Outside, instead of following the general flight down Haymarket, Hugh immediately ducked down a back alley behind a gin palace, then set her on her feet.
Before she could say a word, he began pawing her again. "Were you injured?" he barked. While she could only sputter, he pulled up her skirts again to check her legs, then rose to fist his hands around her arms, dragging his palms down them from her elbows to wrists to fingers, checking for breaks, sprains. Amazingly, she felt herself to be unharmed.
"Jane, say something."
"I...Hugh?" Somehow he was here for her, though she scarcely recognized him. It was Hugh, but itwasn't . "I-I'm all right." Soon, yes,soon , she would catch her breath and stop gazing up at him.
How many times had she imagined their first time meeting after so long? She'd envisioned herself coldly sighing and spurning him as he begged her to marry him. He would plead for forgiveness for abandoning her without a word.
How different reality was proving.Of course , Jane would be quite foxed and capable of little more than dumbly staring. Oh, yes, and fresh from a police raid and near death by stampeding.
As he lightly tweaked her crooked mask, he exhaled a long breath. "Ah, lass, what in the hell were you thinking, coming here?" Though his looks were altered, his voice was the same - that deep, rumbling brogue that used to make her melt.
Buying time to collect herself, she drew back and brushed off her torn skirts. "This would have been perfectly safe if the proper bribes had been paid."
"Is that so?"
"Quite." She nodded earnestly. "I'm writing a letter to management." She could tell he couldn't decide if she was serious or not. Jane did have a tendency to joke at inappropriate times.
When she began untying her mask, he said, "Keep that on for now. Till I get you in a cab - "
More whistles sounded, and a harsh horn trumpeted the arrival of a police wagon. Hugh took her hand and strode forward, quickly putting distance between them and the warehouse - and her group.
"Hugh, you must stop. I have to go back!"
He ignored her.
When she tried to dig in her heels, he easily pulled her along. "Hugh! My cousins and my friend are still back there."
"They're fine. But if you go back in your condition, you'll get arrested."
"In my condition?"
"Well, since you've addressed it, I will tell you that, in mycondition , the idea of going back to save my friends feels imperative and quite achievable."
"Will no' happen."
The alley finally ended, and they reached a cabstand. So Hugh was sending her home for the night? Perfect. She'd let the cabbie go a block, and then she'd get out and return.
As ever, a score of drivers geared up to jockey and wrangle for the fare. But Hugh held up one finger with a look that subdued even this lively bunch, then pointed to the nicest-looking cab. The chosen cabbie eased his vehicle over, all obliging.
Hugh tossed Jane inside, then turned to direct the driver to his mount on the next street over. When she realized Hugh was accompanying her, Jane opened the opposite door and heedlessly climbed out.
"Damn it, Jane." He loped around the carriage after her, swooping her to his side with his arm around her waist.
She was being carried again and could do little more than drunkenly blink behind her mask.
"Your friends are safe," he repeated as he tossed her back in, keeping a fist in her skirts as he joined her. He slammed one door, then reached over her to slam the other. Once they'd begun to roll along, he finally relaxed a fraction.
He'd never forget catching sight of her inside, then seeing her disappear in that swarm of people. Never, not as long as he lived.
"How do you know they're safe?" she demanded.
"I saw Quin go in, no' five minutes before me. And trust me, Quin will no' let his sisters stay to look for you."
Jane's eyes narrowed. "What was he doing there?"
"He suspected his sisters would attend."
She quirked an eyebrow, glancing out the window in the direction of the warehouse. "Really?" When she said the word slowly like that with her proper English accent, it always sounded like "raaaally."
Oh, yes, she was very suspicious. She hadn't climbed out her window tonight for no good reason.
She suddenly gasped, facing him. "B-but we were separated from Maddy!"
"Is she the blonde in the blue dress?"
"You noticed her?" Jane stilled. "I didn't think blondes were your type."
He frowned at her tone. "Apparently, they're my brother's. Ethan is intent on the lass and went in to...talk to her." Even after Hugh had followed him inside and warned him yet again not to seek out the girl, Ethan was undeterred. "Your friend Maddy - "
"Madeleine. Madeleine Van Rowen."
Van Rowen. The name hit him. His brother could not be lusting after that one. What in the hell would Ethan do when he discovered whose daughter she was?
"Your friend will be fine."At least from the crowd and the police. "Ethan will no' let her be hurt."By anyone else . "But when you see her again, you might want to warn her about Ethan. He's no' the most honorable of men."
Another understatement. Hugh would like to say Ethan had changed after he'd received the injury to his face. Or when his fianc¨¦e had died the night before their wedding. But Ethan had always been a rough, roguish sort, showing a marked indifference to feelings and forming few attachments even as a young man.
"Oh." Then she frowned. "Actually, Hugh, you might want to warn your brother about that one. Little Maddy's not as sweet and helpless as she looks. I'd worry more about Ethan." He cast her a doubting expression, but she ignored it and said, "So, both Quin and your brother were there. I wonder, what wereyou doing in a place like that?" When Hugh simply shrugged, her lips thinned. "No need to answer, I can imagine. Curious, though, that you're not scandalized thatI was there."
Did she want him to be? Of course, he hated it, hated that she was in a place so rife with danger. "Nothing you do could shock me, Jane."
"No comments on my behavior?"
"You're a woman grown, are you no'?"
"Hugh, you don't have to interrupt your night's revelry just to take me home." Her tone was almost cutting. "And there's another establishment very like the Hive, not too far away. I could give you directions. Much amusement for a man to have inside."
"I dinna go for that," he answered quietly.
"Then why on earth were you there?"
He studied the window beside her as he muttered, "Heard you might be." He glanced back at her. Her sudden smile was as baffling as it was devastating to him. Never taking her eyes from his, she untied her mask. Somehow she made that small movement sensual - as if she were undressing her body for him alone.
Want tightened his every muscle, and he leaned closer to her, even as instinct screamed for him to ease away.
She dropped the mask; he stifled a curse. Goddamn it, how could she have grownmore beautiful? He'd hoped he might have imagined how lovely she'd been. He'd thought she would have lost the first blush of youth, the fire in her personality diminishing. Seeing her again now, he knew these qualities wouldnever fade.
An old question arose for the thousandth time: Would he have been better off never having met her?
Right now, he believed so, yet he was still greedy for the sight of her, studying her face at leisure, savoring.
Her eyes were that changeable, intoxicating green. Her cheekbones were high, her nose slim and pert. In the cab's flickering lamplight, her loosened hair appeared dark, nearly black, as it curled all around her face and shoulders, but it was actually a deep auburn. Her lips were plump, and on the one occasion he'd dared stroke his thumb over them, he'd been amazed at how soft and giving they'd been -
"Do I pass muster?" she murmured breathlessly with a slow, easy grin that made his heart punch the insides of his chest.
"As ever." He fought not to touch a curl that teased her cheek, taunting him.
"You, however, are quite dirty," she said with a disapproving glance at his clothes. "And your face is cut up." Were her words slurring worse? "Hugh, whatever have you gotten into?"
"I've ridden for days on end." He hadn't taken time to heal and sure as hell hadn't stopped for ablutions when he'd believed she was in danger. But how badly he wished he looked successful, as wealthy as he'd finally become. Any man would want to appear rich and powerful to the woman he desired. Instead, Hugh was injured, his clothing covered in road grime.
Appearsuccessful ? Right now, he'd accept clean.
"And what brings you to London?" she asked.
You. Finally, I've permission to see you.Hugh had never lied to her before. Yet the last time he saw her, he'd been a decade younger and still concerned with honor. No longer.
He opened his mouth to speak, but the facile lie he'd prepared refused to escape his lips. So, he told her the truth. "Your father sent for me."
"Important business?" she asked, gazing over at him with an understanding expression.
Staring at her, he searched for his voice, finally grating, "You canna imagine."
Jane had been quaking with jealousy at the thought of Hugh sampling the pleasures of the Hive - and at the possibility of his interest in Maddy. Jane had no objection to Maddy snagging her cousin Quin, the only male in Jane's entire Weyland generation, solely for his money.
But the idea of Hugh together with Maddy had made Jane want to claw her eyes out.
Then came Hugh's quiet admission. His words had softened her, undermining her guard.
"How do you feel, S¨¬ne?" he asked.
S¨¬newas the Gaelic form of Jane - he pronounced itShee-ah-na and had never seemed to realize that he always said it as if it were an endearment. Her eyes nearly fluttered closed with pleasure at the name rolling from his tongue. That brogue would be the death of her.
"Lass, are you shivering?"
"Too much excitement," she said, though she knew that wasn't why she shook. Even if the crush hadn't scared her witless, even if seeing him once more hadn't stunned her, she'd still be reduced to shivers by the way he said her name in his language.
"Hugh, someone really ought to see about these." Before thinking better of it, she lightly touched the backs of her fingers to the three marks on his face, but he flinched as if burned.
"Did I hurt you?" She laid her hand on his arm, but he slowly shrugged away. "I'm sorry."
Then why had he shifted as far away from her as possible on the bench and turned away without a word? As he stared out the window, eyes subtly darting over the street as though searching for something, she took the opportunity to study him.
She couldn't decide whether the years had been kind or unkind to Hugh. He'd grown larger than he'd been at twenty-two, which was saying something, considering his strapping build even then. He was perhaps six and a half feet tall, still towering over her own five and a half feet, but now his body seemed packed with even more muscle. He was a man in his prime, and the years had honed the strength of his body.
Virile, masculine, rough.All the qualities she'd loved about him before had now become magnified - his heroic actions tonight were proof of that.
Yet if his body had benefited by the years, his face had not. Those three long gashes carved his cheek, and a furrow was etched between his brows. A raised scar marred the side of his neck. And his brown eyes seemed darker, as if the flecks of warm amber that she'd loved to stare at had been extinguished.
As she'd discovered tonight in the melee, Hugh looked...dangerous. The steady, grave Hugh she'd known had become an intense man - analarming man.
But he also looked markedly unhappy. Wherever he'd been without her for all this time, he hadn't been content. She could have made the brooding Highlander happy these past years. That was all she'd ever wanted. Just achance to -
"DoI pass muster?" he asked quietly, facing her.
Striving for politeness, she replied, "The years have been kind."
"No, they have no'. And we both know it." His gaze flickered over her. "At least they have for one of us."
Her hot blush of pleasure flustered her. Luckily, she was saved from having to reply when the cab stopped for Hugh's horse. The poor animal looked as road-weary and fatigued as Hugh, but Jane could tell that under the layer of dust the animal was exceptionally fine with an unusual build and markings.
After Hugh had tethered the horse to the back of the hansom, and he'd rejoined her, she said, "You're lucky someone didn't steal a horse like that. Why didn't you take it to the city stables a block away?"
"I dinna have t - " He broke off, seeming irritated. "I just dinna."
"Oh. I see," she said with a frown. After several moments of silence, she ventured to make conversation with him. Her home was only fifteen minutes away, but as the ride was filled with clipped, awkward exchanges - between two who used to be so at ease with each other - it seemed the longest of her life.
Mercifully, they arrived at last. When Hugh put his hands to her waist to help her down, he seemed to linger, then kept his palm across her back as he escorted her to the front door.
"I don't have a key." Jane patted her skirts as if she had pockets. "I lost my reticule tonight."
"Rolley will be awake," Hugh said, but he didn't make a move to knock. He looked like he was about to say something, but whatever he saw in her eyes made him fall silent.
There they stood at the door facing each other, each seeming to await something. Could he see how much she yearned for an apology, or, at the very least, an explanation? The moment stretched out interminably.
Hugh, if you were ever going to make things right between us, now would be the time.But he didn't. Instead, his eyes grew intent, and his brows drew together.
He's going to kiss me!she vaguely comprehended, her breaths growing shallow.For the first time? Now?
Anger simmered inside her. He didn't deserve her kisses. He could have had them freely for the last ten years.
He leaned in....
Without even an apology?Her palm itched to slap him -
At the last instant, the door swung open. "Thought I 'eard something," Rolley said, standing tense in the doorway.
Hugh drew back and had to cough into his fist to rasp to her, "Go inside now. I'll see you in the morning when I return."
"Seeme ?" She blinked up at him. "Whatever for?"
Jane's cousins called him Hugh "Tears and Years" MacCarrick.
Because she'd wasted an inordinate amount of each on him.
Now that the giddy rush of seeing him again - and the effects of the deceptively potent punch - had worn off, she stared into her dressing table mirror, combing out her hair after her bath. When her eyes glinted in the glass, Jane realized she was about to go wasting even more. She laid down her brush beside the message from Claudia saying they'd all gotten home safely, then put her head in her hands. She shoved the heels of her palms against her eyes, as if that would stem the tears.
Countless nights crying and years of her life she'd squandered. Jane - who knew how precious time was!
When Jane was only six, her mother had died from a lung inflammation, and since then Jane had never beencontent . Perhaps she knew too well that she could never take for granted a single second, and that was what made her restless. Perhaps she was simply never meant to experience a feeling of complete satisfaction.
She burned to travel, to experience exciting new places - but was it wanderlust, or the yearning to be wherever shewasn't at the time? Ten years ago, with Hugh at her side, that anxious feeling had dimmed to a point where she could ignore it. She couldn't explain why.
Then he'd left her behind without a word.
She'd grieved for him, longed for him, and had wasted nearly half of her life on him.
Damn him, no more, she swore to herself, and yet still she replayed their history in her mind, seeking, as usual, some answer as to what she'd done to drive him away....
"The Scotsman is mine."
Jane had made that declaration to her cousins with her very first look at him. Her heart had stuttered, and she'd decided then that she would be the one to make him happy so his eyes wouldn't be so grave. She'd been thirteen and he'd been eighteen.
He and his brothers had come down from Scotland to summer at their family's lake house, Ros Creag, which shared a broad cove with Vinelands, her family's. When she'd charged up to him to introduce herself, he'd chucked her under the chin and called her "poppet," and it sounded wonderful the way he said it with his brogue. He was kind to her, and she followed him everywhere.
At her urging, her father had also visited and befriended the reclusive brothers, though they seemed to want to have nothing to do with the rest of the merry Weyland brood. Somehow he persuaded them to come back down the following summer, delighting her. Since he had no sons, Papa was set on recruiting them to work in his import business.
By the end of the next season at the lake, whenever she got a bee sting or splinter she ran to Hugh alone.
Her fifteenth summer they returned again, but Hugh spent most of the time frowning at her, as if he didn't quite know what to make of her. When she'd turned sixteen, just when she'd started to fill out, he'd avoided her entirely. He'd decided to work for her father, and spent all his time with him at Ros Creag, discussing the business.
She'd cried from missing her big, solemn Scot. Her cousins told her she could have anyone and that they didn't want her pining over "that rough MacCarrick," but upon seeing she would not be dissuaded, they'd suggested she play dirty - and her cousins had known what they were talking about. Their saying was, "Man bows before the Weyland Eight. And if he won't bow, we'll make him kneel."
Claudia had said, "Now we scheme, Janey. By next summer, we'll make sure you have low-cut dresses, soft as-silk hands" - she grinned a devilish grin - "and a shameless demeanor. Your Highlander won't know what hit him."
But he didn't come the next summer, leaving Jane devastated. Until that one night when luck was with her, and he'd arrived with an urgent message for her father. Whatever could be pressing about relics and antiques, Jane couldn't fathom.
Before he could ride off again, she made sure he saw her, and he gaped as if he didn't recognize her. A single night's stay had turned into two, then three, and he couldn't seem to spend enough time with her.
Her older cousins had taught her much in the previous year, and every day he was there, she teased and tormented him for the days he hadn't been.
She'd learned that whispering in his ear could make his eyes slide shut and his lips part, and that running her fingers through his hair as she hugged him could make him hiss in a breath. As often as she could, she'd coaxed him to swim with her - especially after that first time, when he'd frozen in the middle of shrugging out of his shirt to silently watch her removing her skirt and blouse, until she was in naught but stocking, garters, and a chemise. After they swam, Jane - never one for modesty - had slipped from the water in the transparent garment. She'd followed his rapt gaze on her body before he finally jerked his face away. "Hugh, can you see through?"
When he'd turned back to her and given her a slow nod, his eyes dark, she'd said, "Well, darling, if it's only you." She'd noted that it had taken him a very long time before he'd been able to get out of the water that day.
During what would prove to be their last afternoon, they'd been lying side by side in the meadow, and she rolled on top of him to tickle him. He despised it when she tickled him, and for hours afterward was surly and tense, his voice husky.
But that time, instead of shaking her off, he reached up and tugged her ribbon loose to free her hair. "So fair," he rasped as he ran his thumb over her bottom lip. "But you know that well, do you no'?"
She leaned down to kiss him, intending not the torturing little kisses on his ear before she whispered to him, or the brushing of her lips on the back of his neck that she'd been giving him all summer. She wanted her first real kiss.
But he took her shoulders and pushed her up, grating, "You're too young, lass."
"I'm almost eighteen, and I've already had marriage offers from men older than you."
He scowled at that, then shook his head. "S¨¬ne, I'm leaving here soon."
She smiled sadly. "I know. That's what you do when summer's over. You go back north to Scotland. And every winter I miss you very much until you return to me here."
He just stared at her face as if memorizing it.
Jane had never seen him or heard from him again. Not until this night.
She'd been so convinced Hugh would marry her - it had been a foregone conclusion for her - that she'd only been counting the days until Hugh deemed hernot too young. She'd believed in him so much, certain they would be together. Yet he'd known he was going to work abroad for years, had known he was leaving her behind. It had been a conscious decision on his part, and he hadn't even told her why.
He hadn't asked her to wait for him, or given Jane her chance to make him happy.
And now, ten years later, she stared into the mirror, watching the tears roll down her face....
Tonight, the women Jane had seen at the masquerade had hard eyes for all their swagger and flirting. They were bitter, but it wasn't simply due to economics or circumstances, as Belinda lamented.
Those hard-eyed women had been hurtby men .
Jane recognized it in them with perfect clarity, because this very mirror reflected the same quality growing in her own eyes every day. She could finally acknowledge that.
She would do whatever it took to avoid that fate. Bitterness was a life sentence, and it was one that was entirely avoidable.
She dried her tears - for the last time.
Early tomorrow morn, she'd accept Freddie's proposal.