Chapter 25~27

Chapter Twenty-five

"Oh, bloody hell." The seventh circle of hell. That's what Hugh looked like he'd ventured into as more and more of her family filed out of the house and approached them. Belinda was here with her husband and children, and Sam and her family had arrived as well.

She had to laugh evilly. "Too late to run. You're snared,

I'm afraid."

"Aye, and you'd best enjoy it," Hugh muttered. "You go back to a locked cellar."

"Jane!" Samantha cried again, her russet curls bouncing. "What are you doing here?"

"Aunty Jane!" five children called as they besieged her, trampling her to the ground as she laughed.

Belinda clapped her hands in delight. "But you said you couldn't come this week!"

Then they noticed Hugh behind her, and everything went silent while jaws dropped. The children stared up at the towering Highlander in wonder. To break the awkward moment, Jane held up her hand, and as expected, Hugh shot forward to help her to her feet.

"What'she doing here?" Sam asked, never one to mince words.

Hugh gave Jane an expression as if to say, "Indeed."

"Well, he's...we're married."

Sam's jovial husband, a physician named Robert Granger, murmured to Sam, "Not four days ago, you told me she was marrying Bidworth."

From the side of her mouth, Sam answered, "That's because shewas ."

"Well, obviouslythat did not happen," Jane said blithely. "So wish us well and meet my new husband."

Hugh knew her cousins - barely - so she introduced Hugh to Robert, and they shook hands. If Hugh's threatening look hadn't deterred him, Robert would likely have bear-hugged him a welcome into the family.

Then she presented Hugh to Lawrence Thompson, Belinda's husband, a prankster and a considerable wit with a ready laugh, who cradled his hand after Hugh shook it.

Seeing all of them lifted Jane's spirits and made her realize how much Hugh's awful words had hurt her.I'll still leave you.

Hugh eyed everyone with such a leery demeanor, so noticeably out of his element, that she couldn't resist. She knew she had a diabolical gleam in her eyes when she faced Hugh and said, "I absolutely must catch up with my cousins and show off my new ring. In private." He was subtly shaking his head. "Hugh, why don't you get to knowthe other husbands  - they like to drink scotch and sit on the lawn about this time of morning. Talk about the stock exchange and such."

She hadn't missed his wary glance at the children either. "Oh, and, children, your new uncle Hugh loves to buy presents and treats. You've only to tell him what you want!"

"Off of him now!" Robert exclaimed as he shooed bairns off Hugh. "Run along and play!"

Hugh wanted to fall down with relief when the last one made yet another request, released his leg, then scampered away. Jane really was going to do this - she truly was leaving him to deal with these men. She and her cousins had gathered up bottles of wine and strolled out on the dock without a backward glance.

"Don't know what Jane was thinking, to set the hounds to you like that!" Robert flashed him a sheepish grin.

"But, finally, it's just men." He led them over to a set of wicker lawn chairs and, once seated, began pouring a round of drinks, though it was not nearly ten.

"So, what do you do, MacCarrick?"

Hugh reluctantly sat and accepted the glass, not knowing his way around this. "I'm...retired." He'd never been forced to make conversation. Never spoke unless something needed to be said. In more than one way, he'd been perfectly suited for his occupation.

"That's the way to do it, my boy!" Robert raised his glass - then drained it. "Retire, take a beautiful bride, and enjoy life."

Lawrence worked on his drink more slowly, but not by much. "Are you and Jane starting a family straight away?"

Hugh shrugged. After seeing her happiness when all those bairns waylaid her, he had never been more keenly aware that he could never give her children.

Robert sank back with his second drink on his knee. "We waited, Sam and I, nearly three years to start."

Waited?So odd to hear these upper-class gentlemen speak of topics like this. "Waited" meant contraception.

Robert and Lawrence then mused on how their wives had behaved and looked when pregnant ("quite lusty" and "pleasingly plump"), how children changed a man ("didn't know what I was about before them"), and other things Hugh tried his damnedest to block out.

He kept glancing over at Jane and her cousins deep in conversation, knowing she was telling them everything about last night. Each time she closed in to whisper to the two women, he cringed, feeling his face flush violently.

After a grueling hour of conversation Hugh barely heard, Lawrence suggested that the men target-shoot. Hugh ran his hand over the back of his neck, knowing he would have to miss. Though he had a powerful desire to impress Jane, to shoot as these people had never seen, he stifled it, aware how unwise it would be to demonstrate exactly what he excelled in.

A quick glance told him that Jane had shaded her eyes with her hand to see. Would she remember that he could shoot? She used to tag along with him on hunts all the time, had tromped with him over every inch of woodlands in the area.

Hugh recalled one of the first times Jane had accompanied him. Afterward, she'd bragged to Weyland about Hugh's shooting: "Papa, you wouldn't believe how he can shoot - so calm, and steady as a rock! He hit a duck at seventy yards at least in a stiff breeze."

Weyland had eyed him with new interest. "Did he, then?" Hugh hadn't understood why at the time. He'd had no way of knowing that Weyland was sizing him up for a lethal profession - one that had provided wealth to a second son who'd had none, and laid out the path to walk with death....

Chapter Twenty-six

"So how is your Scot in bed? As good as you've always dreamed?" Sam asked.

Jane rolled her eyes. Of course, the conversation had wended its way to this topic, and Sam was going to needle for details until the entire truth came out. So Jane related everything - well, almost everything.

She told them of her stunned hurt over Lysette, and her subsequent relief when she'd found out Hugh had been true to her. She admitted that they'd been intimate last night but hadn't consummated the marriage, and she related their last conversation - or, more accurately, fight.

She confided her suspicion that Hugh was a mercenary of some sort.

Sam said, "I can't imagine what Uncle Edward is up to, forcing you to marry MacCarrick."

"And Hugh being a mercenary?" Belinda glanced in his direction. "Does sort of fit."

"But, marriage of convenience or not, why haven't you rendered it veryinconvenient already?" Sam asked.

Jane surreptitiously rolled down her stockings, discarding them and her shoes to dip her feet in the water. "Hugh doesn't want to be trapped and will do whatever it takes to get out of it. He's made that abundantly clear. I believe his words were, 'I will still leave you.'"

Belinda had pre-opened the cork on the second wine bottle, but still couldn't get it open. She handed it to Sam and said, "Jane, I can see why you wouldn't want to chance this, but I don't understand why he is so averse. Does he have a lover?"

"No, he said he is 'between.'"

Sam took out the cork with her teeth, then spat it into the lake. Recorking a bottle was something of a crime at Vinelands. "Does he make any money as a mercenary?"

"Father told me he had some. But then, Father also neglected to tell me his true occupation."

Sam asked, "So sure he's a mercenary?"

Jane nodded. "His brother is. And Hugh was just down there on the Continent fighting with him. That's how he got those marks on his face."

Sam handed Belinda the bottle. "Which brother?"

"Court. Courtland. Theangry one."

After they both flashed expressions of recognition at that, Belinda said, "At least he wasn't as bad as the oldest one."

"The one whose face was all cut up! He used to give me night terrors," Sam admitted.

"Oh, me too!" Belinda said. "One morning I was out berry-picking with Claudia, and we met him on a foggy lane. We froze, and he scowled as if he knew what was about to happen. When we dropped our baskets and ran, he roared curses at us."

For some reason, Jane felt a brief flare of pity for Ethan. He would have been only twenty or so.

"Later we felt awful. Silly." Almost as an afterthought, Belinda muttered, "But we didn't go back for our baskets."

"So what the devil is MacCarrick's hesitation?" Sam frowned. "He's got enough money to support you, he doesn't have a woman, and he's completely lost for you."

Jane gave Sam an unamused expression, then turned so Hugh couldn't see her take a gulp of wine. After his rant this morning, Jane figured he'd be displeased to find even a temporary wife stockingless and passing around a bottle. "He's so lost for me, he tells me twice daily how our marriage will end."

Sam waved her comment away. "I'm merely saying what I see. It is a puzzle. I do so love puzzles."

"Maybe he's got a lusty Scottish lass waiting for him back in the clan," Belinda offered, taking a more ladylike taste of the wine. "Someone with ample breasts and wide hips, someone who can cook."

Jane's brows drew together. Suddenly, she found the idea of traveling to his clan's seat decidedly less appealing. Jane would be the outsider, not speaking the language, not understanding exchanges between Hugh and his kinsmen, or between him and any lasses he'd left behind.

Sam said, "At least Jane has the lusty part down pat."

Jane didn't bother contradicting that. Her cravings before had been an irritation, but now with Hugh - and after last night - they seemed to consume her. "I swear" - she leaned in as Sam's two daughters ran by the end of the dock, chased by a heaving nanny - "I swear, sometimes I believe that I think about making love as much as a twenty-seven-year-old male. There are people obsessed with all things carnal. Maybe I'm like them."

Sam rolled her eyes. "This, coming from the twenty-seven-year-old virgin."

"Samantha, you mustn't judge," Belinda chided in a prim tone. "Jane never asked to be a virgin." She snapped her fingers for the bottle. "So what happens if you don't consummate the marriage? What happens at the end of this adventure for you?"

Jane put her hands behind her and leaned back, inhaling deeply. The air was redolent with the scent of wild roses, not yet checked by the autumn's first frost. "Our marriage is dissolved. Hugh goes back to mercenarying or marauding or whatever his secret endeavors are."

Then Sam asked, "Janey, just a thought. Doyou want to stay wed to him?"

Jane had wondered if Sam and Belinda were tiptoeing about Jane's past fixation on Hugh, focusing only on his motivations. They most likely feared Jane would cry over Hugh yet again.

As she contemplated the question, she watched Hugh purposely miss yet another shot, even with Lawrence slapping his back and elbowing him. Hugh could have embarrassed the two men, but he hadn't. And she'd seen him eyeing the way Robert held his rifle and knew he badly wanted to correct it, but he'd said nothing. He really was trying to rub along with her odd family.

Jane sighed. After their encounter the night before, she knew she could spend the rest of her nights with that man. Even after their row today, she knew he'd make a good husband.

At an early age she'd discovered his personality and temperament were devastatingly attractive to her. She'd set her cap at him, and after he'd left, she'd never met his equal.

She gave them a tight smile. "Doesn't matter, does it? He couldn't have made it more clear that as soon as this is over, he will leave and not come back. I swear, you should have seen the look on his face when I told him I hadn't been celibate."

"To be fair," Belinda began, "an easy annulment was one of the terms of the deal he agreed to. Without it, this could get tricky. He might even fear you'll have to divorce. Which cousin Charlotte can tell you is nasty business, after all the hours she's spent at the courthouse."

Sam was shaking her head. "No, he's jealous. He reacted to the thought of you with another man, or men."

Belinda covered her mouth with three fingertips, stifling a hiccup, then snapped her fingers for the bottle again - this time from Jane. "Jane, I'm actually going to have to agree with Sam on this one. He does look at you like he's been starved and you're a feast."

"You've only seen us together for the shortest time!"

Sam said, "But he keeps looking over here at you. Watch for it now. Give it five seconds. Five, four, three - "

Jane tugged one of Sam's russet curls, but Hugh did, in fact, turn to look at her two seconds later. "He might appear a bit possessive," she allowed. "But he should. He's protecting me."

"Come on, haven't you ever seen a Highlander madly in love? No?" Sam jerked her thumb over her shoulder toward Hugh who was staring at Jane with a smoldering expression. "Behold!"

"Madly in love. That's ridiculous." Yet her heart had started knocking hard in her chest.

Belinda frowned. "Jane, where's your famed confidence?"

"Embattled. Running screaming for the hills. Which happens when one's husband regards his marriage as a sprung bear trap. When he appears determined to gnaw off a paw to escape, well, that never helps, either."

"Maybe he doesn't think he's rich enough or good enough for you," Belinda said. "After all, you were about to marry an exceedingly handsome and wealthy earl."

"She's right," Sam said. "This smacks of self-sacrifice to me."

"So you think he's here, ready to risk his life for me, because he's in love with me and couldn't stand to see me hurt?"

Belinda nodded. "Why, that's it, precisely."

Whywas Hugh doing all this? Yes, she knew he owed her father for his livelihood. But surely this was above and beyond repayment. "Any ideas on why he'd leave before and be furiously resolved against marrying me now?"

"No, but in your place, I'd be finding out," Sam said. "And I'd develop a strategy."

"A strategy for MacCarrick," Jane said, tapping her chin. "Why do I have a sense of history repeating itself?"

Sam shrugged. "True, our last plan wasn't utterly successful - "

"Utterly successful?" Jane asked with a laugh. "We endeavored to get him to marry me, and instead, he disappeared for a decade."

"Well, then, what are you going to do?" Belinda asked.

Brows drawn, Jane said, "Wait until an answer comes to me from nowhere, then act impulsively and inappropriately?"

Sam rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "It might just work."

Chapter Twenty-seven

Toward sundown, Hugh caught her just as she was leaving the house through a side door. "You canna avoid me all day." He eased her against the wall, and she let him.

"I stayed within your eyesight," she said, surprised when he rested a hand beside her head and leaned over her. "Besides, I thought you were enjoying spending time with Robert and Lawrence."

He narrowed his eyes. "Oh, aye. Today, I've shot, fished, and smoked, and because I've had to keep my eye on you throughout it all, they've ribbed me without cease for being 'wrapped 'round the old finger.'" He sounded so gruff, she almost smiled. "Did you tell your cousins about last night?"

"Of course I did."

"You told them how we..." He trailed off with a groan, bending down to rest his forehead against hers. "Jane, you dinna."

"Have you been worried about this all day?"

He pulled back his head. "Christ, yes."

She studied her nails. "Well, you deserved to agonize over it, after how hurtful you were this morning."

"Likely, but I doona want our private business bandied about by your cousins. After one day's post run, all seven will know."

"I did tell Sam and Belinda, but I didn't give details. I merely told them we've been...intimate but haven't, well, made love."

"That's too much still," he said, but he relaxed a fraction, leaning in again. "I dinna think you would voluntarily speak to me after this morning."

"I'm going to make myself forget what you said."

"I'd appreciate that - "

"If you make a deal with me. Every time you brood over the next two weeks, you have to give me a hundred pounds."

"A hundred? Why do you want this?"

"I've realized today that just because we're forced to spend this time together, it doesn't have to be miserable. I want to enjoy myself - with you - and it's impossible when you're mired in thoughts of something else."

"I canna just change myself - "

"Make the deal, Hugh, or Iwon't forget what you said this morning, and Iwill divulge everything to my cousins, right down to the exact words you were saying when you were above me."

He looked away, jaw clenched so hard that she thought he could chew metal, and gritted out, "I'll make the deal."

"Good. But be warned, those pounds will add up rapidly."

"I think I can handle it."

"The expense or the not brooding?"

He was saved from answering when Sam's daughter Emily appeared.

"Come on, Aunt Janey," the girl cried, grabbing Jane's hand and pulling her toward the lawn.

Jane caught Hugh's hand, and over her shoulder, she explained, "Emily's like I was when I was little - running wild all day until I dropped where I stood."

"When you were little?" Hugh raised his brows. "You were still like that at thirteen."

She chuckled, which seemed to surprise him. When they reached a blanket on the lawn, Jane sat and tugged Hugh's hand until he dropped down beside her. Emily crawled into her lap.

"Aunt Janey," Emily whispered loudly, "is he the rough Scot you married?"

Jane saw his face grow cold immediately. "He is."

Emily eyed him suspiciously. "Am I really to call him uncle, then?"

"Um, yes, sweeting, he's your uncle Hugh."

"Is he really going to buy us presents?"

To Emily, she whispered loudly, "You should ask him."

Emily tilted her head. "Are you going to get me the dollies I asked for?"

Hugh looked at Jane briefly before answering. "Aye."

"You won't forget?"

When he shook his head, Emily flashed him one of the beatific smiles that, in the past, had gotten Jane to promise her - and deliver - a brown-spotted, white pony that Emily could name Freckles. Hugh merely gave Emily a nod, like a man greeting an acquaintance at a club.

Before Emily scampered away, she said, "Bye...Uncle Hugh."

Jane frowned at him. "You act like you've never been around children before."

"I have no'. No' in years." Then he tensed. "What should I have done?" He seemed to be waiting intently for her answer.

Hugh tries...."Well, you could have said, 'Yes, sweet, but only if you are good all week long,' or something along that line."

He seemed to be filing that away. "Dinna know you liked bairns so much."

"Ilove them," she said, glancing over at the children playing, getting grass stains all over themselves. "I love everything about them. How their hair smells like sunshine at the end of the day, and how they feel everything so strongly and they're so quick to laugh...." She trailed off at his darkening expression. "Did I say something?"

"Why have you no' gone about getting your own?" he snapped.

She drew back. "Alas, there's an intermediary necessary for 'getting' them - he's called a husband."

"Seems like you should no' have been so stringent about your 'qualifications' for a husband, then."

"You make it sound like it's too late - I'm only twenty-seven! My mother had me when she was twenty-nine. There is no reason for me to settle. Or therewas no reason to settle - oh, I'm confused. I swear, it'd be so much easier if I was either completely married or completely single."

"But right now, you're half-married to arough Scot ?" he grated.

That had really gotten to him. "They don't mean anything by it."

He looked away and plucked a piece of grass as he asked, "Were you...were you shamed to have me here as your husband?"

"Oh, heavens, no!" she said, then wished she'd been a little more poised - and a little less exclamatory - in her answer, even as his grim expression eased somewhat.

She didn't care what her cousins said. She'd always found Hugh's rugged looks handsome. He dressed simply but well, and he had good manners for all that he didn't talk much - and for all that his handshake was a "bit excruciating," as Robert had told Sam, who'd told Jane.

"Besides, rough Scot is a lot better than what they call Robert." When Hugh raised his eyebrows, she said, "They call Robert the laughing quack. He thinks the two of you are fast friends, by the way. He told me he got a good sense about you, though he couldn't wrangle more than two words out of you. He's usually right about these things."

"Good sense, huh? Then why...?" He never finished the question, as he'd caught sight of Lawrence starting the bonfire. "There's to be a fire?" He eyed his surroundings warily. "Here?"

She nodded. "We eat supper out here whenever the weather's this nice."

"I ken that." His gaze was watchful as Belinda and Sam began setting out food and wine.

"We will stay, won't we?"

He swung a look at her as if she'd just asked him to drink from the Thames.

They intended to sit out here. All of them. Together. Oh, no, no.

"No, we canna stay." He rose, pulling her up with him. This, Hugh would not do.

He and his brothers had been invited to attend those fireside dinners, but they'd never accepted, all of them too uncomprehending of the strange behavior of this family. Men drank readily and smoked cigars in front of their wives, trilling laughter sounded throughout the night, children slept draped over their parents wherever they'd fallen asleep, not waking even at the loud laughter.

How many nights had the three brothers sat out on their terrace, listening, giving each other looks of bewilderment?

Now he was to be on the other side of the cove, for the fire?

He must have shown how dismayed he was, because she sidled up to him, a smile playing about her wine-reddened lips - the lips he'd burned to sample when he'd pressed her against the house just minutes ago.

"I'd really like to eat here tonight," she said.

He shook his head sternly.

"Please?" she asked in a soft voice, making him wonder which was worse - that she could manage him, or that they both knew she could.

She took his hand, easing them back down to the blanket. "We'll just sit here." He knew she was manipulating him, but he was also aware she would clasp his arm and mold her body to his as they sat. Withstand the fire; get this attention.

He would win this one.

Leaning close, her breasts soft against his arm, she trailed her hand up to the back of his neck, then made slow, lazy circles with her nails. "This is not so bad, is it?"

Not with her, but the others had all convened - from nannies to bairns to couples - all lazy on blankets around the fire, with delicacies spread about on china dishes. Though Jane prepared him a selection, and the food smelled delicious, he had no appetite.

Once the children had dropped off - with the wee lass Emily bundled in a blanket and curled over Jane's ankles - and the nannies had retired, more bottles of wine surfaced. The talk grew lively and the language turned frank, even in front of the ladies, evenby the ladies.

Hugh glanced up when he heard Robert say, "At least Hugh knows what she's like. Imagine if he'd married her without having known her for so long."

Samantha said, "Well, I'm sure he knows that Janey's the wildest of the Eight."

"I am not!" Jane cried.

"Does Hugh know about the Russian prince?" Samantha asked, and Jane gave a self-satisfied smile.

Hugh's no' sure he wants to know about the Russian prince....

But Samantha had already begun. "Just this spring at a ball, a horrid old lecher of a prince stuck his hand down Charlotte's bodice. Little Charlotte was so mortified! So we all went on the offensive, spreading rumors about his eleventh toe of a male appendage." Samantha's eyes were glinting with amusement. "But Jane merely watched from the side like a tigress sizing up prey, waiting for the right moment. I saw the whole thing happening. As he strolled past her, she flashed him a come-hither smile. His attention was so fixed on her that he never saw her foot sweep out from under her skirts to trip him. He crashed face first into the gala-size punch bowl."

Hugh felt the corners of his lips quirking. Fierce lass.

Belinda added, "Jane sauntered up to us, brushing her hands off, and remarked" - she mimicked Jane's sensual voice - "'Darlings, all men bow before the Weyland Eight. Or they fall.'"

Hugh raised his eyebrows at Jane, and the words slipped out: "They bow, do they?"

"Weren't you listening?" she asked with a saucy grin. "That, or they fall. And the big ones like you fallhard ."

No bloody kidding.

Everyone laughed. After that, the conversation devolved into a dirty limerick contest. When Hugh found himself on the verge of grinning, he grew guarded. He forced himself to draw back. That's what he did - he was always on the outside, looking in. Always. It wasn't difficult - he was so different from these people, it was like night and day.

Everyone here was so bloody comfortable in their own skin, so settled and sure in their relationships, affection displayed openly, unconsciously. Samantha laughed with her lips pressed to Robert's neck. Belinda and Lawrence held hands to walk ten feet to go retrieve her shawl.

What would it be like if he belonged here, if Jane truly were his? What wouldhe be like without the constant shadow of theLeabhar over him? How he envied this life.

One family so blessed, one cursed.

When he exhaled, Jane absently stroked the back of his neck with her nails, as though she sensed he needed it.

He stared into the fire. Just weeks ago, the woman his brother loved - the only one he'd ever loved - had almost died. Because of Court's brash actions, the two of them had been hunted down by the Rechazado.

Two had followed Annal¨ªa's brother to the MacCarrick home in London, and had seized her, dragging her outside. When Court had charged after her, one shoved a gun against her temple so hard she'd been bruised. Court could do nothing to help her, could only grate out a strangled plea to Hugh, who, as usual, had been on the periphery and able to back away.

Hugh had made it upstairs to his room, snatched up his rifle, and drawn a bead from the second-story window. Never had a shot meant so much - he knew his brother would be destroyed if the girl died.

Hugh had succeeded in killing the target in a way that prevented the man from firing, but Annal¨ªa had had to crawl away from the dropped body that still clenched her. Before Court could get to her, she'd slipped in the pooling blood, crying softly.

And as he'd seen Court rushing to her, Hugh had been shamed to feel relief - that he himself had never risked Jane. He remembered thinking, "I'll die before I expose Jane to something like this."

But he was....

Jane kissed his ear and murmured, "A hundred pounds and counting. Care to make it two?"

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