."
"Oh, aye." He chuckled, a low, rumbling laugh that was still rare, but came more often each day. She adored hearing it. "Still glad you married me?"
"Abit ," she said, and he turned her in his arms. "I've only been waiting for this since the first day I met you, when you called me 'poppet' in your brogue."
"I recall that day. I remember thinking that when you grew up, you'd lead some man on a merry chase." He tucked her against his warm chest. "Ah, lass," he rasped, pressing his lips against her hair, "I just dinna know it would be me."