As Hugh neared, Bidworth's face paled, making his bruises stand out. Hugh heard him murmur, "Jane, th-there are ways to amend this predicament, I'm sure. You're not inescapably his wife, not yet."
"Seems like she's more mine than yours," Hugh bit out, aggravated by Bidworth's statement, because it went to the heart of this whole situation. And the galled look the man was casting him tried his patience.
Why did everyone find it so unbelievable that Jane would wed a man like Hugh? She'd kissed him in the coach like she was bloody well wed to him. Hugh placed his hand on her nape, an obvious sign of possession.
Jane shot him a look that promised reprisal. "I wanted five minutes."
"Get in the carriage. Now." When she only gaped at his command, Hugh leaned in and told her in a low tone, "Do it, or he's going to get more than a tap this time."
In a rush, she took Bidworth's hand and briefly shook it. "I'll write, Freddie," she said, then hurried to the coach.
When she paused outside, Hugh told Bidworth, "Doona follow us. Doona come near her again. Forget you even know her."
"D-do you have..." Bidworth swallowed and began again, "Do you have a-any idea who I am?"
The miserable coward,Hugh thought with disbelief, grappling for control of his temper. He had expected a jilted suitor, especially one nearly engaged to a woman like Jane, would be a threat waiting in the wings.
Not a threat. Not even giving Hugh a serious argument.
"Aye, I ken who you are. You're the man who's letting a woman likethat go without a fight." If Hugh had been in Bidworth's position - able to have a life with Jane without risking dire consequences - he'd have fought off a bloody legion before handing her over to another man. A real brawl, with mud flying and blood spraying.
For Jane as a prize, he would have spit blood with a grin on his face.
"You doona deserve her, and you sure as hell could no' have handled her," he snapped. Leaving Bidworth floundering for words, Hugh turned to the coach, scowling as Jane climbed in instead of waiting for him to help her. When he joined her inside and the coach began to roll along, she waved at Bidworth until he was out of sight. Long after, she continued to gaze out the window, her little hands in fists. If Hugh ever expected a woman to cry, it'd be now.
Jane had rarely cried when younger. On the few occasions when she had, he'd been at an utter loss. Seeing she was on the verge, he ran his hand over the back of his neck, realizing that hadn't changed. "If you wanted him so badly, why did you no' fight for him? You've always gotten your way in the past."
"This is your fault," she snapped at him, "this entire situation. If Father hadn't been able toorder up another lackey bridegroom so handily, he would have let me marry Freddie."
"You blame me more than your father, who arranged all this? More than yourself, who agreed to go through with it? Maybe you might blame Grey?"
"Why did Father pick you? You weren't even in London. I demand to know what is really going on! Is this some scheme you and he cooked up to get me to marry you?"
"As I said, I dinna go to your home thinking I'd be leaving with a bride. I never asked your father for you."
"So I'm actually supposed to believe that Grey might do violence to me. The business of imports must be spectacularly dangerous. And all this time I never knew the risks Father was taking."
Hugh said nothing.
"Look me in the eye and tell me Grey's unhinged and might hurt me."
Hugh met her eyes. "I can say with absolute certainty that Grey is soft in the mind and has dangerous intent, probably toward you."
"Grey was always nice to me," she muttered.
"I'll bet he was." When Grey became increasingly crazed, his taunts to Hugh always involved Jane. He'd known that she was Hugh's one weakness. "Did Grey ever say or do anything odd to you? Show an untoward interest in you?"
"No, I wasn't around him that often." She shivered. "Why would he want to do something so drastic?"
"He was becoming unstable. Your father broke off ties with him and ordered an action - something that was within his right to do - that furthered Grey's ruin."
"What do you mean by 'an action'? What kind of ruin? Where doyou fit into this?"
Weyland had again stressed that he didn't want Jane to know anything about the Network until they'd confirmed that the list had indeed been made public. Until then, Hugh was supposed to brush aside her questions, or lie. As Hugh wanted to avoid telling her of his own role, he'd readily agreed. Unfortunately, he found it impossible to lie to her. He needed some time to get his bearings with her, to find a way to deter her questions. "You're keen on interrogating me, but I doubt you'd answer questions so readily."
"Ask me anything!"
"Why did you wait so long to marry?" She'd had plenty of opportunities, had had offers when she was still a young lass and a coming-out ball when she was nineteen.
"I hadn't found the right man," she answered in a that'll-show-you tone.
"Bidworthwas the right man?"
"He has all the qualifications I'm looking for. Every single one of them."
"Like what?" he asked.
"He's gentle and kind and considerate." At Hugh's bored look, her eyes narrowed. "He's blond, with a face that makes women swoon, and he's titled and popular and rich."
If these were the traits she was looking for, Hugh had never had a chance with her, family curse or not. "Bidworth's cowardly," he said. After meeting the man, however briefly, Hugh knew Weyland had been right not to let her marry the earl - he could never protect Jane.
His comment got her going. "Just because he didn't call you out over this doesn't mean Freddie isn't brave! He's a peer of the realm and a proper British gentleman - who'sabove issuing a challenge on the side of the toll road!"
Hugh supposed there were advantages to being a brutish Scot with no title.
"Freddie's a wonderful man, all around," she continued. "And your attacking him today? My Lord, Hugh, what has gotten into you?"
"He should never have kissed you in public - "
Twist that knife, Jane, he thought.That's right, lass, from twelve o'clock to three.
"And what about provoking him just now?" she asked. "He woke up this morning thinking I was his. Yet you threw this marriage in his face as if this means something to you."
"No worse than you throwing yourself at him on the side of the road."
She gasped. "I didn't throw myself at him! Iembraced him in farewell. Which would be expected, since Freddie and I have been seeing each other foryears !"
"Aye, but during those years, you likely were no' panting in another man's lap, returning his kisses, just moments before."
Her lips parted wordlessly, as if she'd only just realized she couldn't deny it.
"Jane, even if this marriage of ours is a farce, it's binding until it's ended. Never touch another man in front of me. Unless you want him dead."
She rolled her eyes at him. "Why, Hugh, you sound jealous, which we know can't be true."
It was undeniably true. In this one day, Hugh had felt more jealousy clawing at his gut than in his entire life before. If they'd been truly committed, perhaps he wouldn't have felt it to such a blistering degree just now - but there was no foundation for them. They were embroiled in a sham. He'd given her his name but could expect nothing back.
The situation was maddening. How had he found himself agreeing to it, when all his instincts screamed against it? He'd been well aware that he was being maneuvered - and yet, he'd allowed it.
Hugh had never been one to lose his temper or react impulsively. Now he felt he was losing control. What was it about Jane that made him feel primitive and possessive? He'd felt compelled to bare his teeth at Bidworth - or to hit him again, just for pleasure.
Men like Hugh could not afford to lose control. Grey wasn't the first of their kind to succumb to darker impulses. "And doona tease me any longer. Lass, you play with fire."
"If you can't stand my teasing, you never should have agreed to this. It's not as if you haven't experienced it before or didn't know what to expect when Iwarned you not to go along with this!"
"We both agreed to end this marriage when the situation is resolved," he grated. "I will no' be trapped into something I dinna want because you think to amuse yourself by playing with me."
A coldness seemed to settle over her. "Don't spend another minute's desperate worry that you might be 'trapped' with me. There isnothing that can happen between us that will bind us together in this marriage, I assure you." She opened her small traveling case at her feet and withdrew a book, turning from him dismissively.
If only he could turn away and shut her out as easily.
All morning Hugh had felt outside of reality, waiting for everyone to realize what a mistake his and Jane's marriage would be. Each minute, he expected Jane to back out.
In the back of his mind, he'd never thought it would truly be his decision as to whether they would move forward with this or not.
When she'd begun packing, Hugh had paced.She's actually going through with this? Impossible. What if the final choice came down tohim ? Time and again he weighed the risks, but before he knew it, they were all waiting for him to sign his name to the marriage certificate.
Hugh had heard Rolley mutter to Quin, "Never thought I'd see the day steady MacCarrick's hand would shake like that."
How could it not, when Hugh felt he walked upon a razor's edge between what fate would allow - or punish him for?
And when he risked the only woman he'd ever loved.
After an hour of silence in the coach, Hugh reached over and removed her book from her hands. Before she could gasp her displeasure, he presented her with a glass jewel case, offered in his big palm.
"And what is this?" she asked, though she recognized theR emblem etched in the crystal.
After a hesitation, she did, then opened it with a nonchalant air. Her heart flipped over like a cart's wheel.
Inside lay the most gorgeous piece of jewelry she had ever seen.
She stared, light-headed, then gazed up at him. "This...this is wholly unnecessary." She tried to hand it back, but he wouldn't take it, and the bewildered look on his face made her hesitate.
"Will you no' wear it, lass?" he asked incredulously.
He'd obviously never envisioned that she might not accept it. She finally set it on the bench between them. "Hugh, you didn't have to do this. I know many women who do not have wedding jewelry."
"I also know many women who don't like to be given temporary jewelry."
"What do you mean?"
"We know this will be over soon," Jane said. "Jewelry, in this case, seems a bit...cruel."
He shook his head firmly. "You'll keep it. After."
After he left her. Again.
"So, did you have this lying around the house, in case of any impromptu weddings?"
"Got it this morning. While you were packing."
"Hmm." She tapped her cheek. "Now it all becomes clear. You got it after you guiltily realized that perhaps you shouldn't have bludgeoned Freddie and manhandled me. You rode out and bought me avery expensive olive branch."
"You've been slighted a grand wedding and all that surrounds it. This is one thing I can control. I wanted to give my friend something befitting her."
"Are we friends, Hugh?" she asked, her voice sounding sad, even to her.
He stiffened. "I've never doubted it."
She bit her lip at that, then surreptitiously glanced down at the ring case, her hands itching to pick it up. Her father had told her Hugh had saved some money, but Ridergate's was fantastically expensive, and that ring - classically set with a huge diamond amidst a cluster of emeralds - was oh-so-lavish.
With a sigh, she realized she ought not take it, because Hugh shouldn't be spending that money on her, no matter how badly she wanted it. Especially when they weren't to stay wed -
He swooped the case back, surprising her. But he did it only to pluck out the ring and capture her hand. "Wear - it," he grated.
Was henervous ? Jane could always tell when Hugh was uncomfortable or discomfited because his shoulders went back. They were presently jammed back. "This is what you wanted."
"Why would you think that?" Had he possibly recalled her description of her dream wedding ring? She nibbled her lip as she awaited his answer.
He muttered, "You told me, lass."
He remembered?If a man could recall such minute details all these years later, then perhaps they had at least been the friends she'd thought them.
When he slipped it on her finger, she shivered - she didn't know why. He appeared relieved that she'd accepted it. And now that he was at ease, she began to react to him, finding herself relaxing as well.
No matter how hard she fought it.
Damn him, they'd always been like that - able to settle in with each other in easy companionship. Now it came more slowly, little by little, like a feather wafting down, but in the end, the amity was the same. Damn, damn, damn....
Could a womanmiss a man who brought her pain? Then somehow ignore all that pain and be excited to be near him again?
A quick consideration indicated:possibly.
Maybe she was simply grateful that for a space of many minutes, she'd forgotten about her anxious feeling. Or, more likely, she just liked the ring.Typical, typical Jane.
She sighed. A near-acceptance of a proposal and a kiss before nine; a marriage, another kiss, and a ring before noon. She wished she could say that all these had occurred with only one man.
"Be forewarned, Hugh," Jane said, when he held out his hands to assist her from the carriage. "I will now place my waist into your grip. Please don't take it as teasing or making merry with fire in any way."
Ever since she'd entreated him to stop at this inn, he'd been wearing a scowl, and at her words it deepened, a glaring contrast to her own jewelry-induced blithe mood.
When he grasped her waist and swung her down, she asked, "Hugh, why are you so averse to this place? It looks perfectly acceptable."
Hugh still held her. "It is. But you have to go through the common room to get upstairs."
"You've been here before?" she asked.
He gave a short nod, his dark eyes raking over her d¨¦colletage, and she reacted yet again to his avid gaze. All day in the carriage, she'd alternately relaxed and tensed under his stare. After that kiss - which she'd worked to convince herself was a fluke of perfection, a devastating anomaly - she'd felt her breasts grow sensitive, swelling against the lace cups above her corset.
And while he'd studied her today, she'd done so to him, though much more circumspectly. She'd noted that those gashes on his face and the scars on his neck and hands didn't square with the occupation he professed, nor had the way he'd struck Freddie. Freddie was a tall man, yet Hugh had sent him flying - and he'd done it with the ease of an afterthought.
Jane had been to pugilist matches before and had seen the great, hulking fighters with their meaty fists, yet she'd put everything she owned on Hugh against the lot of them. That didn't fit. Nor did the way his muscular body had been honed as though from hard labor.
She was convinced that he wasn't just a businessman. What hemight be instead eluded her -
"Can you no' cover yourself more?" he grated, finally releasing her. "The patrons here have no need to see you."
"I don't have any clothing that's not in my trunks."
"No' even for your hair?" He frowned at the loosened tendrils.
She wasn't a bonnet type of woman, and a hat was impractical for carriage travel. "Hugh, I haven't complained about the rigorous pace you've set. But if you continue to keep me out here in this damp night, famished and weary, I shall begin."
He exhaled a long breath, took her hand, then dragged her inside as though they were in a race. The common room they entered was, well, common. Boisterous patrons swilled gin and lunged for barmaids. Jane watched, impressed, as one escaped capture with a swift swish of her hips.
Of course, Jane had been in much seedier places before with her cousins. If all of London seemed to be caught up with seeking thrills, then the Eight had made an art form out of successfully locating them. After disguising themselves in men's clothing and pasting on fake moustaches - which probably served no purpose other than to make them chortle with laughter - they'd visited bawdy wax museums. They'd gambled in the east-end gaming halls. They'd gawked wide-eyed at lascivious pictorial shows.
For Jane, this common room was a bit tame.
When Hugh had to slow to wend through a crush of patrons, too inebriated to dart out of his way, a drunkard approached Jane. He stumbled after her, leaning in, looking for all the world as if he wanted to lay his head on her breasts.
"Here, Hugh," she said, squeezing his hand. "You might want to - "
Hugh wheeled around, yanking her behind him, drawing back a fist in one fluid movement. Her eyes went wide, just as the room grew quiet.
She touched his arm and murmured, "Hugh...don't. It's hardly sporting."
Jane's cousin Sam had once described Jane's temperament as fierce, but even Jane was startled at Hugh's deadly demeanor and swift aggression. An importer? And she was the queen of Egyptian artifacts.
When Hugh lowered his fist, the drunk lurched back, mumbling apologies - and, Jane feared, wetting himself a bit.
Hugh kept her locked behind him in a vise-like grip as he scanned the room slowly. It occurred to her that she was with the biggest and most fearsome-looking man in this place. And the patrons all seemed to know it, as they peered at him warily and avoided looking at her altogether.
When Hugh relaxed his hold and turned to offer her his arm, she proudly took it. As the room returned to normal, she and Hugh made their way to a salon off the common room. His body was still thrumming, as if not hitting that clod had taken much from him. She tried to make light of it. "My darling, the perilous world of imports has hardened you - "
"MacCarrick!" a lovely older blonde called as she exited a back room. Her eyes sparkled as she sashayed up to Hugh. "I couldn't believe it when they said you'd returned to my modest establishment," she all but purred as she took his hand. She was buxom, with a sexy French accent and a bodice more riskily low-cut than even Jane had ever dared.
Jane now fully comprehended Hugh's reluctance to stay here. She suspected he and this curvaceous French woman had been lovers.
Hugh extracted his hand from the woman's, then presented her to Jane. "Jane, this is Lysette Nadine. Lysette, this is my...wife, Jane...MacCarrick."
Jane thought of all those times she'd written her name as Jane MacCarrick, and sighed. Hugh could scarcely utter the words. The pleasure that used to warm her turned into an annoying jab.
"Wife?" The woman's lips parted, but she swiftly recovered. "Must be a recent acquisition. You were unwed six months ago when I last saw you."
Hugh shrugged without interest. So they hadn't seen each other for that long?
Lysette lowered her voice to say, "I'd heard you'd sworn never to marry."
"Circumstances changed," he replied, and Jane knew she was only dipping a toe into the undercurrent of their conversation.Sworn never to marry?
This Lysette had big, ingenuous blue eyes - but she was actually very alert, taking in details, missing nothing. When Lysette rudely looked her up and down, Jane simply smiled at her as she might an unruly child seeking attention. She was confident enough in herself and, strangely, in Hugh's attraction to her over the voluptuous woman - even if they'd been lovers. However, this woman's misplaced possessiveness couldn't go unanswered. Though Hugh had warned her not to tease him, Jane sidled closer to him, rubbing her cheek against his arm. She felt him tense immediately.
Raising an eyebrow as if in challenge, Lysette asked, "How many rooms do you desire, Hugh?"
"One," Jane said before Hugh could answer.A challenge? Jane's hand traced up Hugh's back, passing a pistol in a holster she hadn't even known he carried, and her fingers settled about his neck, nails languidly scratching just above his collar. His body shot even tighter with tension. "And we'd like a bath and our dinner brought there."
Lysette looked at Hugh as if expecting him to naysay Jane.
Jane placed her other hand flat on his muscular chest, displaying her ring. "Have I overstepped,husband ?"
He glowered down at her, but he did tell Lysette, "One."
Lysette gave her a tight smile. "I will show you up myself."
Once inside the surprisingly spacious room, Jane hopped on the bed and patted it. "Yes, darling, this will do nicely." She gave Hugh a lascivious look and a teasing growl in her throat. "And I wager we'll even sleep well on it, too."
He and Lysette both shot her looks. Hugh's was one of warning. Lysette's was one of promised retaliation.
Finally Lysette huffed out, with a halfhearted, "If you need anything..."
As soon as the door closed, Hugh asked, "More games?"
"Shouldn't we act as if we're married?" Jane collapsed back on the bed, raising her hands above her to sneak another glance at her ring. She'd decided she would definitely keep the ring, even if she wasn't keeping the groom with whom it was associated. "This is how I will behave with my final husband when he comes into the rotation. I'll be eager to flirt with and touch him. And I won't take it lightly when another woman tries to do the same."
"You'd be possessive of your husband?"
"Quite so." She eased up to her elbows. "Especially when it's obvious that you - I mean,he has some type of history with a buxom innkeeper who's intent on making me feel like an outsider in your - I mean,their little party of two." She raised an eyebrow. "Care to enlighten me about your history with the Frenchie?"
"No, no' particularly."
"Hugh, sometime soon you're going to burn to know something from me. I won't be inclined to answer you if you continue to brush aside my questions."
Before he could reply, a maid knocked and entered to set up a copper bathtub behind a dressing screen.
Under his breath, Hugh said, "Do you need her to help you undress before she leaves?" At her look, he added, "I thought you might be missing your lady's maid."
"Oh, since you wouldn't let me take her with us? It's no matter - anything I require, you can provide. Besides, I'm sure you're quite well versed in undressing women."
Behind the screen, the maid coughed. Hugh gazed at the ceiling, as if praying for patience.
Jane ignored him, studying the maid behind the flimsy screen, noting that she could see every detail of her form in shadow or clearly through the slim gaps between the panels. If Hugh stayed in the room while Jane bathed, he would see the same. Jane shrugged. She wasn't going to develop a sudden case of modesty when she was traveling and confined with a man indefinitely.
Once the red-faced maid had carried in several cans of steaming water to fill the bath and retreated from the room, Jane crossed to the screen, slipping behind it. Was she undressing a trifle slower than usual? She thought she heard a low groan when her petticoats dropped, and a louder one when she slid her shift up her body, over her breasts, then up over her head.
Oh, her poor, poor back wasso travel-fatigued. She raised her arms above her and stretched.
Hugh paced the room like a caged tiger.
When she finally got in the tub, Jane softly moaned with pleasure - not feigned, as she adored taking baths. Then she lounged back to reflect on her insane day.
She recalled the disappointment in Freddie's eyes and immediately felt a pang. She'd been wracked with guilt over the way things had turned out, and his expression had nearly been her undoing. Adding to her guilt was the fact that just seconds before Freddie had overtaken them, she had been on the verge of forgetting why she'd teased MacCarrick in the first place.
Even as impulsive and impetuous as she was, she was still was reeling. And it was by no means over. Now she was setting off on a grand adventure with Hugh.
Jane believed he was finally taking her to Carrickliffe far in the north of Scotland. After he'd described it to her years ago, she'd always longed to visit it. Now she wanted to go there to experience the place that produced men like Hugh.
She'd been to Scotland, but never north of Edinburgh, never into the wild Highlands. Was Hugh finally going to make good on a promise?
She felt out of sorts - naturally she would, after the day she was having - but she was especially concerned about her burgeoning fascination with her new husband. After seeing Hugh so beautifully menacing downstairs, and after feeling the pistol holstered at his back, she was burning to know more about him.
When he paced by once more, she stretched her leg up and smoothed bath oil down it. He stopped pacing, and she knew he could see her. In the past, she never would have worried that he was the type of man who might yank down the screen at the sight and ravish her.
Now, she was forced to wonder.
Exactly whowas Hugh now? If he wasn't in trade, why lie about it? Unless he'd been doing something illegal - perhaps with his younger brother, Courtland, the infamous mercenary? She raised an eyebrow. What ifHugh was a mercenary?
She sighed. The problem with this fascination was that fascination led to feelings, feelings led to love, and love led to misery. She'd endured this sequence before and would give anything to avoid it.
He was right. He wasn't the same lad. The quiet, steady Hugh she'd fallen in love with was gone forever. And she didn't know how to handle this new ruthless, intense man.
He'd warned her that toying with him would be like playing with fire, and her antics in the coach this morning had definitely earned her a nice singe.
She tilted her head to the side and frowned.But then, when have I ever hesitated to play with fire?
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