The side door to the Weyland home was unlocked the next morning.
Hugh's body went tense as he let himself inside the quiet house, striding directly to the second floor to find Jane, unholstering his pistol as he hurried up the carpeted stairs. Had Weyland even arrived home from the night before?
He finally heard movement in a room down the hallway and hastened to follow the sounds. Through a cracked-open bedroom door, he spied Jane on her knees, sweeping her hand back and forth under the bed.
He inhaled deeply, gathering control, then stowed his weapon behind him under his jacket.
Unable to help himself, he entered her room and approached silently, staring at her body clad in naught but a silk gown. She slowly gazed up to meet his eyes. She had the damnedest green eyes.
"Just what are you doing in my bedroom?" she demanded, rising to her feet. Though scarcely dressed, with her curves more highlighted than concealed, she sashayed around him, continuing to search through piles of lace for whatever she was missing, unconcerned by her state of undress.
He could see her nipples under the silk and swallowed hard. Why couldn't she have grown reserved over the years? Never had he encountered a woman so immodest. But then, that last summer with her, he hadn't complained whenever she swam with him.
"What do you want, Hugh?"
"Where's your father gone so early?"
When she shrugged, the threadlike strap of her gown skimmed down her shoulder. Typical Jane, she did not pull it back. "I don't know. Did you check in his study? That's where he is these days, twenty hours out of twenty-four."
Something was different about her this morning. From the time he'd left her last night, fighting not to kiss her, to now, she'd become colder. He felt it strongly.
"I dinna see him. The door was open, and Rolley's nowhere to be seen."
"Then your guess is as good as mine. Why don't you run down there and check again?" She turned, dismissing him.
"You're coming with me. Put on a robe."
When she ignored him, he scanned the room for a wrap. No wonder she'd been searching for something. Shoes, stockings, laces, and satiny corsets littered the room. Dresses were puddled where she'd dropped them. So much disorder. Hugh hated disorder, craved the opposite in every aspect of his life.
He finally spotted something that might cover her. "Put this on."
"I'm not going downstairs until I'm fully attired. I'm late as it is for an engagement." She chuckled as if at some private joke.
"We have a problem, then." For all he knew, Weyland and Rolley had been taken down. "Because I'm no' letting you out of my sight."
"And why is that?"
"Your house is empty with the door unlocked."
He strode to the doorway. "Weyland," he bellowed. No answer. "The robe, Jane."
"To hell, Hugh."
Why was she the one woman on earth he didn't intimidate?
"I've told you I'll go when I'm ready."
"Then dress yourself," he grated.
"Leave the room."
"No' going to happen."
"Turn around, then." When he didn't, she tapped her cheek and said, "But there's nothing you haven't sneaked a peek at before, is there?"
Stunned by the difference in her, he grated, "As I said last night, lass, there's little you have no' shown me."
Her eyes glittered with anger. "But just as you've changed, so have I." She put her shoulders back and pulled her hair behind her, clearly aware that her figure had become even more tempting.
He scrubbed a hand over his mouth, about to say something he shouldn't. "Just dress," he ordered. As he turned from her, he caught his reflection in the basin mirror and scowled. He was well aware that the years hadnot been kind.
One night's restless sleep had done nothing to alleviate his exhaustion, and for the last three days, his injuries had prevented him from shaving.
Was it only three days ago that he'd been in a war? That he'd killed?
Now her reflection caught his attention. He watched her in the mirror as she poised a dainty foot on a stool to roll her stocking up one long leg -
He found his jaw slackening in wonderment when she slid her gown higher to wrap the wickedest garter he'd ever seen around her thigh. As she tied it into a perfect bow, his hands clenched the edges of the washstand so hard he thought he'd break the marble.
That last summer, she'd always worn her garters high. Because her shifts were so short....
He forced himself to look away. When he heard stiff material rustling, he asked, "Are you no' done yet?" He didn't recognize his voice.
"Be patient with me, Hugh." How many times had he heard that phrase?
He exhaled and answered as he always had, "I try, lass."Think of other things. He spied her bow propped up near the doorway and noticed fresh blades of grass affixed to the bottom of her full quiver. He was pleased she'd kept up with her archery.
He'd bought Jane her first bow, and helped her with her aim, and by the end of the summer, she could split a wand at a hundred paces. She'd taken to shooting as if she'd been born for it.
Perhaps she had. In the past, when she wasn't torturing him with coy smiles and soft words and touches, Jane had been a bit...fierce.
He glanced at her dressing table and saw a book entitledA Gentlewoman's Apprentice . Probably a scathing satire, knowing her. He picked it up, finding that the cover was a false one stretched over the real cover. Brows drawn, he opened it and scanned some pages, quickly comprehending the nature of the content. A swift perusal of one scene told him this was more lewd than anythinghe'd ever read.
The idea of her reading these writings didn't outrage him - it aroused him, and blood rushed to his groin with each word he skimmed. After swallowing, twice, he grated, "Where do you find books like this?" Without turning, he held it up over his shoulder.
In a bored tone, she said, "All the printers on Holywell Street sell them."
"Is this what young ladies are reading these days?"
"Very much so. Women patrons ensure that our favorite bookseller returns from his grubby little Holywell shop to his grand estate outside of the city each night. He can't print them fast enough. You can turn around now."
No...no, he couldn't.
At length, after getting his erection under control, he turned and found her holding out a necklace to him. "Hugh?"
He crossed to her and took it, and she gave him her back. Tendrils of dark red hair lay starkly against the alabaster skin of her neck. He wanted to press his lips there more than he'd wanted anything in his life, and was a heartbeat from doing so. Instead, he inhaled her perfume - so light as to be a mere tease of fragrance, but spicy.
Then his big hands, which had never been clumsy except around her, fumbled for several moments. Once he'd finished, he lost the struggle to keep from stroking the backs of his fingers over the soft, smooth skin of her neck.
When she shivered, he briefly closed his eyes.
"Hugh, did you just touch me?" she asked, her voice sultry. When he said nothing, she turned, gazing up at him. Her breaths were shallow - he doubted he breathed at all.
His eyes darted to her lips, and she saw it.
"It happens, when you fasten a necklace, does it no'?"
Her brows drew together in puzzlement, but without waiting for an answer, he grabbed her hand, pulling her along the corridor and down the stairs.
They found Weyland in his study, gazing at his late wife's portrait, absently rolling a letter as one might roll a map. The man schooled his features immediately, but Hugh had always known how much he missed his lovely wife, whom Jane favored so strongly. Weyland faced them and forced a smile, but he appeared exhausted. He looked twenty years older than when Hugh had seen him just months ago.
"MacCarrick, it's good to see you, son."
Hugh didn't shake hands since he still clutched Jane's. "You as well, Weyland."
"Papa," Jane said, yanking her hand away, "please tell me why Hugh was allowed to walk in on me dressing."
When Weyland raised his graying eyebrows, Hugh gave her a baleful look. "No one was here and the door was unlocked. I thought that was...unusual."
"Oh, yes, well, Rolley was with me in the mews. The damned coal vendor was shorting us again," Weyland explained, as if he would ever worry himself over something so trivial. "Jane, I want you to wait outside my study for a few minutes."
"Can't, Papa. I'm supposed to meet Freddie at Hyde Park this morning," she said airily.
Hugh's stomach clenched.Freddie?
"Do give Frederick my regards."
Who the hell is Frederick?
She nodded and swirled out of the room without a backward glance at Hugh.
Hugh said, "I go with her, if you have no one else."
"Quin's got it. She's just going down the street," Weyland assured him, but Hugh continued to stare after her. "You know, all of Jane's beaus call her Plain Jane." Weyland gave a chuckle. "I suppose sarcasm passes for wit among these young bucks today. But who can keep up with them? I only remember Frederick Bidworth because he's lasted so much longer than most."
Now Hugh glowered at the door. Beau? Just how long had "Freddie" lasted?
"So I trust your moonlighting went well?" Weyland asked.
Hugh turned, frowning until Weyland pointed to the cuts down the side of his face.
"Aye, successful," he said, inwardly shaking himself. Just a casual suitor. An innocent meeting in the park. So why this sudden roiling in his gut?
"I expect you're wanting to know what the situation with Grey is." When Hugh nodded, Weyland said, "You knew he was becoming more unstable, but it finally got to the point that he was uncontrollable. We made an attempt to take him out. But a more cunning killer, I've never seen. He survived, and in retaliation, he's gone rogue, threatening to make public a list of all our people in the organization. He might already have done it."
Hugh's fists tightened. "Everyone?"
"I was just receiving word from a messenger out back when you arrived. From what we've been able to gather, it's the entire Network. If the list goes public, you'll be officially retired."
Hugh had never expected to end his career that way. "Does Jane have any idea?" he asked, trying not to reveal how much the idea disturbed him. "Any idea what I am?"
"No, she still thinks you're in business with me. And I plan to keep it that way until we know with absolute certainty that the list has gone public. After that, it won't matter - everyone will know."
Hugh exhaled a weary breath. "Weyland, you ken the danger you're in. No' just from Grey."
"I know." Weyland nodded gravely. "At last count, no man in England has more people who want him dead than I do. And they'll want more than that - the information, the secrets, the political prisoners.... It's about to be a maelstrom. That's why I need you to take Jane away for a time."
"And you?" Weyland had become like a father to Hugh, and he wouldn't allow him to be hurt. "I will no' leave you here to the wolves."
"This is the worst crisis in the history of our organization. I can't go to ground. But I'll call in help, and with luck, we'll bait Grey to come here. Stop shaking your head, son. Ethan has been spoiling for a chance at Grey. Quin and Rolley are itching for the fight. But my daughter must go."
The reminder that Ethan would be fully involved reassured Hugh, and he finally relaxed somewhat -
"And you will marry Jane first. That's why I brought you here."
Jane's soon-to-be fianc¨¦ was so much Hugh's opposite, he was like a foil to him.
As she gazed into Freddie Bidworth's cerulean blue eyes, Jane considered how perfect a man he was. He was the golden boy, the gentleman Adonis, and his looks made young women sigh whenever he strode by. If his blond locks caught the sun, swoons would be imminent.
When he laughed, and he laughed often, he threw back that blond head, giving himself up to it. Whereas Hugh was brooding and a loner, Freddie was merry and got along with everyone. Society loved him. And he loved it back.
Even after her unsettling encounters with Hugh, Jane couldn't help but smile at her good fortune that Freddie had waited so long for her. He'd joked that he would be the knight who tamed Plain Jane. He treated her as if they would be "partners in life," as he'd put it, and he'd promised that they would have a bloody good time of it. He let her be herself and even seemed to like her wild ways, since his personality tended toward...safe.
Not to mention that he was theEarl of Whiting.
"Freddie, let's go away together," Jane murmured. Since it appeared that Hugh was remaining in the city, she thought it best for her to vacate it. "Let's leave London for a holiday and get away from everyone."
"You're irrepressible, d'you know that?" Freddie sighed. "I can't be running off with you."
"No one would have to know. Besides, you like that I'm irrepressible."
"Now, that I do." He tapped her nose. "But I did want to talk to you about your wicked ways. Mother has asked me to coax you to be a bit more circumspect. Since everyone assumes we'll be wed, she says your behavior reflects on our family."
"Tocoax me, Freddie?" she asked, her tone gone leaden.
"Just until Lavinia finds a husband, you see."
His sister, pursed-lipped Lavinia, wed? As soon as waspish, sanctimonious prudes came into matrimonial demand.
Jane had no sympathy for the young woman, not after she'd found out that Lavinia and the dowager countess routinely did the unthinkable, the unforgivable.
They donated funds to the Society for the Suppression of Vice - the bane of most Weylands. The soddingS.S.V.
The society that received anonymous hate mail whenever Jane sat down at her escritoire.
Jane wondered what they would say if the new Lady Whiting formed the Society for the Expression of Vice. Just a thought.
"Well, if you'll ever agree to be my wife," Freddie continued, "countesses sometimes must make sacrifices. And it's just for a while."
For a while? No, it'd be a protracted sacrifice. So long as men shuddered at the sight of bitter females. Her face fell. Who was she to talk?She was becoming bitter. "Lavinia might not wed for a spell," she said carefully.
"Surely she will!" He gave her a boyish grin. "Could you do it for me, vixen?"
She smiled tightly, hating it when he called her that. Just last night, Jane had had a Scot with a body like a god's rasp "S¨¬ne" to her. Compared to MacCarrick's husky brogue that set her blood afire, Freddie's clipped "vixen" was downright insipid.
Still comparing every man to Hugh, Janey?
"Kiss me," she said suddenly, placing her palms on his chest. "Give me a nice kiss, won't you, Freddie?" she asked almost desperately. They'd kissed hundreds of times before, but this would be the most important one of her life.
Be the man to make me forget him.
"What?" Hugh hadn't heard correctly. Surely he hadn't. "Something you should know - I'm no' marrying anyone. Ever."
"You must wed her," Weyland said. "If news of the list breaks, then I want her gone for at least a couple of months, out of the city. Away from the scandal and the danger. As her husband, you can take her away."
"I can do that without wedding her."
"No, Hugh, it must be - "
"You ken what I am. And what I'vedone ." Weyland couldn't truly want his daughter married to a gunman with a broken-down body and blood on his hands? "How can you choose me for this...task?"
"It's because of what you are and what you've done that it must be you. Do you know what the marriage would say to anyone who would think to do her harm? She'd become a MacCarrick. If the threat of your reputation failed to deter them, then what about Ethan's? She'd be his sister-in-law. And Courtland's as well. The only bride in the family. Who would risk your family's wrath to hurt her?"
Hugh's head was pounding as if a vise were tightening at his temples. "Goddamn it, did you ever think that I might no' wish to wed? When I made my first hit, I knew I would never take a bride - "
"There are several members in the organization who have spouses."
"And they put their families' lives in jeopardy because of it."
"Jane's life is already in jeopardy."
Hugh made a sound of frustration. "Then did you ever think I might no' want to marryher specifically?"
"No, I did not." Weyland gave him a sympathetic smile. "That thought never entered my mind."
Hugh hid his astonishment. Or maybe he didn't. Apparently he hadn't been able to hide his feelings for Jane before.
Weyland continued, "If there's a choice, you always opt for the jobs farthest afield, and you never come to my home unless Jane's out of town. It's telling how determined you are to stay away from her."
Hugh could deny nothing.
"I'd believed you would be more receptive, but if you're truly averse to the idea, then you can get an annulment after these difficulties have been resolved."
"No," he snapped. "It will no' happen."
"It must. I won't trust her with anyone but you." When Hugh still refused, Weyland clasped his forehead. "Son, I'm tired, bloody tired, and I'm about to have the fight of my life. I can't win against the deadliest, most skilled adversaries on earth when I have one blatant vulnerability that would be like a red flag to them."
An unmarried, heartbreakingly beautiful, trouble-seeking daughter. No wonder Weyland looked like hell. "Weyland, you doona understand." Was Weyland forgetting that Hugh was uncomfortable around groups of people, unsociable and forbidding? Jane would slowly die around him. "I canna make her happy."
"Hugh, you can buggerhappy !" He slammed his fist on the desk. "I want heralive ."
Hugh was undaunted by his tone. "Let's talk scenarios. The most likely is that you apprehend Grey, and Ethan goes on the offensive and strikes out against a few of the worst threats so severely that he warns the rest away. Everything returns to nearly normal, except that we overreacted with this marriage when I should simply have taken her to lie low for a couple of months. And then Jane and I are stuck with each other for the rest of our lives."
"In that case, you can get an annulment after things die down. If the two of you are so dead-set against it, then don't have a marriage in truth." Hugh shook his head, but Weyland spoke over him. "Here's a scenario, Hugh. You know I might not make it through this alive." He put his hand up when Hugh opened his mouth to interrupt. "Before I die, I know that my daughter is married and could not have a more fearsome protector. Idon't die wondering what will become of her. Can you comprehend what a boon it would be to me to know she's safe with you?Finally to have her settled? Would you not do this for me?"
"You doona know what you ask. She'd be safer without me."
"I hadn't wanted to bring this up, but Grey isn't targeting Jane only because of me. I know you beat him bloody years ago. And I know it was over her." When Hugh could only grind his teeth, Weyland said, "He wants revenge against you as well. I am letting her go - you too need to do what you must to keep her safe. We both owe it to her. She'll be the one to pay for our actions if we don't make sacrifices."
Hugh shoved his fingers through his hair. "This idea of yours has a serious flaw. Jane will never agree to it." Hugh had been only a summer diversion for a young lass of just seventeen years. Upstairs just now, she hadn't even wanted to give him five minutes of her time.
"Then I'll make you a deal. If she agrees, you wed her and take her into hiding until this dies down. If she refuses, you take her away temporarily with no bond between you, risking scandal at best and increased danger at worst."
Hugh scowled at that, but stubbornly insisted, "She will no' agree." Right now she was with her long-term beau, the one who'd lasted longer than the others.
Was Jane in love with this Bidworth? The possibility clawed at him.
"Then do we have a deal? Hugh?" Weyland added, when Hugh remained lost in thought.
Confident of Jane's refusal, Hugh faced Weyland and gave him one tight nod.
"Good. Now, I believe this must be done as soon as possible. This morning, even."
"You canna get a license that..." He trailed off at Weyland's mildly offended expression.
"If only everything was that easy," Weyland said. "So, if you'll just go fetch her from the park - she usually goes to the folly by the fountain. Tell her I need to speak with her at once."
Hell, Hugh wanted to go just to get her away from this Bidworth.
"And, son, if I may make a suggestion before she returns? A wedding ring for Jane might help smooth any ruffled feathers over the suddenness of all this."
Hugh glowered. "I would no' know the first thing about how or where to buy a ring."
"You've never bought jewelry for a woman?"
"You pass Ridergate's on Piccadilly on your way to your family's town house. They have her ring size on file."
Hugh raised his brows - even he had heard the name of that exclusive jeweler. "You must know more about my finances than I do."
"Don't poormouth me, Hugh. I do know you're truly wealthy now."
"And I think a part of you has always been saving up for a wife and family."
"If so, I dinna know about it," he muttered, turning to stride from the room.
Once outside, he realized his heart was thundering. Because within hours, he could bewed to Jane .
No. If Hugh wed her, if he said the vows and signed his name, he would be exposing Jane to his own doomed fate.
He could take her away without marriage. As soon as Jane had, as expected, scoffed at the idea of wedding him, Hugh would prevail upon Weyland to allow them to go into hiding without that bond. The man couldn't know that there was a risk to Jane in marrying Hugh - one that might even outweigh the danger inherent in Grey.Not to marry...
What was he thinking? Jane wouldnever agree.
But what if she does?
In the park, Hugh spied Quin lounging on a bench on one side of a whitewashed folly, admiring young women strolling in the sun. "MacCarrick, good morning," Quin said when he caught sight of him. Strangely, he stood to block the path around the folly.
"Anything happen last night at the warehouse?" Hugh asked.
"We lost Claudia's friend, Maddy."
Damn it, Ethan.
"I forced my sisters to return home while I searched for her. When I finally decided to check back at home to see if she'd come in, she had just arrived, pale and shaken but unharmed. I think the chit was so frightened, she might have learned a lesson," he said, then gave a long-suffering sigh. "My sisters, of course, remain undaunted."
Hugh was glad to hear that at least nothingpermanent had resulted from Ethan's pursuit. His brother must have taken the girl home.
"The lot of my cousins should be married off to unsuspecting Yanks," Quin added in a grumble. "So, what are you doing here this early?"
"Come to fetch Jane for Weyland."
"I'll bring her back in a trice," Quin said quickly.
"No, I'll do it."
A flash of something likepity flickered in Quin's eyes. "She's meeting with someone."
Hugh immediately determined two things: Quin knew he'd wanted Jane. And she was even now being kissed - or worse - in hermeeting with Freddie.
He shoved Quin out of the way, but the man followed.
"And how did you know, Quin?" Hugh asked in a seething tone.
Quin didn't bother pretending he didn't understand what Hugh spoke of. "Grey told me. Said you were...in love with her."
Who else had Grey told? Who else pitied the big, lumbering Scot his obsession with the exquisite Jane?
He stormed around the folly.