Never! Never on your life....
With Jane's words running through his mind, Hugh rode for Grosvenor Square in a daze. There'd been too many developments this morning for him to digest. Simply seeing her kissing another man had nearly been his undoing.
And then, after so many years of fighting to stay away from Jane, to be forced to be with her - no, to marry her. He was shocked at how badly part of him wanted Weyland to succeed in persuading her.
Even as Hugh knew he couldn't keep her.
Did I truly just see Jane kissing another man?
When he arrived at the square, Hugh strode inside the MacCarrick family's mansion. They all called this place "the family's," though in truth it now belonged to Ethan. As the oldest son, Ethan had inherited all of the MacCarrick properties, as well as the Scottish earldom of Kavanagh - though he would likely pummel anyone who dared remind him he was a peer.
In the entry hall, Hugh ignored, as usual, his mother's messages to him, lying in the silver tray. He couldn't say he hated the woman, but she'd blamed her sons for their father's death, and that made it damned difficult to want anything to do with her. His brothers felt the same. All her messages to them were unopened as well.
Ethan hadn't banned her from the property, yet. By tacit agreement, she never stayed here when any of her sons were in London, though Hugh would bet she was still bribing the servants for information about them - everyone but Erskine, their butler. The dour-faced man was committed to his job of discouraging any and all visitors, and loyal down to his bones.
Hugh strode directly to the study, his boots drumming across the marble floor. He knew precisely where theLeabhar nan S¨´il-radharc, the Book of Fates, would be - still laid out on the long mahogany desk, where Hugh had found Courtland, staring at it almost pleadingly just weeks ago.
As always, Hugh was amazed that such an ancient book could be preserved so well after countless years had passed. Of course, the only marking it had ever accepted was blood.
Long ago, a clan seer had predicted the fates of ten generations of MacCarricks and inscribed them in theLeabhar . The lines within foretold tragedies and triumphs that had all come to pass.
Although Hugh had long since memorized it, he turned to the last page, written to his father...
To the tenth Carrick:
Your lady fair shall bear you three dark sons.
Joy they bring you until they read this tome.
Words before their eyes cut your life's line young.
You die dread knowing cursed men they become, shadowed to walk with death or walk alone.
Not to marry, know love, or bind, their fate;
Your line to die for never seed shall take.
Death and torment to those caught in their wake...
The last two lines were obscured by dried blood that could not be lifted from the page.
Tragedies and triumphs revealed? Hugh exhaled wearily. No triumphs were revealed to the brothers. No, they had sired no bairns among them, had killed their father by reading this very book, and continued to hurt everything they cared for.
Running his forefinger down the prediction on the crisp parchment, he felt his skin grow cold and clammy. There was something innate there, some palpable power in theLeabhar . The last person from outside the family who'd touched it had stared at it in horror and crossed himself.
Hugh turned away in disgust, then made his way to his bedroom. He forced himself to pack, though he wasn't convinced that Weyland could in fact move Jane to this measure, short of blackmail -
"What the bloody hell are you doing?" Ethan barked from the doorway. He glared at Hugh, who was dragging clothing from his wardrobe to a leather travel bag.
"Aye. Weyland's asked me to...wed her and take her away." His tone was defensive.
"No' again!" Ethan's scar was whitening. "We just got Courtland's woman away from him. Now you're running off with yours?"
"And what of you?" Hugh countered, snatching up shirts. "I think you showed more interest in that girl last night than I've ever seen you show another woman."
"Ah, but I merely played with my wee blonde." He rubbed his scar unconsciously. Did he hate it anew after last night? Or had the chit slapped his face? Hugh hoped the latter. "But you and Court are always wanting more."
"I've agreed to wed Jane - temporarily. And only to take her away until you capture Grey and the havoc caused by the list dies down. I've made it clear to Weyland that this marriage will be annulled at that time, and he understood."
Ethan was shaking his head. "You're no' thinking clearly. You took one look at her after all that time away and bloody lost your mind. And the clan calls you the reasonable one?"
"Iam reasonable," he grated, punching shirts into his bag so hard that the stitches in the leather strained.
"Running off with the woman you've been lost for, tomarry her? Temporarily? Aye, the example of reason you are," Ethan sneered. "My God, you lectured Court about this verra thing. Rightly so."
Hugh glanced away. He'd beensmug when he'd lectured Court, smug that he'd had the discipline to stay away from Jane all these years.
"Hugh, how can you ignore what's happened? Court made up his mind to marry Annal¨ªa, and within days, a bullet almost splattered her brain across our front doorstep. And then me. Have you forgotten my fianc¨¦e? It wasyou who found Sarah's broken body. Would you expose Jane to a fate like that?"
Christ, no. Never."I will no' consummate the marriage. I will no'keep her," he said in a low tone. "It will no' be a marriage in truth. Besides, I'vealready jeopardized her. Grey will seize on her because of me. I know this. Grey will definitely kill her without me to protect her. Imight hurt her."
"Even ill in the head, Grey will be deadly. As much as I hate to say it, he has unmatchable instincts." Ethan caught his gaze. "Why do you no' let me take Jane away?"
The thought made Hugh's blood boil. "Grey will never harm her while I live. Mark me, Ethan. Never."
Ethan raised his eyebrows. "Then you'd better hope I get to him before he gets to her. You think to protect her when you're no' cold about this? Certainly no' cold like Grey is. You're going to get both yourself and the girl killed."
"Damn it, I can take care of her - "
"Andkeep your hands off her at the same time?" Ethan gave him an incredulous expression.
"I have discipline. You ken that I do." Hugh strode to his wardrobe for a few essentials - a pistol as backup to the one he always wore holstered, and another rifle, second to the one he kept in his saddle holster. He also packed a good deal of ammunition for all of the weapons. "And I've stayed away this long, have I no'?"
"I also know you've got years of want stored up. You might seem calm on the outside, but I'll bet inside you're seething with it."
Seething. The perfect word for how he felt. "Does no' matter. She hates me."Especially after this morning. "Hell, she'll probably balk." Though he wondered. Weyland always got what he wanted. But then, so did Jane. Surely Weyland couldn't want him as a son-in-law as much as Jane wanted to have nothing to do with him. "I will no' keep her," he insisted again. "And she will no' want me."
Ethan studied him for long moments. Then he exhaled a resigned breath. "Aye, then. That, I can accept. Even if the old man forces her to wed, the chit will want out at the first opportunity."
Hugh scowled at Ethan's tone. As if he were reciting a fact.
"Is it so bloody inconceivable that she might want me as I want her?"
Ethan simply said, "Aye."
Hugh snatched up his bag, then exited the room to stomp down the stairs.
"Where're you taking her?" Ethan asked, following. "No' to the clan?"
Hugh shook his head. He'd considered taking her to Carrickliffe, but the people there all knew about the curse. At best, they would be wary around Jane, superstitious and treating her as though she were doomed. At worst, they would try to spirit her away from Hugh, seeking to save them both. He would only go there if there was no other alternative. "I'm taking her north to Ros Creag."
"Does Grey know about the lake house?"
"I never told him about it, but I canna be certain whether he does," Hugh answered. "If he hasn't reached England and I only keep us there for a few days - "
"I'm fast, but I'm no' that fast."
As Hugh reached the front door, he said, "Any suggestions among your various hideaways?"
"Grey knows of several, and I canna swear by the rest. You should take her to Court's."
Hugh slowed. He hadn't thought of Court's property, probably because his brother had owned it for so short a time.
"Court said the keep was old, but it's solid and only needs a bit of work," Ethan said.
He'd told Hugh the same, and that it was in the middle ofthousands of acres. "I'll go to Ros Creag, and if I haven't heard anything from you in five days, we'll journey north to Court's."
"Good. I'll alert the staff to your arrival," Ethan said, referring to the skeleton staff that lived just off the property.
"If Grey follows us, I hope to God you'll be following him." Hugh skewered his brother with a look. "Much is in your hands, and you canna afford to get distracted. The sooner you kill Grey, the sooner this marriage is annulled."
"Then doona get settled in," Ethan said with a chilling smile. "And best take care with the marks on your face. You doona want them to scar."
"Go to hell," Hugh bit out, opening the door.
Ethan cursed under his breath, then said, "Wait a minute." He strode off, returning with theLeabhar , and offered it to Hugh. "Take it. It will remind you as nothing else can."
Hugh accepted the weighty book. "And what about you? What if you need it?"
Ethan's face was perfectly cold. "I've no heart to be tempted, remember?"
Hugh narrowed his eyes. "What did you do to the girl last night?"
He smirked, reaching up to rest his hand on top of the door. "Nothing she dinna want me to."
"Quin said she'd been afraid."
Ethan's brows drew together. "No. I dinnascare her." He touched his scar for the second time - something henever did. Either he'd never wanted to remember the injury, or had never wanted to draw attention to the mark. But this morning, he'd been mindful of it for the first time in years. "Goddamn it, I bloody had a mask on."
Hugh didn't think this was a good time to point out that his bearing and demeanor were as disturbing as his face. "Do you know who she is?"
"Was going by Quin's today to find out," Ethan drawled, "but now I find my calendar filled. Did you find out her name from Jane?"
Hugh saw an eagerness in his brother's eyes that gave him pause. Though Hugh didn't have the full details, he knew that Geoffrey Van Rowen was somehow responsible for Ethan's scar. Hugh also knew that the injury to Ethan's face had been deliberately delivered in a manner that ensured it would never heal seamlessly.
In turn, Ethan's revenge had been protracted and ruthless - and not particularly discerning between those in the Van Rowen family who deserved it, and those who didn't.
Hadn't he done enough to them?
Perhaps Ethan would lose interest in her over the coming days. "I know she's a friend of Jane's, so doona hurt that lass, Ethan, or you'll answer to me." He stuffed theLeabhar into his bag.
Ethan's cold expression turned menacing. "You think you can stop me if I feel like amusing myself? Go to hell, Hugh. You're smug about this subject, too," Ethan said. "But if you get Jane killed, you'll find you have a lot in common with me. Brother, you'll end upjust like me ."
Hugh cast him a disgusted look before turning away. As Ethan shut the door behind him, Hugh thought he heard him mutter, "Just doona end up like me...."
Though well over an hour had passed by the time Hugh returned to the Weylands', their muffled argument was still going strong in the study, so he sank down into a chair outside the room. He let his aching head fall back against the wall while he anxiously brushed his fingers over the small case in his jacket pocket.
Everything in Ridergate's whisper-quiet shop had appeared breakable to a man of Hugh's size, and he'd wanted to pull at his collar the entire time he was there. But when Hugh had found just the ring for her, he hadn't hesitated to spend a small fortune on it. What else was he going to spend his money on, if not her?
He'd known what to buy her because, that last summer, she'd told him exactly what she dreamed of receiving from her future bridegroom: "A gold ring with emeraldsand an enormous diamond in the middle. It should be so heavy, I'll be forever knocking it into things, breaking shopkeepers' counters and accidentally unmanning pedestrians."
They'd been floating in a rowboat, her head in his lap as he played with her silky hair, fascinated as he lifted it to the sunlight, but he'd frozen at her words, tensing with anxiety. As a second son, he'd had no money to speak of and could never afford anything remotely like what she'd described.
Then he'd remembered that he could never have her anyway....
Now, years later, he stared at the ceiling as round and round his mind played out the same scenarios and consequences.
Far too early in life, he'd learned about consequences, both avoidable and unavoidable.
The morning after he and his brothers had found and read theLeabhar - which was thought to have been destroyed - Hugh had woken to his mother's screams. She'd discovered her husband, Leith, the clan laird and a bear of a man in his prime, cold and dead in their bed.
And then she'd shrieked her blame. Hugh had been nigh on fourteen, far too young to be saddled with that guilt.
Years later, Ethan had scoffed at the curse, calling their father's death a freak coincidence, and found a bride from the neighboring MacReedy clan who would actually dare to wed a "cursed MacCarrick son." Sarah had fallen - or, as most believed, had been pushed by Ethan - from a turret at Carrickliffe.
Then Court had lost his heart to a foreign lass and intended to marry her, though he knew that he could never give her children and would only bring her misery.
Court had been defiant, daring to challenge their fate - until his Annal¨ªa had been a breath away from being shot in the head. Court had finally left her behind, safe at her home in Andorra, though it had nearly killed him. She'd become his entire world.
Consequences.The lines within that book said Hugh was not to marry or to bind. Hugh worked to convince himself there was a difference betweenmarried andwed .
Damn it, there would be no sealed union. If Jane agreed, they would be wed, but not truly bound together. As long as he didn't claim her, she'd be safe. Surely. And God knew, he had no intentions of keeping her.
He stood when Jane came out five minutes later, her eyes bright with either unshed tears or fury. A good wager said the latter.
What's it to be, then? What's the verdict?
Weyland was right behind her. "I'll just go send a note to the minister and pick up the marriage license. Jane, you need to begin packing immediately."
Then Weyland was gone, leaving Hugh so dumbfounded he nearly rocked on his feet. "You're going tae..." he began, but his voice broke lower. "We're tae...marry?"
"Yes, I am constrained to agree to this insanity - you are not. And you will ruin my life if you don't refuse to do this for him." Turmoil and emotion rolled off her in waves. She'd always been like that - volatile, like an explosive. Yet no one but Hugh seemed to understand just howcomplicated Jane was.
So Weyland had succeeded. Hugh hadn't expected her to be happy about the nuptials, but..."A temporary marriage to me counts as a ruined life?"
Every word she spoke was clipped with her proper English accent, and dripping with outrage. "Do you knowwhy I was with Frederick Bidworth - LordWhiting - this morning?" She answered her own question, "Because I was accepting his soddingproposal today!"
Hugh's vision swam. But why should he be surprised? He'd wondered as each month went by, for years, why she hadn't married.Wait. How had Weyland not known about this? He had to have. She was about to be "settled" without any interference from them.
Bloody hell. This just kept getting better. Hugh had wanted to kill Bidworth for kissing Jane - whom the man had thought was his.
"However, my plans were interrupted when youattacked Freddie."
Jane was within her rights to be kissing her soon-to-be fianc¨¦. Just because Hugh could think of naught but her didn't mean she was affected the same way by him. She'd had a life of her own these last years, and Hugh had just been dropped in the middle of it, swinging as he landed. "You were about to accept an earl, yet your father is still insisting on me?" It was a genuine question, but she took it as a retort and glared at him.
"Why, Hugh? Why is Davis Grey doing this? You know him - is he truly so dangerous that I have to flee my home?" Her face was drawn with confusion. "Why is Father so set onyou ? Did he blackmail you into this as well? Of course he did. Why else would you agree to such a lunatic idea?"
"I've no' been blackmailed, but I have promised your father. Just cooperate with me. The arrangement will no' be permanent as long as we doona...consummate the marriage." He lowered his voice. "Rest easy, this is temporary. I have no intention of remaining married any more than you do. And you know that if I dinna touch you before, then you're safe from it now."
"As if I'd let you," she hissed.
He pinched the bridge of his nose. His head was throbbing, his neck knotted with tension, but he tried to calm his tone. His ire never daunted Jane. "Did you ever think that this is no' something I want either?"
No, he didn't want this, was never supposed to marry. But now that he'd seen her once more, he didn't want anyone else to wed her either. And he was just selfish enough to agree to Weyland's machinations. Her father knew what was best for her, he reasoned, and Weyland had chosen Hugh. "Jane, I dinna come here thinking I'd leave with a bride."
"Then why did you tell Papa tosee it done ?"
"Because I can protect you."
She advanced until she was toe to toe with him, unflinching as she raised her face to his. "If you do this, Hugh, you have no idea how much I'll make you regret it. I'm giving you fair warning right now to desist from this."
When he said nothing, making his expression unbending, her lips parted in disbelief.
"Resolved, are we? Then so must I be." She made her tone soft when she asked, "Hugh, do you remember when I used to tease you?"
As if he could ever,ever forget.
"Darling, you're going to find that I've gotten better at it." She walked her fingers up his chest, and her voice grew breathless. "You'll see that I've gathered new arrows...in my quiver." Somehow she made that phrase sound wicked, and the customary sweat beaded on his brow.
"You've made it clear that you don't want this marriage," she said. "So before you go forward with this madness, consider - how much can you resist...day after day?"
"Prepare yourself, darling." She turned, sauntering up the stairs with a hip-swinging gait that drew his riveted gaze. Over her shoulder, she said, "Because I'm about to make your life a living hell." Disappearing into her room, she slammed her door.
"More of the same," he muttered, wondering if his wedding might go smoother than his engagement.